Why Britain has the nastiest new homes in Europe

I wrote in last week’s magazine about the myth of tiny UK houses. Most people think that the average size of a UK home is smaller than the average size of any other European home. It isn’t. The simple truth is that UK houses are on average roughly the same size as houses everywhere else in Europe – around 95 square metres.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t have a problem. We do: our new houses are genuinely tiny. New houses built in the private sector average a mean 76 square metres. The question is, why?

Matthew Lynn puts it down to planning. I’m not so sure on that – if you read this old blog post, you will see that there isn’t nearly as much of a problem with planning as most people think – London is awash with new developments and there are some 400,000 as yet unbuilt houses in the UK with full planning permission.

So, if that’s not the problem, what is? One answer – from the New Home Blog is that the UK has no minimum build standards for private homes. We have a long history of imposing size requirements – or at least firm suggestions – on housebuilders (you can read the full history in this remarkably comprehensive report written for the Greater London Authority a few years ago) but at the moment, outside the London guidelines at least, anything that bumps up your margins, and that you can disguise successfully in a show home, goes.

This isn’t the case elsewhere – many other European countries set minimum sizes with either regulation or via fiscal incentives. The same is true in various municipalities in the US.

And it makes sense. Tiny houses aren’t good for anyone except housebuilders. The Royal Institute of British Architects likes the idea, and so does the National Housing Federation.

Clearly the House Builders Federation (HBF) doesn’t fancy it so much – given the amount people can afford to pay for houses it is more likely to hit their margins than to hit end prices. But their stated reason for rejecting it – that they only build what the market demands – really doesn’t stack up.

As the report I mentioned above notes “there seems to be a mis-match between homebuyers’ preferences and what the market is providing. Homebuyers express a preference for houses rather than flats, more bedrooms and larger rooms for living and storage.”  Given all this I suspect that minimum living space standards might be worth more discussion than they get at the moment.