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HOME SPACE AT A PREMIUM

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 14th August 2009
Space in new houses has been squeezed over the last decades. David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, looks at whether things are changing.

A new report from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) has drawn attention to the diminishing amounts of space that new houses provide for the people who live there.

Their findings probably come as little surprise to anyone who has been looking at the size and spacing of new houses being constructed over the last decade. Houses have visibly become smaller and are now crowded together more than at any time since the Victorians built rows of tiny, terraced, back-to-backs. These new houses may look good – but try living in some of them, and, as CABE found, life can become troublesome. Those wishing to swing cats need to look elsewhere.

More than half of the people surveyed found that their shiny new house does not provide enough storage space. Anyone who has moved into a new house will recognise this problem – no cupboards, no under-stairs storage, certainly no cellars. And even when people had some storage provided, more than a third found that it was provided in difficult or inappropriate places.

Then there’s the problem of kitchens. Unless you live entirely on micro-waved pre-prepared meals (and undoubtedly some people do) you need space for food storage and preparation. Work surfaces where you can place a chopping board or a bowl are vital; yet getting on for half of the people in CABE’s survey found that they did not have enough of this kind of space. And more than a third found insufficient space for appliances. This is important, as research has found that lack of kitchen space can lead to bad diet and impaired health.

Social health, too, can suffer. Almost half of the survey’s respondents said that they did not have enough space to entertain visitors. And if children have nowhere in a house to have their friends around in private, they are likely to meet them outside, away from the influence of parents.

CABE concludes that ‘We need to ensure that well-designed homes are the norm and that we don’t ignore the needs of people whose choice is restricted by their economic circumstances.’ It points out that during an economic boom, like the one that has just finished so abruptly, ‘customers were forced to compromise on space and function for other factors, such as getting a foot on the property ladder. The result has been a producer-led market in which consumers did not get what they wanted but instead had to put up with what they could afford.’

In 1961 there was a report on the standards that should be set for public sector (council) housing. The standards – known as the Parker Morris Standards after the committee that prepared the report – laid down minimum standards for houses and flats, based on what furniture people needed and how much space they should have for normal household activities. It also emphasised the need for adequate storage space. By 1969 all council housing had to adhere to these standards. They laid down, for example, that for a two-storey centre-terrace house for four people there should be a minimum floor area of 74.3 square metres, with another 4.7 square metres of storage space.

The Parker Morris standards never applied to private sector housing, and, although there are, certainly in some local authority areas, still minimum standards set for ‘affordable’ housing, in general house builders have been able to squeeze space to maximise profits at the expense of quality of life.

There are signs that things are beginning to change. In London Mayor Boris Johnson is reintroducing Parker Morris-style standards for new residential developments in the capital. The Homes and Communities Agency, the national housing and regeneration agency for England whose role is to create opportunity for people to live in high quality, sustainable places, has already adopted standards 10 per cent higher than the Parker Morris minimums, in recognition that our lifestyles have changed since 1961. There are also schemes that demonstrate that houses can be more spacious and user-friendly without compromising on price and amenity; a new development of 10,000 houses at Adamstown, south-west of Dublin, recently won a Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Planning Award for Sustainable Communities. The judges said ‘it is a model for developments elsewhere’.

It remains to be seen if the effects of the recession have an impact on house sizes when building resumes. In the meantime, it may be instructive to see which new houses in Ripon have sold and which have not – and whether their lack of space might be deterring even the least fussy of prospective buyers. And you might wish to ask yourself how many of these catch-penny developments will still be here – or at least in any sort of decent condition – in 30 years’ time.

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