Blog: 13 November 2017Compact living - positively planning for London’s new homes

In my previous blog I set on some ideas on ‘Compact living – how and why Londoners are choosing to work and live more efficiently’.

A New London Plan

Our first glimpse of Sadiq Khan’s new London Plan is due at the end of November. The Mayor’s recent draft Housing Strategy advises it will maintain existing size standards for new homes.

Continuing this approach means innovators developing new housing models will have to focus on ‘sui generis’ residential accommodation instead, as described below. This is likely to affect how tens to hundreds of thousands of Londoners come to live.

37 Square Metres

James Wallman asks a good question in ‘Can We Fix It – London’s Broken Housing Market’: ‘Why is it we think it’s acceptable for students to live in 12-square metre homes, but the next year when their studies are finished, they cannot live in less than 37-square-metres? What do we think suddenly happens to them that they urgently require three times the space?’. The author has millennials in mind but we can ask the same question about other age groups too.

This issue is only relevant for Class C3 dwelling houses, where the London Plan assumes all households have the same requirements.

Under current London Plan standards a 1 bed-1 person Class C3 dwelling house (with private bathroom and fully-equipped kitchen) must measure at least 37sqm and a 1 bed-2 person home at least 50sqm. These are not family homes. They are not for children. There is no obvious reason why anyone living without children requires so much space to themselves, when London has so much to offer. Most Londoners do not have their first child until their 30s. Most households (older and younger) do not contain any children. We need to be able to plan for households without children.

As the below explains, the planning issues are different for shared accommodation models such as co-living.

The Planning Use Point

A recent ‘Alternative Resi Conference’ (LDE Events) saw speaker after speaker outline the case for compact homes and co-living, whilst querying how these models interact with the planning permission process. As flagged above, the current position is fairly simple. Most households live in homes built for and used as Class C3 ‘dwelling houses’.

However, Labour’s housing spokesperson in the London Assembly Tom Copley’s recent article in the New Statesman drew attention to the thousands of homes smaller than 37sqm that are being built across London. Where have they come from? The answer is these are generally being delivered via office-to-residential (B1a-C3) permitted development rights. These are not subject to a need to comply with London Plan housing standards. Across London there are examples of these smaller Class C3 dwelling houses successfully satisfying not just a need but also a desire for a certain kind of city living: from renters but also buyers.

Few development projects can make use of these rights however, and most must seek planning permission. Suddenly the exact same format is unacceptable as a Class C3 planning use.

In this context, applicants seeking planning permission for smaller homes must currently pursue sui generis arrangements such as ‘co-living’, where more compact private living spaces are complemented by shared living and kitchen areas as well other appealing, curated communal spaces (including gyms, café/bars and workspaces).

In planning use terms, the difference between C3 and co-living two generally depends upon the availability of ‘cooking facilities’ required for day-to-day private domestic existence. The Collective’s forthcoming co-living scheme at Stratford which accordingly contains modest private kitchenettes and larger shared kitchens. It provides 1 bed-1 person accommodation from 14sqm. This size compares favourably to the standards for Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs) already applied by many London Councils. In principle this scale of accommodation is already accepted.

Does this planning use point matter? Well, it takes time to explain ‘sui generis’ uses to investors, Planning Committees and residents. There’s no guidance on standards for all parties to refer to and so schemes are being promoted in something of a policy vacuum. Councils and the Mayor are also currently at odds on how affordable housing should be addressed. Ambiguity creates delay and disincentives delivery. There’s more work for lawyers.

Delivering New Homes - Recommendations

The forthcoming London Plan consultation will provide a welcome opportunity for the industry to positively make the case for new housing models, which respond to contemporary London and Londoners.

In my view the new London Plan must provide clarity for new housing models. Tens of thousands of new homes can be realised more swiftly.

Owing to its different circumstances London should not be tied to the nationally described housing standards. There is a very strong case for supporting new Class C3 homes smaller than 37sqm. This is especially the case in the build-to-rent sector, where a home will generally not be a home for life, and even more so for homes that these will not house children.

The new London Plan should also set out baseline standards for new models such as co-living. The Collective’s minimum home size of 14sqm is an appropriate starting point for this debate.

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Compact Living, Co-living, Student Accommodation, Later Living, London Plan