New-build Homes (Minimum Room Sizes)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10th November 2015.

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Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-13774, in the name of Alex Johnstone, on minimum room sizes in new-build homes. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

When is a room not a room? In this chamber, we have had cause many times over recent years to discuss the concepts of underoccupancy and overcrowding. One of the ironic things to be thrown up by such discussion was an amazing Scottish court case. At a hearing, a Scottish sheriff dictated that a room could not be classified as a bedroom because it was simply not big enough. How did we get to that extraordinary position?

“Rabbit hutch” and “shoe box” are just two of the terms that I have heard being used to describe the room sizes in modern homes, often by people who have just returned dejected from a visit to a show home or a new development. I stress at the outset that not all new homes are like that. Many are beautifully designed, spacious and have excellent amenities, although some would argue that such homes fall into a premium bracket. However, the overall trend is for homes to get smaller. That can be the case where the land value is high, as it is in the north-east, and the developer needs to maximise the number of units on the land to make the project viable.

We hear a lot about how many houses need to be built to keep pace with demand. That point was made loud and clear when I attended a Homes for Scotland conference last week. However, I am not alone in being deeply concerned that, in the race to play the numbers game, floor sizes of new properties will be sacrificed in order to maximise the number of units. To illustrate the problem, we need only look across Europe at the average floor space of newly built homes. In Germany, it is more than 109m2; in Holland, it is more than 115m2; and in Denmark, it is 137m2. We need more research to gauge the average size of new-build homes in Scotland, but one study suggests that the average United Kingdom home, at just 76m2, is smaller than all of those.

To put that into perspective, 2m2 is the size of a broom cupboard, a small room with a toilet in it, or a room in which a washing machine and a drying rack could be stored; 4m2, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects, is the equivalent of a single bed—not a room with space for a single bed, but the exact size of a single bed. Crucially, for children and students, 4m2 is the space that allows them to work at home at a computer. A galley kitchen and perhaps a coffee table would fit into 7m2, while 8m2 is the equivalent of a single bedroom for a guest to stay over or, more importantly, a child to sleep.

The long-term effects on people from living in homes that are effectively overcrowded are deeply worrying. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggested that, in extreme cases, overcrowded homes can cause physical illnesses such as asthma and even mental illnesses such as depression. The fact that individuals report that they do not have enough space to have quiet time in private may be a contributing factor. Less extreme cases can impact on the social and emotional development of children, while degrading relationships and making it difficult to entertain guests.

In 2009, a study by the Royal Institute of British Architects found that more than half of respondents said there was not enough space for the furniture that they owned or would like to own. Nearly 70 per cent said there was not enough storage for their possessions. One householder had to store his hoover at his mother’s house because he did not have a cupboard to keep it in. The weekly shop, with a number of buy-one-get-one-free offers, had thrown limited kitchen space into chaos.

The issue does not affect just larger households; it can impact people from all walks of life, from the single person being offered a flat with a so-called mezzanine deck as a bedroom, to the retired person moving into a care home where they will have little space to keep their most precious possessions, built up over a lifetime.

Some legislation, for example on homes in multiple occupation, has had an impact on that while other legislation, such as the need to build in accessibility, as described in the Scottish Government’s technical handbook, influences the situation almost by accident. I welcome the discussion paper that was issued last week by the UK Government. The paper, which will not impact us here in Scotland, proposes a minimum bedroom size of 6.5m2; local authorities will be free to set higher standards if they wish to do so. However, as I pointed out earlier, 6.5m2 is not a big room.

I appreciate that there are counter-arguments, for example that the extra space would drive up construction costs and make homes even less affordable, and that the demand for larger homes would mean fewer units being built on available sites. However, the Royal Institute of British Architects suggests that that need not be the case. Its view is that a home that is 10 per cent bigger need not cost 10 per cent more. It also states that, if better design were implemented, the extra space need not impact on the number of houses.

I would like the Scottish Government, local authorities, housing professionals and developers to work together to ensure that new properties are not only spatially fit for purpose but form part of a wider urban design that delivers safe, sustainable communities and encourages active lifestyles. When I say “active lifestyles”, I do not mean the London man who, it was recently reported, was offered a house where he had to stand on top of his fridge and climb up a ladder in order to get into bed every night.

