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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”