Eric Pickles would not make the ideal occupant of the original London broom cupboard — a 60 square-foot former janitor’s room in a block in Knightsbridge, which was sold for £36,500 in 1987 and recently valued at £200,000. But is that any reason to prevent more slender figures from seeking arelatively affordable bolthole in central London?
One of the last acts of the former Communities Secretary before the election was to publish Nationally Described Space Standards which set minimum specifications for new homes throughout England. It was in effect a ban on broom cupboards. The smallest flat for which local authorities should give planning permission is set at 39 square metres (363 square feet) if the property has a bath, or 37 square metres (345 square feet) if it has a shower. These measurements are derived from standards originally proposed for London by Mayor Ken Livingstone, then adopted by Boris Johnson.
Of course families should not be cramped in tiny homes, but does that really have to apply to properties designed as pied-a-terres? There are thousands of central London ‘studio flats’ of less that 363 square feet which would not get approval if they were built now. They might be depressing to live in full-time, but that’s not how most of them are used. They are boltholes and crashpads for commuters who are sick of the five-day-a-week slog to London. If that’s what you want it for, you might not mind sleeping on a sofa-bed and cooking your supper on a two-ring hob — unless you order in pizza or Chinese.
One frugal viscount comforts himself that his bedsit in Kensal Rise is just large enough for him to change into his dinner jacket before heading up into town. Julian Fellowes is said to keep a 250 square-foot studio in Chelsea where he can write in peace. Other tiny flats are rented by students who would rather be self-contained than share a rancid house in Tooting with mountains of other people’s washing-up and pubic hairs in the bath.
Developers carry on building vast penthouses for pluto-crats but not, it seems, to satisfy the demands of more modest buyers. The space standards mean the end of any new residential property in London selling for below £400,000, and nothing for rent below £300 a week — banishing whole classes of worthy citizens from the central London property market. There will be no more falling out of the theatre straight into bed, no more aesthetes in Bloomsbury garrets; and for commuters, no more avoiding the daily crush on bus, train or Underground.
The broom cupboard ban is an indication of just how far we are from solving the national housing crisis. We have published standards covering everything from space to energy consumption, but few measures to ensure that sufficient homes get built. The government has adopted the approach of Nye Bevan, who insisted on high-spec council housing on plots large enough for the occupants to grow vegetables, so as to avoid creating what he called the ‘slums of tomorrow’. His insistence on those standards increased costs and land-take, slowing down the Attlee government’s housing programme. Housebuilding actually fell in 1949, failing to pick up again until 1952 when the Conservatives returned to power.
As well as over-strenuous standards, housebuilding is now being held back by the absurd Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), whereby buyers of new homes bear the brunt of the cost of new roads, schools and playgrounds, even though these facilities are used just as much by the occupants of existing housing. In parts of Hammersmith buyers of new homes must pay £400 in CIL per square metre. That’s a mighty expensive doormat.
If there is one other measure required for the London housing market, it is to clamp down on owners of vacant properties, or those that are used only a couple of weeks a year. But it isn’t the broom cupboards which languish empty: it is the mansions and cavernous penthouses into each of which you could squeeze a couple of dozen pied-a-terres. That would also mean a couple of dozen fewer people crammed into the Tube every morning, taking pressure off the transport system.
It’s hardly as if London would be alone in housing people so compactly. Tokyo residents live contentedly in spaces that make the Knightsbridge janitor’s room look positively palatial. If they can lodge in eight-foot-long ‘coffin apartments’ with no room to stand up, surely Londoners are grown-up enough to choose whether they want to spend the working week in a bedsit in SW1, or endure the hell of a daily commute from some far-distant postcode where they can actually afford a house.