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Space premium
Housebuilder – February 2008

Mark Smulian hears three perspectives on English partnerships' new space standards

"Spacious" has rather variable meanings in home sales - it can mean "large detached house with huge rooms" or "you may care to attempt swinging a cat here, but perhaps it is not advisable."

English Partnerships has now decided to define "space" for developments on its land or to which it contributes money, and has laid down how many square metres of space must be provided in these homes. For builders with long memories, the spectre of a return of the Parker Morris standards looms 27 years after they were abolished in the name of cutting red tape.

Senior civil servant Sir Parker Morris drew up these space standards after a 1961 government inquiry. Although they only applied to local authority and housing association properties, private builders were encouraged to adopt them.

The problem for housebuilders is that English Partnerships' move does not concern social housing - which has subsequently adopted its own standards anyway - but homes built for sale on the quango's sites. Until now builders have been able to provide whatever room sizes they think the market will accept.

But if those rooms must be larger, they will in consequence get fewer homes on any given site. The question is, can builders sell a smaller number of homes with large rooms for as much money as they would have sold a larger number of homes with small rooms? It is an issue on which everyone concerned has a different perspective.

The quango

Steve Carr director of policy and economics, English Partnerships.

We have imposed these space standards because we found we were having increasing difficulty in getting our other quality standards met because of the shrinking sizes of homes built on our land.

For example, it was increasingly impossible to get lifetime homes and some of the environmental performance standards could not be delivered because homes were too small. Sometimes it was studios that were the problem, but we also found family housing was becoming too small. We also had the issue of homes getting too small for the numbers of intended occupants, which raises an issue of substantiality. Planning permission would be given for a three-bedroom home and then a fourth bedroom would be squeezed in.

The trend towards small homes was, we felt, not doing any favours to the next generation, which might not want a lot of homes that only one person can comfortably live in. We surveyed two thirds of the homes built on our sites, and found the vast majority were above these standards anyway, so it is only a few that will be caught.

There were similar objections from builders when the Ecohomes "very good" standard was introduced but since then the builders have embraced it and now use it in their own marketing. I think the same will happen here.

The architect

Sunand Prasad president, Royal Institute of British Architects.

The advantage of minimum space standards is that they mean we have homes that are decent to live in. I accept that expert design can make a lot of a little space, but how often do we see that, rather than an average quality? Using minimum standards is a secure way to protect quality.

We are working with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and others on a set of appropriate standards for today, but until that can be done English Partnerships' decision is a welcome step. It could be extended to all projects which involve public land or money, though there should be exceptions, for example if someone wants to built micro flats for first time buyers that's fine so long as they can make a case for why they want to go below the normal standards.

I understand the HBF's objection, but in reality how much of a mismatch is there? Perhaps 10- 20% homes are built too small at present and it is only those that we want to catch. I have seen no hard evidence that would support the HBF point on prices not keeping pace if homes have larger rooms and so there are fewer of them on a site.

Markets are not just affected by room numbers but by location, supply, demand, and availability of credit, and while it might sound like commonsense that higher space standards would mean fewer homes built, I would like to see some evidence to support that contention.

The design consultant Andrew Drury managing director, HATC

HATC last year reported on proposals for minimum space standards on new homes in the capital to the Greater London Authority.

We are researching consumer attitudes to the space in recently-completed dwellings. The standards set by English Partnerships are not just a safety net but much closer to being good practice. The HBF - although not all of its members - were very antagonistic to the space standards we recommended to the GLA. The point about sale prices not increasing with room size is partly true because people do tend to buy by looking at the number of bedrooms first, and size later.

I do wonder why some housebuilders are fretting over EP's space standards requirements. If they do mean less dense developments, that will come off the land price EP receives, not the builders' profit margins. My impression is that some of the hostility from those housebuilders opposed to space standards is emotional-cum-political; they see this simply as something that should not be regulated.