Architects have warned that developers could exploit a ‘viability’ loophole in the government’s new plans for a national minimum space standard
The non-compulsory space standard is a cornerstone of the government’s newly-released response to the Housing Standards Review (HSR), which also called for a slashing of the number of standards ‘from 100 to 10’, the ditching of the code for Sustainable Homes and the consolidation of all technical requirements within the Building Regulations.
Under the plans unveiled by communities minister Stephen Williams, local authorities will have a choice of ‘two different sets of specifications, based on a consolidation of existing space standards used by authorities across the country’.
The proposed space benchmarks are expected to be the London minimum space standards and those used by the Homes and Communities Agency.
However, Williams said the standard would be ‘optional’ and each local authority ‘would need to justify its application according to evidenced needs and subject to local plan viability testing’.
Anna Scott-Marshall, head of external affairs at RIBA warned that this viability caveat was ‘worrying’. She said: ‘The government’s approach to viability has been heavily skewed towards the short-term financial interests of developers over the long-term interests of communities. There is a danger that the wishes of consumers for bigger, better-quality homes may still be overridden.’
Kieran Gaffney of Konishi Gaffney agreed: ‘This system would be open to abuse and pressure from developers. If you are going to regulate, then regulate. This soft version will just encourage “profit” arguments from developers that London can’t support a decent house size standard’.
Deborah Saunt of DSDHA added: ‘Making the housing standards optional just sends us backwards. It would be a brave local authority outside of the M25 that would refuse permission for development on these grounds.
Making housing standards optional just sends us backwards
‘Raw economics and the bottom Llne seem to drive development as well as local politics. In opting out of the housing standards civility and dignity for residents is damaged and poor housing conditions beckon.’
The comments came as new research conducted by Ikea revealed that one in five Britons currently live in just 30m² of residential space, compared with the national average of 85m².
But Chris Brown, chief executive of developer Igloo Regeneration, thought loopholes were not the real issue and he denied there was even a need for government intervention on space standards.
He said: ‘This is a political, not a logical solution. There is a huge issue in London surrounding accommodation for students, recent graduates and people aged 20-25.
‘To make accommodation affordable for that group of people, we need to go below the London minimum requirements, as is happening in New York, San Francisco and many other global cities which have the same issues.
‘We have to build a lot of units for smaller households and in places like London we can go below the minimum space standards, especially if we are talking about starter homes that are offered with big communal spaces.
‘Good design is critical, but it isn’t just about the floor area, it’s about volume too; high ceilings are very important.’
Roger Zogolovitch, creative director of developer Solidspace, said he backed a minimum standard, but he expressed concern that there was in the proposal no ‘acknowledgement of the role of market conditions or the quality of the designs’.
He added that ‘being too prescriptive’ could present problems. He said: ‘Our designs use double-height space. We design in volumetric terms that are broader than pure square footage. The devil will be in the detail.’
PRP chairman Andy von Bradsky, who sat on the Independent Challenge Panel which advised the government on the streamlined housing rules, also welcomed an overarching standard. But he added that the government had missed an opportunity to make matters less confusing.
He said: ‘It appears that space will remain a planning matter yet ideally it should be reflected in the Building Regulations for consistent application,’ yet conceded that there were benefits to both approaches.
But Geoff Wilkinson of Wilkinson Construction Consultants said concerns about developers riding roughshod over the space standard were overblown: ‘We have been dealing with this for years. Part L already includes an economic and practicality test.’
At a glance: what is likely to change?
- What the DCLG calls the ‘proliferation of different standards set by local authorities’ will be cut.
- An optional, nationwide minimum space standard will be brought in.
- Code for Sustainable Homes will be scrapped, including: requirements for rainwater harvesting in places that don’t suffer from water shortages and a requirement for compost bins and secure sheds in gardens.
- A Building Regulations-only approach to building efficiency will be taken, with no optional additional local standards in excess of the provisions set out in Part L of the Regulations.
- The Merton Rule, which allows local councils to set targets on renewables, will be kept.
- Tighter water efficiency standards will be brought in under Building Regulations, with an optional higher locally-specific level.
- Building Control will be a one-stop point of sign-off for the entire building.
- A single minimum security standard will be instituted – possibly embedded in the Building Regulations.
- The minimum access standards currently stipulated in Part M will be kept.
- An optional level of accessibility will be introduced setting out criteria for ‘age-friendly, adaptable housing’.
- Optional standards for the specific needs of wheelchair-adaptable housing will be introduced.
Andy von Bradsky, chairman, PRP
The government moves are a big step towards rationalising the complex array of regulations and standards, says Andy von Bradsky.
The Challenge Panel is pleased that many recommendations in its Towards More Sustainable Homes report have been addressed and that the majority voice in the housing industry has been listened to on most issues.
More technical detail is required but the results of the consultation are aligned to the general direction of travel and there was a surprising level of agreement in the industry.
The commitment to define a two-tier space standard for local authorities to select if they can justify their case, and by implication confirmation that London will retain its space standards, is especially welcomed. We also welcome the move by DCLG to embrace the new requirements straight into Building Regulations within a defined timeframe, rather than a take a ‘stepping stones’ approach.
There is still more to be done. Technical details have to be worked through and it is unsure whether high-quality outcomes are guaranteed. Some of the proposals remain complicated and confused: water and security for example, where a simpler approach could be adopted. It appears space will remain a planning matter yet ideally should be reflected in Building Regulations for consistent application, although there are benefits to either approach.
- PRP chairman Andy von Bradsky is one of the four members of the government’s Independent Challenge Panel
Anna Scott-Marshall, RIBA head of external affairs
While progress on simplifying housing standards has been made, the jury is still out on whether last week’s announcement will enhance or undermine quality, says Anna Scott-Marshall (pictured).
There are some further steps the government must take in order to embed quality and a simpler regulatory framework.
Firstly, it must urgently update planning guidance on housing design to ensure it captures elements of previous standards (such as the Code for Sustainable Homes) that will be lost as a result of the changes. There is also some unfinished business on the standards regime that needs to be dealt with. The ‘other issues’ element of the government’s announcement – related to key aspects of quality and sustainability such as daylighting and materials – remains conspicuous by its absence and will need to be addressed.
Over the medium term the government should produce a national housing design guide, bringing together a consolidated standards regime within the regulations and planning guidance on neighbourhood design issues to create a one-stop-shop document related to housing design. This approach – shown to be so effective in London – should ensure simplicity and clarity for all those working in housing development while at the same time guaranteeing decent standards for those who are so often neglected in this debate: the people who live in the new homes we build.
- Anna Scott-Marshall is RIBA head of external affairs