A new study shows that more than half of English homes - which are the smallest by floor area in Europe - fall short of modern space standards, calling into question the premise behind the so-called ‘bedroom tax.’
In most of the UK, you simply have to under-occupy houses in order to have an acceptable amount of living spaceMr Malcolm Morgan
The study also found that households receiving housing benefit were more likely to be undersized, with 'spare' bedrooms required for other uses, suggesting that the policy of withdrawing benefits from these households is misguided.
The research, from the University of Cambridge, analysed 16,000 dwellings in England and compared them to the London Housing Design Guide internal space standard. It found that 55% of dwellings fall short of the standards based on floor space alone, and 21% fall short when the number of current occupants is taken into account. The findings are published today (18 June) in the journal Building Research & Information.
The UK has the smallest homes by floor area in Europe: the average newly-built home is just 76 square metres, compared to 137 square metres in Denmark. The reasons for this are complex, but are related to the removal of minimum space standards through the 1980 Local Government, Planning and Land Act, the high value of land, and the low number of houses built by public authorities and housing associations.
There is also an imbalance between the distribution of the population, which is mostly one- and two-person households, and the distribution of homes, which mostly have three or more bedrooms.
Between one quarter and one third of people in the UK are dissatisfied with the amount of space in their homes, and yet many homes can be considered under-occupied when looking at the number of bedrooms versus the number of occupants.
“Spare bedrooms are a misconception in many homes, as the lack of space means that any extra bedrooms are needed for other uses,” said Mr Malcolm Morgan, a PhD student in the University’s Department of Engineering, who led the research.
The so-called bedroom tax, introduced by the coalition government in 2013, withdraws up to 25% of housing benefit from social housing tenants if they have a ‘spare’ bedroom.
However the new research shows that due to the severe lack of space in many UK homes – especially in homes receiving housing benefit, which are more likely to be undersized – the concept of a bedroom tax is fundamentally flawed. “The bedroom tax looks strictly at the number of bedrooms, and not at the total available space per person,” said Mr Morgan. Additionally, in practice there are no national standards which quantify what is an acceptable amount of space.
A lack of space affects quality of life. As well as simply allowing people to have a comfortable standard of living, additional space can also reduce stress by allowing members of the same household to engage in different activities at the same time, and ease feelings of claustrophobia experienced in small spaces.
“When the bedroom tax was introduced, there was a lot of implication that those living in houses with spare bedrooms were doing so out of selfishness,” said Mr Morgan. “But what this research shows is that in most of the UK, you simply have to under-occupy houses in order to have an acceptable amount of living space.”
The researchers used a new method to quantify the shortage of residential space, based on a modified version of the London Housing Design Guide from 2010. Although previous studies have examined new-build housing, this study also examined existing housing and compared it with a modern space standard in an attempt to quantify the extent and magnitude of the problem.
The study found that 55% of dwellings fall short of the standards based on floor space alone, and 21% fall short when the number of current occupants is taken into account. Flats and small terraced houses were most commonly below the standard. Dwellings were also frequently found to be under-occupied in comparison with the number of bedrooms, which was most likely due to lack of space.
“We hope that this new method of measuring space can be used to inform future housing policy,” said Mr Morgan. “The calculation method used to implement the bedroom tax makes no consideration of internal space, which is adversely affecting people’s quality of life.”