Blog: 31 October 2017Compact living in London

Ian Fergusson

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Ian Fergusson

Planning Associate

London office

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There is an increasing appetite for more compact homes in London. Some of us are cautious about this.

Labour’s housing spokesperson in the London Assembly, Tom Copley, recently expressed his concerns about ‘micro-homes’ in the New Statesman. For him ‘campaigners fought tirelessly to secure minimum space standards and it is up to us to defend them’. His reasonable concern is that a lack of alternative options will force Londoners into under-sized accommodation. But on the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Londoners already live in shared households. Many of us also live in more compact homes out of choice.

A Changing City

London’s population is the largest it has ever been. When the population last peaked in 1939 swathes of the city were considered slums. A generation ago two million fewer people lived here. But the structure of the city doesn’t look all that different. We may now have the Docklands but Metroland still looks similar flying into Heathrow. Where have we all gone?

Part of the answer is that post-industrial inner London exerts a wholly different appeal today, with many Londoners now preferring urban to suburban living. This is placing intensifying pressure on land and floorspace in the inner Boroughs. A similar trend can be seen across competing global cities.

At the same time, newcomers struggle to compete. We all know the stories of a restauranteur or factory-owner who made their millions from a freehold in a rough-and-ready part of town. Long-held family-sized homes might have increased in value many times over. These may well be under-occupied. Market tenure homes face no bedroom tax. Moreover, Council tax is famously low for many Londoners, when compared against incomes. It provides no real incentive to the wealthier to downsize.

In contrast, newcomers don’t have the first-mover advantage of those that secured land and property in the depopulation era. From Acton to Woolwich homes are more expensive and tenancies harder to secure. £ per sq ft rents are more of a burden, not just for space-hungry artists and makers but for every business. In short, there’s much more demand and not much supply. Costs reflect this.

 

This all means, as property prices rise, that newcomers have to work ever harder with what they can secure. This is leading to innovative responses.

Innovation

An example of an innovative response to the pressure on property is co-working offices. With deskspaces and shared meeting rooms these host workers far more intensively than traditional corporate spaces. They are also more effective for businesses whose workers won’t sit at a desk in the same building Monday to Friday.

Likewise, some (characteristically millennials) are increasingly attracted to new and more efficient housing models such as The Collective’s scheme in Old Oak Common. Such ‘co-living’ developments see more compact private living spaces complemented by shared living and kitchen areas, as well other appealing, curated communal spaces (including gyms, café/bars and workspaces). This kind of accommodation responds to the preferences of residents. This typically includes living in highly accessible areas.

For many of us, such compact homes are an appealing alternative to sharing a Victorian conversion or an ex-local authority flat. A recent report by the author of Stuffocation, James Wallman, finds it can respond to modern preferences such as ‘light living’, experientialism, quality and connectivity (Can We Fix It – London’s Broken Housing Market). We might associate these traits with millennials but they aren’t necessarily unique to digital natives. In-town later-living schemes can provide a similar appeal.

What is to be Done?

Without radical intervention it seems unlikely the pressure on London’s floorspace will subside anytime soon and we will all continue to explore innovative ways for optimising land and property. In my view the planning system has to adjust and facilitate good development which supports this. My next blog will explore how this can be supported through planning policy for housing.

In an unplanned way these challenges may even help accelerate the city’s transition to a more sustainable future, as more and more of us get used to lower-intensity car-free lifestyles.

 

Read part two of my blog.

 

 

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Housing, Compact living