No, microhomes are not the answer to London’s housing crisis

Probably not this small. Image: Wikipedia.

A Labour London Assembly member on the rise of the tiny houses.

For many people, the notion of home is as a sanctuary – a place where we can retreat from the trials and tribulations of the world outside. It’s tempting to take the roof over our head for granted, but for an increasing number of Londoners, fulfilling this basic need is out of reach.

There is more than enough evidence that proves the capital’s housing market is in tatters. Younger people in particular must endure extortionate private renting costs, with little hope of ever buying a place. Countless families are forced to live in homes that don't meet basic standards.

The number of people sleeping rough in our city more than doubled between 2009-10 and 2016-17 to more than 8,000 last year. Rough sleeping is the tip of the homelessness iceberg, with thousands of families in temporary accommodation, and many "hidden homeless" sleeping on friends' sofas, in airports or on public transport.

London’s housing crisis has been beyond the tipping point for too long. That serious intervention is necessary is indisputable, but what form that should take has been subject to some debate. There is a fine line between innovation and desperation. That is why this month I raised the issue of micro-homes with the mayor of London.

There is no strict definition of a micro-home. The term tends to refer to properties that are less than 37 square metres – about the size of a Tube carriage – which according to government standards should be the minimum for a one-bedroom flat. Last year, 7,809 micro-homes were built in Britain, up from 5,605 in 2015. While their popularity is growing, we need to be extremely wary about this new trend.

I was compelled to speak out about this after the property developer U+I suggested that micro-homes were the solution to our housing woes. The company has put forward proposals for flats that would fly in the face of minimum space standards. Some of them – at just 19 square metres – would be roughly the same size as two prison cells. Their appeal to the private sector is unsurprising when packing in lots of smaller homes would see developers’ profits soar.


The guidelines that govern how much space a property should have are there for a reason. Housing is intrinsic to quality of life – our surroundings have a profound impact on our wellbeing. It is abundantly clear that keeping Londoners confined in cramped conditions is not the way forward. Yes, the housing market is broken but a race to the bottom can’t fix it.

During his monthly question session, I asked Sadiq Khan whether he would use his planning powers to ensure that no homes that fall short of minimum space standards will be built in London on his watch. I was pleased that the mayor rejected micro-homes and sent a firm message to developers that they are not acceptable in London.

U+I claimed that the homes set out in their plans would be offered at London Living Rent. The cost of rent under this scheme, which the mayor and I both advocate, varies across London, and its level is based on a third of median local wages. The concept of micro homes is at odds with the ethos behind London Living Rent. This important initiative is about providing decent homes that people can afford to live in. It’s not about developers claiming credit for cutting corners.

As a society, we will only flourish and realise our full potential when our people are properly housed. In his quest to get to grips with London’s housing crisis, Sadiq Khan has set out an ambitious strategy. The mayor has pledged to make homes more affordable and demonstrated his commitment to ensuring that they meet space requirements. In the future, I am hopeful that one of his legacies will be transforming the experiences of so many Londoners who struggle to find a satisfactory place to live.

Britain already has some of the smallest homes in Europe. Campaigners fought tirelessly to secure minimum space standards and it is up to us to defend them.

Tom Copley is a member of the London Assembly where he is Labour's housing spokesperson. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.