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Space standards and ethics in housing

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The need for space is a matter of collective social choice, says Alex Ely

Would the introduction of national space standards exacerbate a regulation-rich climate in Britain that is so intrusive, that restricts freedoms and discourages individual responsibility, or would it create improvements and a fairer society acknowledging that everyone needs a reasonable amount of space to dwell?

This is a question the Communities Minister is likely to face in spring, when the Technical Housing Standards Review reports. The independent group of building industry experts are tasked with simplifying the mass of rules imposed on developers and housebuilders. One group, of which I’m a member, is looking at the need, or otherwise, for space standards. The panel was launched by Communities Minister Don Foster as part of the Government’s Red Tape Challenge.

We all need shelter, just as we need food, warmth and clothing

Of course, just because we have an identified need does not automatically confer a right. We all need shelter, just as we need food, warmth and clothing. We can further define shelter as having space to sleep, to cook, to eat, to sit, to bathe, and so on. The space required can be ergonomically measured. If we then go on to consider what we need to flourish and to live a human life, as opposed to mere survival, we might add qualitative aspects such as space to meet, space to retreat or to store. Is it valid to add qualitative aspects to minimum requirements or are we not just raising expectations beyond the confines of existing reality?

We are familiar with the knock-on effects of families living in too small a space: overcrowding, poor health, poor accessibility, stress and anxiety, family tension, lack of privacy, and so on. As a moral community, it would seem reasonable to address these concerns and recognise qualitative aspects as part of our human need. In the work we did for the LDA drafting the London Housing Design Guide, we spatially tested those needs and came up with minimum space standards. The LHDG space standards have an egalitarian ambition to define a measure for a home deemed the minimum for a certain level of occupancy.

Do we have a right to a certain amount of space?

So we can recognise the need for a certain amount of space. But do we have a right to it? You could say that, in a liberal society, we should be able to choose and certainly if I were wealthy, I would choose to indulge my preference for more space than I need. But while we do live in a liberal society, we don’t live in a fair one. In an unfair market, those who advocate minimum space standards are speaking on behalf of those who have no chance of articulating their needs themselves. Would greater transparency and a better level of information about what we are choosing to buy or to rent help make for a fairer market?

Possibly, over time, but the majority of property particulars today state the floor area. Yet there is little evidence that housebuilders, outside London, are changing their habit of building some of the smallest houses in Europe. We have a situation where individuals are free to choose only if they meet basic parameters which in relation to home ownership today are an age of 43 and a deposit of £40,000. Those below this line, the ‘in-betweens’, do everything the government asks – working and generally not claiming benefits – but are not getting anything in return. They earn too much to allow them the right to social housing, but not enough to buy. Is it fair that we just reduce things further and further so people can have a home? Would giving everyone the right to a minimum size of home affect viability and stop delivery? Well, house building has already stopped and nobody blamed that on the fact we now have to spend a bit more insulating new homes. It could be said, as we add more requirements, we become enslaved by an upward spiral of need. But viability is what we choose it to be and regulation is made in the interest of creating a civilised society reconciling freedom and solidarity.

The need for space is a matter of collective social choice lifting us above a baseline of mere existence. As King Lear observes ‘unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal’. Well-planned, generously lit and spacious homes are as important in meeting our needs as healthcare and education. The fact that space standards are, on average, back to where they were at the time of the Tudor Walters report of 1918 should give us cause for concern. In 1875, when the Public Health Act was introduced, the home secretary Richard Cross, responsible for drafting the legislation, received much goodwill from trade union groups for ‘humanising the toil of the working man’. Would today’s minister receive such plaudits if he introduced space standards?

  • Alex Ely is a partner at Mae Architects
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