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.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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