The issue of ‘rabbit hutch’ houses has been in the news recently. Unsurprising given the Governments Housing Standards Consultation Paper which poses the question whether we should introduce either mandatory space standards or introduce a space labelling scheme to make it crystal clear to purchasers what they are purchasing in space terms.
Many of the commentators are rightly focussing on the how the size of UK housing compares with our peers across the world and how larger new homes could benefit future occupiers. In relation to the former there is no doubt that for a country with no lack of space for new housing our new properties do seem smaller than would be expected. As an example the living space in our new homes has fallen by a third since the 1920s and according to RIBA are the smallest in Western Europe.
There has been less focus on (a) the causes of the problem, (b) whether those causes are still in play and (c) what we can do to remove those causes.
The root causes are PPG3, housing undersupply and landowners. At the risk of “he would say that wouldn’t he” housebuilders are not usually the prime cause.
PPG3 brought in zealous brownfield high density approach to housing. The famous phrase “maximise the efficient use of land” unsurprisingly became translated into the planning system as requiring housebuilders to “cram as many on as possible” in order to make land more efficient at producing new homes. Buy to let tower blocks and estates of tiny terraced house delivered the PPG3 policy and the housebuilders and developers responded. As the the housing crisis worsened due to new housing supply massively undershooting population growth the pressure for ever more units and density (in order to avoid the need to build on green fields) grew and grew. The result was ever smaller homes to address the gordian knot of a policy requiring more and more housing from less and less green fields.
And where does the landowner fit in? Often the value of land is dictated by the amount of saleable floorspace that can be accommodated in a site. In the old days it was the planners job to restrain density in the face of landowner pressure for more floorspace. The famous Parker Morris standards were a planning response to avoid unduly high densities. For many landowners PPG3 arrived like manna from heaven – even the planning system now wanted super high density. When selling a site the landowner could always pick the housebuilder with highest density scheme as this would usually generate the highest value AND good planning prospects.
The result was inevitable – lots and lots of small units.
And the solution? NPPF is a good start. The policy obsession with density is giving way to an emphasis on quality and character. Local planning policies need to give clearer guidance at an early stage. In London high density will remain an objective given the population pressures but clearer policy guidance will nevertheless help landowners and housebuilders understand what type and size of housing is appropriate on a site cognisant of important amenity issues.
Elsewhere, in particular for the new generation of garden suburbs local planning policies and guidance will hopefully give landowners clearer guidance that when selling the site the aim must not be to maximise density to maximise “efficiency” (and site value) but instead focus on good quality spacious family housing on decent plots and set within attractive new landscapes.
For us housebuilders that is what we want to build and sell because that is usually what people want to buy.