Outrage over tiny studio flats in London being 40% smaller than a Travelodge room means government now needs to set some controls

Mark Leeson

The recent news that the Barnet House office block in north London will be converted into more than 250 flats, some just 16m2 in size, caused considerable outrage in some quarters.  As the Daily Mail reported, the most basic flats will be 40% smaller than the average Travelodge room - well below the minimum government requirement of 37m2 per person.

Indeed, the Barnet House case highlights all too well the problem with Permitted Development Right (PDR) legislation as it currently stands. Many local centres are blighted by unoccupied office space - and PDR offers a solution to regenerating such communities - but it needs to be applied wisely.

First - as highlighted by the media - the legislation does not guarantee any influence over the size of the flats. But more than that, there is a total lack of control over the quality of the living accommodation, such as the provision of balconies, amenities or ‘bolt-ons’, which can enhance a smaller living space. Neither does the legislation guarantee a mix of affordable housing (the flats in Barnet House are expected to be priced at £180,000, still beyond the reach of many first-time buyers). There is also a complete exemption from any requirements for sustainable energy, or, in fact, any of the Mayor’s policies of housing and design quality. 

There is a total lack of control over the quality of the living accommodation, such as the provision of balconies, amenities or ‘bolt-ons’, which can enhance a smaller living space

Many existing office buildings also have regular structural grids and often relatively narrow floor plates - not ideal for efficient residential layouts. This often leads to lots of small apartments with narrow corridors to maximise the number of apartments and achieve commercial viability. The result? A “stack ‘em and pack ‘em” approach as evidenced by the furore over Barnet House.

Secondly, there is no control over the mix of unit sizes or tenures. As I wrote in my last article for Building, the best housing schemes are those that allow a sense of community to develop. Small apartments in themselves can work very well and for those on very limited budgets looking for a step onto the housing ladder, but this is only accounts for a small proportion of the market. 

The danger comes when large numbers of smaller flats are included in a scheme with little or no thought to shared amenity spaces or providing a mix of unit sizes to enable residents to “grow” within a scheme, thereby developing a community in an organic fashion. Large schemes consisting entirely of small units (all below the established space standards) with no amenity space can only result in schemes that do not provide healthy, sociable, engaging and enjoyable places to live.

In my view, the PDR legislation is a useful tool in speeding up housing delivery by making it easy for vacant office buildings to be quickly converted into housing, but the lack of control over design quality is a very real issue, and one that needs to be re-thought quickly. It is not enough to hope that those involved in the development of PDR schemes will “do the right thing”. The issue for developers is that they have often paid significant sums for the empty offices and have to maximise value - especially at a time when construction costs are outpacing returns, as the latest JLL report highlighted.

Perhaps one answer is to look at these schemes from a built-to-rent rather than a sales perspective, where the view is a longer-term one - reliant on low voids, a strong brand, excellent service and a real sense of community. That way, the PDR legislation could remain as it is, but with an added proviso that the apartments that are completed can only be rented and not offered for sale.

Even then, however, I’m not convinced that in London, where because of a mismatch between supply (too low) and demand (high and only set to increase) it means that those desperate to get somewhere affordable to live will accept whatever they are offered - however unattractive that may be.

Either way, revised legislation seems to me, to be the only way to go - such as setting controls over design quality, without closing the initiative down.

Mark Leeson is director of design at McBains Cooper