That is not to say that advances have not been made in the construction of new homes in Scotland. For example, we have seen the introduction of improved insulation regulations, which keep our homes warmer and help to alleviate the threat of fuel poverty. I welcome and support those measures, but if we want to do something about the problem of rabbit-hutch housing, a number of influencers will need to pull together and press for change.

Whether we own our homes or rent them, the quality of housing is vital to us all. That does not just mean that houses should be wind and watertight and easy to heat. The room to live is also important, and we can deliver that if we collectively take the necessary action. If the Scottish Government will push this issue, it can be certain of support from the Scottish Conservatives.

Photo of Hanzala Malik Hanzala Malik Labour

I thank Alex Johnstone for securing today’s debate on minimum room sizes in new-build homes. I would go further and suggest that we explore the possibility of having a minimum percentage of large family homes in any new development, because more and more people are choosing to look after their elderly relatives within the family house and/or allowing their children to stay longer at home. That is a good trend, if I may say so.

I acknowledge the improvements in the construction industry in relation to new-build homes, especially with regard to insulation. There are examples of good use of space within the house as well as outside. However, there are also plenty of bad examples of people living in homes that they would not choose to live in if there was sufficient housing stock in Scotland. We must ensure that minimum standards relating to room sizes, hallways and storage in our homes are secured.

For practical reasons, we spend quite a lot of time in our homes. If one furnishes one’s home, one expects to be able to get into and around it, which means that there must be reasonably sized rooms, halls and storage spaces in any given house—and we must not forget the outside environment. If we have a set size for what we can call a double bed, we can set a minimum size for what we can call a double bedroom.

We must take account of the need for houses to be not only insulated but designed for the needs of today’s families. For example, a certain number of sockets are needed for any given room, and they should not be hidden behind doors or furniture but should be easily accessible. Sometimes people forget that we are not living like we did 20 years ago, which means that there can be far more demand for sockets than we allow for. In many homes that I have visited, I have seen all sorts of extension cables and mazes of wires on the floor, which cause a real hazard particularly for the young and the elderly.

I agree with Alex Johnstone that there should be a voluntary code relating to minimum floor space, the amount of storage and the size of homes. Standards in flats and houses must reflect people’s needs and expectations for today and tomorrow. If the construction industry cannot come up with a code of practice, perhaps the Scottish Parliament can help it in that direction.

Alex Johnstone said that room sizes need to be appropriate. That is crucial, because it affects all sorts of things, particularly for our young people. I was told that inappropriate housing can affect the health of young children; indeed, it affects not only their mental or physical health but their standards of educational attainment—they need the room to be able to sit down and study.

I hope that the Government will take on this challenge and see how it can help. I emphasise the importance of large family homes, as well as the importance of appropriate room sizes. As I said, the trend is changing, which is to be welcomed, because we want to look after the elderly at home if we can, rather than asking them to go to hospitals or other centres. I look forward to hearing the Scottish Government’s view on this challenge.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

When I originally saw that this debate was taking place, I was pleased but also intrigued by the motion.

I was pleased that the motion gives the recognition, which Alex Johnstone referred to in his speech, that through Scottish building standards we have significantly improved the energy-efficiency standards for new homes. That is something that we can all welcome—we all have done so in the chamber—because those standards make homes warmer and help households with fuel bills. They are not only helpful in delivering carbon dioxide abatement; since this October, our standards have been once again the best minimum standards in the UK.

I was intrigued that the motion says that Scotland has no minimum space standards or built-in storage for new homes. In my response to the debate, I want to dispel that myth and, as building standards form part of my portfolio, I want to say a little bit about the national standards in Scotland.

I draw a distinction between what can be governed by building standards and what can be dealt with more widely. It is clear that buildings that were approved under building standards regimes in the past will continue to be with us for some time and, in particular, that can result in electrical issues and issues in other areas in which the needs of society have changed and homes need to catch up and adapt. We apply building standards at the point of construction.

