Minimum Space Standards are making the housing crisis worse

A tiny house. Image: Getty.

One of the most controversial housing and planning reforms in recent years has been the introduction of office-to-residential conversions under permitted development. And the most critiqued feature of this reform has been the relaxation of national minimum space standards for these conversions. If you’ve read an article about “rabbit hutch” flats in recent years, it’s probably been about one of these office-to-residential conversions.

However, minimum space standards have their critics. Vera Kichanova in a recent paper for the Adam Smith Institute argued that “micro-housing” is the right choice for some people. And the urban economist Alain Bertaud compares them to calorie requirements – trying to use them to address a housing shortage is like trying to “solve a famine” by passing a law that everyone must eat 2,000 calories a day, instead of simply producing more food.

After numerous changes and standards, the Nationally Described Space Standards are the current iteration. The smallest properties which can be built under these standards are 37m2 for those one-bedroom dwellings with a single bed space, and 50m2 for one-bedroom dwellings with a double bed space.

The Centre for Cities’ recent report, Making Room, highlights a problem with having a single national standard though – people consume very different amounts of space in different cities.

For example, while the average urban resident in England and Wales has 37 m2of space, Figure 1 shows residents of Blackpool have on average 45m2 and residents of Slough have 27m2. This is not necessarily a problem, as land is cheaper in Blackpool and residents of Slough can save money on their high housing costs by using their expensive space more efficiently. But it means a single national space standard has little impact in cities like Blackpool where space is plentiful, but in cities like Slough it forces homes to be built which are too large for residents to afford.

Average space per resident, 2018. Source: EPC, 2019; ONS, 2011; ONS, 2017.

However, looking at space per person just shows how people currently consume housing. It shows neither the size of new and existing houses, or whether space standards are affecting supply.

Almost all new homes are larger than the minimum standard

Using data from the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) register to look at almost 10 million homes in cities in England and Wales, it has for the first time become possible to see how large existing and new homes actually are.

Some 4.6 per cent of new homes built since 2011 are smaller than the lowest minimum space standard (37 m2). But this is almost identical to the existing stock – 4.5 per cent of homes built before 2011 are less than 37 m2 too. Similarly, Making Room showed that new homes are on average larger than existing homes, as though the average existing urban home in England and Wales is 84.8 m2, the average new urban home is 87.1 m2. This suggests that stories of “rabbit-hutch Britain, land of the ever-shrinking home” are somewhat exaggerated.

Share of Homes Smaller than 37m2 in English and Welsh cities, 2011-19. Click to expand.

But this does vary by city. As Figure 2 shows, more than 10 per cent of new homes since 2011 were smaller than the national minimum space standard in Sheffield (11 per cent), Nottingham (11 per cent), Luton (15 per cent), Liverpool (16 per cent), Leicester (18 per cent), and Oxford (20 per cent). This might be the result of those office-to-residential conversions which are exempt from the minimum space standard in the most expensive cities, but they could also be the result of lots of new-build student accommodation, which are exempt from space standards.

By contrast, while 4 per cent of new homes in London since 2011 are smaller than the minimum space standard of 37m2, so are 7 per cent of existing homes. Given how expensive homes are in London, this suggests that there is an unmet demand in the capital for new small flats of less than 37m2 in which, for example single people could live by themselves without having share with housemates.

Space standards also mean many new houses are too big

Looking at the share of houses under 37m2 only shows how many houses are smaller than the lowest minimum space standard. In practice: there are many different standards depending on the intended occupants, including a 50 m2 space standard for one-bed properties for two people.

The impact of space standards on new supply can be shown more clearly by plotting how much space new and old houses have on a graph (a histogram). Using a similar idea to a recent paper from Nolan Grey and Salim Furth of the Mercatus Institute, the graph below shows how large new (since 2011) and existing houses are across all cities in England and Wales.

