Here’s why living without living rooms is no way to solve the housing crisis

The Collective: a development in Old Oak Common, west London, where young people live in tiny, hotel-like rooms. Image: Getty.

One way to solve the UK’s affordable housing dilemma could be for “city-based young professionals” to live in hotel-style homes without communal living space, one leading think-tank recently suggested.

On 25 April, the neo-liberal Adam Smith Institute published a paper titled “Only capitalism can solve the housing crisis”. It argued that living in smaller houses and flats, without shared amenities, could be a way to fulfil the current suffocating demand for cheaper, city-based housing across the UK.

The paper’s author, architect Patrik Schumacher, claims that, “For many young professionals who are out and about networking 24/7, a small, clean, private hotel-room sized central patch serves their needs perfectly well.”

But is it fair to expect a generation of young people to accept a lower standard of living, in return for centrally located and affordable accommodation?

As a survey into housing among 1,000 20-29-year-old ‘millennials’, conducted by property consultancy CBRE, revealed, 63 per cent of this age group who do not currently live at home are renting. It’s clear that it’s the so-called Generation Rent who will primarily be affected by any reduction in the quality of rented property.

And it’s clear that they are worried about the effect this new housing model could have on people’s lives – whether that means a lack of personal space, or a negative impact on mental health conditions, from depression and anxiety to agoraphobia.

Thea de Gallier, a 28-year-old journalist from east London, described the idea as terrible. “Millennials are constantly being told to lower their expectations, whether that’s to stop buying small luxuries or to stop being so offended at everything – and now they’re telling us we don’t need personal space.

“I’ve lived in a tiny room and it really affected my mental health. Granted if you’re living alone it may not be so bad having less space, but I think it would still be quite miserable and claustrophobic.”

Business owner Sophia Waterfield, 29, from Yorkshire, added: “I think this suggestion is skirting around the housing issue. You already have places in the city that do not have living areas, only bedrooms, shared kitchen and bathroom – so I don’t think having more of these will solve the problem. Renting prices need to come down and controlled properly, especially in cities such as London.”

Writer Ronan O’Shea, 31, from North London, also disagreed with the paper’s suggestion. “It sounds like a Band-Aid answer to me,” he said. “Humans require communal space – and community – in general. It seems like the sort of idea that would be used to benefit government statistics-wise.”

It’s not a surprise this so-called ‘solution’ has been widely slated. Can it really come as a shock that most people would like somewhere aside from the six-foot space around their bed to watch TV and dry their washing?

But, while many young people are opposed to this suggestion, others could be convinced.

Student Chiara Fiorillo, 21, lives in central London. She said: “Obviously price is often a key factor for young professionals and having a chance to rent a cheaper place always comes in handy.”


And Maria Mellor, 22, an office worker from Bristol, added: “This makes sense. I think young city-based professionals are willing to make compromises like this and it would work.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the solution to the housing crisis, but it will definitely relieve the pressure on strained systems.”

For some millennial renters, however, the paper’s description of societally mandated housing standards as “arbitrary” and “a scandal that compromises all our cities and lives”, couldn’t be further from the truth.

Solving the housing crisis, to them, means far more than simply providing the UK’s workforce with “small, clean, private” spaces to eat and sleep. They are not all ‘24/7 networkers’ – and the ability to sustain an existence outside of work is something they prize.

Will Pritchard, 27, a London-based freelance journalist said: “It’s important for maintaining a work-life balance that you have a space that you do more than just sleep in between work shifts. The report’s suggestion seems to perpetuate the idea that you need to sacrifice quality of life – or pay extortionate amounts – in order to live near your work in the city.

“The only other option seems to be living in the sticks and shouldering a crippling daily commute in return for a living room and a garden,” he added.

 “Without a living room, flatshares effectively become nothing more than a people storage solution,” says Matt Hutchinson, of flatshare site SpareRoom. “Feeling comfortable and happy at home is a basic requirement, not a luxury. We need to do far more to make sure homes are affordable for millennials, instead of telling them to downsize their expectations about having a living room.”

Ultimately, it’s hard to see this proposal making much of a dent in the UK’s current housing shortage. Houses are so much more than places to recharge our batteries before we return to contributing to the economy.

There’s something soulless about this vision of the future, and its refusal to acknowledge that a house or flat is also a home; a place of sanctuary, relaxation, and freedom.

Forget free education, citizens’ inheritances, or free bus travel; if a political party wants to win over “city-based young professionals” they need to start with policies a little closer to home.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.