Since the mid-1980s, we have had minimum space standards that are the best of any of the jurisdictions in the UK through the Scottish building standards system and now in the domestic technical handbook. The presented framework consists of defined sizes of appliances and furniture combined with clearly defined activity spaces. That means that the floor areas of habitable rooms as well as of main bathrooms and kitchens have to be a reasonable size. Allied to that, we have more recently introduced a measure that means that one habitable room is to have a floor area of at least 12m2.

In addition to the measures that create minimum floor area, many other provisions contribute to the physical and mental wellbeing of householders. They include guaranteed provisions for natural light, limiting noise in attached homes and rooms within homes, ventilation and adequate heating, to name but a few. All of that means that, when the provisions are allied to other supporting legislation—the water byelaws, for example—any new home in Scotland should be able to adequately and satisfactorily perform the function of a dwelling. Unlike Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have nothing that is quite as comprehensive in their sets of devolved building regulations.

I acknowledge that those regulations are bedrock minimum standards and that, as I said before, building regulations cannot be the panacea for all ills. For example, they will not stop a small house being occupied by more people than it was ever designed for—overoccupancy and underoccupancy are both housing policy issues—or dictate how people will use their homes once they move in and how they will be maintained by owners, for example.

Photo of Hanzala Malik Hanzala Malik Labour

There are two points that I want to reiterate for clarity.

First, Scottish communities are fundamentally changing. More adults are staying with their families and children are staying longer with their families. That is one aspect that I want the minister to take on board for me, please, when I talk about percentages of larger homes.

The second point is a safety issue. A child’s room can have as many as 10 demands of electricity sockets. That is just the average. We are not addressing that.

It would be helpful if we could address those points, please.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

On the latter issue, I can give the undertaking that I will go to my officials and go over that aspect of the building standards for new build. It is clear that we want properties that are being built to meet the demands of people. We will leave aside the issue of retrofitting the more heritage-based properties.

I was about to come to the issue that Hanzala Malik raised on the mix of homes. It is important that in dealing with some of our big societal issues—particularly the ageing population and changing habitation, which means more people living alone than ever before—we take a cross-Government approach. Just as building standards representatives have been involved in the Government’s discussions on climate change action, we have to be involved in discussions on how we deal with the ageing society. I very much accept that point and take it on board.

I go back to where I was. There are minimum standards and there is also the suggestion of a voluntary code for space standards that would give a benchmark for industry to deliver good practice. I want to caution on the development of any approach that would produce purely arbitrary floor areas without the understanding to which I referred of how the space will be used and how people with interact with it, and which could make houses larger and less affordable in the short term. Although the market may be able to adjust over a longer term, that could present serious difficulties for housing supply, as well as pressures on the types of homes that may be being built. We need to be aware of that.

It is an unusual presentation for Alex Johnstone to come here to the chamber and to recommend that the Scottish Government intervenes so firmly in industry and the market. If this is his conversion to state socialism—

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

No, the minister can safely assume that it is not.

Photo of Marco Biagi Marco Biagi Scottish National Party

—I would be surprised and blown away. I suspect that he might generally prefer more voluntary codes.

There is such a document out there. “Housing for Varying Needs”, which is available online, is a good practice document that social housing providers and local authorities have to build to if they want to access grant funding from the Scottish Government. It functions in a similar way to the space standards in the domestic technical handbook. It also sets out a framework that determines the size of a home but, because it is a good practice document and not firm building regulations, it consists of defined sizes of an even greater range of appliances and furniture combined with defined activity spaces and circulation paths, creating a much broader set of guidance and good practice about the structure of a home.

The document could certainly be disseminated more widely, and Margaret Burgess and I would be interested in hearing any views from the industry or others about how it could be adopted more widely.

I welcome this debate—it has given us the chance to explore the possibilities of space standards for housing, to bust some myths and to recognise what building standards can deliver. I certainly agree with the concept of a voluntary code that would result in good floor space and storage standards in flats and houses in north-east Scotland and across the country. Above all, however, we must ensure that we have a positive impact on everything that we do on housing supply, so that we have the right number and the right composition of homes being built.

I thank Alex Johnstone for securing the debate, even if I have not been able to agree with him entirely.

Meeting closed at 17:57.