Space in new and existing dwellings in English and Welsh cities, 2011-19. Source: Domestic Energy Performance Certificate Register, 2019. Dwellings below 10 sqm and above 200m2 have been dropped for data quality reasons, and account for 0.3 per cent and 1.8 per cent of all housing stock in cities respectively.  Click to expand.

Theoretically, these graphs should show a completely smooth curve, with very few tiny and huge houses, and the size of most houses somewhere around the middle. We almost see that in the distribution of existing homes, aside from a particular concentration of houses at around 47m2.

But with the supply of new housing, we see a much less smooth pattern. Instead, there is bunching at particular points. This bunching implies that not enough smaller homes are being built, if we accept the theory above that people’s demand for space is “smooth”. For instance, somebody wanting to rent a new 40 m2 property would have to be much luckier or search much longer and harder than if they accepted a far more common new 50 m2 property in their city, which would either cost them more or require them to share with a housemate.

There appears to be bunching in the supply of new homes across cities at around 50, 70, and 85 m2. These each match the space standards at 50 m2 for one-bedroom flats for two people, 70 m2 for both two-bedroom houses for three people and two-bedroom flats for four people, and 85 m2 for three-bedroom houses for four people. Although the link with space standards cannot be proven, if they were changing developer behaviour then you would expect to see bunching at these points.

This bunching can be seen even more clearly if we focus again on London in Figure 4. Rather than a single curve, there is a twin peaks effect, with the supply of new homes concentrated at the 50 and the 70 m2 mark, which align with the space standards described above. There is much less supply of new homes between these two points than we might expect in theory and compared to London’s existing housing stock.

Space in new and existing dwellings in London, 2011-19. Source: Domestic Energy Performance Certificate Register, 2019. Dwellings below 10 sqm and above 200 sqm have been dropped for data quality reasons, and account for 0.3 per cent and 1.8 per cent of all housing stock in cities respectively.

The minimum space standards also appear to limit the supply of housing in London. Although 17 per cent of new homes in London are below the two-person, one-bedroom space standard of 50m2 (which differs from the one-person standard of 37 m2), so are 23 per cent of existing homes in the capital.

This means there is a particular undersupply of small flats in London below this 50 m2 standard, which would be particularly suitable for single adults to live on their own and be self-reliant. Instead, such adults are forced to live like students and share with housemates well into their thirties in crumbling old Edwardian houses, while still consuming a small amount of space per person due to London’s high land values.

Space standards make the housing crisis worse and should be abolished

Not only do space standards force people to share, they also reduce the supply of dwellings by reducing the total number of units. Imagine a new apartment building which has 5,000 m2 of residential space which is under a strict minimum space standard of 50 m2 per flat, or 100 one-bed flats. If, to do some simple arithmetic, that 5,000 m2 could be provided as 30m2 flats (without changing the space needed for utilities or access), the same building could provide over 166 new, more affordable homes for people.

Some might respond to this saying it is wrong for people to live in small houses. But is it? Philosophically, what right do others have to insist that people should buy more housing than they actually want? Houses smaller than the current minimum space standards are the right choice for some people, and they should be allowed to live how they want, even in 8-9 m2 houses.

Other people live in houses which are currently too small for them and their families. But they already know this, and forcing new homes to be larger than they can afford does not solve the problem these families face. The right approach to improve housing conditions for these families is through redistribution and the welfare state to boost their purchasing power, such as through increasing housing benefit as Shelter have called for.

If anything, building more small homes is part of how policy can help make larger family homes more affordable. If it is common for many single adults to be forced to share large houses with each other, they will easily be outbid two-earner adult households when renting. If more small homes can be built for singles and couples, this will reduce the pressure on larger homes and free them up for families.

Contrary to the popular view, the problem isn’t that new houses in Britain are too small – it’s that many are far too big. Space standards should be abolished or at least substantially relaxed, not just to help solve the housing crisis, but to allow people to choose to live independently and with dignity.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.


To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.

Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.