Cross-posted on Harry’s Place, 28th March 2017.

As further objections are raised to tiny office-to-resi units, what can housebuilding during the Industrial Revolution teach us today?

As the relaxing of planning regulations results in another story of inadequately sized ‘rabbit hutch’ homes appearing in the papers, it is worth considering the roots of modern planning laws.  It’s hard to argue with the government’s position that deregulating and allowing office-to-resi conversions below the national minimum space standard of 37 sq metres for a single person will help meet housebuilding targets.  At the same time, though, it could be compared with sharing a small cake amongst a large group of children and telling them they should be satisfied.  It may deliver a temporary gratification, but it won’t sate their hunger and it certainly won’t sustain them for long or allow them to grow.

What can history teach us?  During the Industrial Revolution, rapid urban expansion resulted in accommodation being built quickly, cheaply and with little forethought.  Our modern planning system has its roots in steps taken to address these issues and improve the lives of the working classes.  Aside from issues of sanitation and the spread of diseases which issues of overcrowding brought, today under infinitely better control, there was also an awareness of the need of humans for space and open spaces.  This led to the creation of public parks to reduce social stress.

Our modern times may differ in many ways, not least in terms of the quality of life now enjoyed by ordinary people.  We now have what must then have been inconceivably large global and domestic populations, along with the resulting competition for space and higher land values.  But the basic human need for space, psychologically and physically, has not changed.  The government’s “permitted development” system means that developers who convert offices into homes are under no obligation to meet minimum floor area standards.

‘Shoebox’ housing may suit some younger people who are starting out in life, but confined living can cause mental health issues and increase stress, especially as people get older.  It is also a natural progression for singles to become couples, couples to become families. There are already thousands of ‘second-stepper’ homeowners, people who now have families and have outgrown their first home but are unable to move up the ladder.  This also causes a bottleneck for first-time buyers, meaning more starter homes are required and issues around progressing up the property ladder are exacerbated.

There is much research by charities such as Shelter that demonstrates the detrimental effects that cramped living conditions and a lack of privacy can have on children, such as delayed cognitive development. An academic paper from the US investigated the effects of housing crowding on children’s academic achievement, behaviour, and health.  Even after controlling for socioeconomic status, several dimensions of children’s wellbeing suffered when exposed to crowded living conditions; and the negative effects on children raised in crowded homes can persist throughout life, affecting their future socioeconomic status and adult wellbeing.

Perhaps we need to be realistic about the rapidly changing world we live in today and accept that space, especially urban space, comes at an increasing premium.  Yet, at what point do we start damaging citizens’ health and wellbeing, and the prospects of this country, by squeezing ever smaller units out of or into spaces.  There is also the risk that developers will become accustomed to the higher returns gained from converting offices into more and smaller spaces and widen the trend further into new-build territory.  Reduced ceiling heights and room sizes are already complained about in new houses and flats, as is the quality of the workmanship and the materials used.  None of these new dwellings comes with a cheap price tag either.

The nation’s housing requirements need to be addressed in a sustainable, long-term manner.  Office-to-resi has a valuable part to play in relieving the housing crisis, but it does not have to entail eking out as many tiny dwellings as possible from each building.  Additionally, unless it is simply because new-builds take longer to plan and complete than conversions, the fact that converted offices delivered almost three-quarters of the growth in the supply of housing last year does not feel terribly sustainable.

The Victorians considered that improving the health of workers would enable them to work harder whilst reducing the cost of supporting an unhealthy population. Today, good health, mental health and wellbeing are recognised as factors which improve productivity and reduce the strain on the NHS.  A raft of legislation was sparked following the publication in 1842 of Sir Edwin Chadwick’s report ‘The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population’ which aimed at improving living conditions.

By 1875, acts of parliament had been passed to tackle the issue of overcrowded housing.  Today, such restrictions are being loosened and we’ll have to wait to see the results.  It is, however, worth remembering why such limitations were established in the first place.