Do Croydon’s children and young people have enough space at home?

By - Friday 4th May, 2018

Some Croydon families face space restrictions described as ‘frightening’

Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

“In cramped homes, children are stuck in hostile environments… When a child is indoors, sound reverberates off walls. Small rooms do not provide the space to make large focal changes to strengthen muscles around the eyes.”

The above quotation is from Charlotte Davies, founder and director of Croydon’s Fit2Learn company which specialises in holistic human development. It is a stark reminder of the importance of living space for children’s healthy growth.

Statements have been made about living space in Croydon that give rise to deep anxiety. At the South Croydon Community Association question-and-answer session on the future of Croydon town centre in May 2016, Martin Skinner of Inspired Homes said that homes were going to be either more expensive or much more ‘compact’, while Croydon Council’s then-director of place, now chief executive, Jo Negrini, seemed to suggest that we will have to accept families living in one room in the borough. In the words of Charlotte Davies, reporting on the event in the Citizen, “Negrini did not seem to understand deep concerns about housing, play space, traffic planning or population density”. “She really frightened me”, said one audience member.

Eight mini flats in one Croydon house.
Photo by Liz Sheppard-Jones, used with permission.

As a result of the government’s ruling that offices can be converted to residential accommodation without planning permission, Inspired Homes has been able to develop one-bedroom apartments of 28 square metres, compared with the 50 square metres minimum required in the London Plan. Fortunately, the council has stopped this from happening again in the town centre by adopting an exemption Article 4 Determination that makes conversion subject to planning permission. But the absence of this exemption elsewhere in the borough will still mean developers can create such ‘compact’ flats.

At its recent public exhibition of its plans to replace the Norbury Trading Estate with a mixed residential/industrial units scheme, the developer Goldcrest justified the smallness of some of its proposed flats on the grounds that the council had approved a compact flats scheme. Inspired Housing’s Skinner explains his approach on the grounds that he is mainly providing for single people. However, a three-bedroom flat at the Whitstable Place development provides only 66.9 square metres of space.

The 2010 Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) report Space Standards: The Benefits concluded that ‘general health and wellbeing benefits accrue from living in a well-designed home that offers both privacy and sociability, and provides adequate space to function well’. It stressed the ‘contribution that adequate space makes to family life and the opportunity it affords children to engage in uninterrupted private study and therefore achieve their potential’. The report also pointed out that the ‘flexibility of homes that have adequate space’ means ‘that they are easier to adapt to changing needs and lifestyles, and to future living styles and habits’. This enables households to remain in an area as their circumstances change, creating ‘more balanced and stable neighbourhoods’. There may also be ‘societal benefits stemming from reduced overcrowding and the consequential reduction in aggressive and anti-social behaviour’. CABE was disbanded in 2011.

In her 2017 report One Hundred Years of Housing Space Standards: What Now?Julia Park elaborates on the importance of having adequate flexible space. For teenagers in particular ‘the bedroom is an important place of retreat, self-discovery and study. It may be the only space in which you can express your personality and enjoy privacy – either alone, or with friends’.

Low standards become the maximum, just as over time the minimum wage becomes the norm

Minimum floor spaces have reduced over the decades, so that more and more families in new houses and flats are cramped and unable to adapt their homes to meet their changing needs. Older property is often more easily adapted than modern buildings, especially blocks of flats.

The London Plan sets out minimum floor-space standards. A two-person, one-bedroom flat is 50 square meters (25 square meters each), a four-person, two-bedroom flat is 70 square meters (17.5 square meters each), and a six-person, three-bedroom flat is 96 square meters (16 square meters each). The standards meant that the greater the number of inhabitants, the less space per person, despite the fact that sharing accommodation is more complex and needs more space. These low standards are becoming the maximum in many developers’ schemes, just as the minimum wage is becoming the norm.

In open-plan spaces, everyone gets under each others’ feet

It is also possible that the modern trend of combining rooms, whilst giving an appearance of greater space, makes flexible use of that space more difficult, especially in relation to different household activities that compete with each other to take place. Everyone is under each others’ feet. But if most new flats are open plan, then buyers and renters have no real choice.

In 2010, the Royal Institute of British Architects, RIBA, presented a report entitled The Future Homes Commission, Building the Homes and Communities Britain Needs. The report stressed that housing standards also need to address issues of storage, noise insulation and natural light as “essential for residents’ quality of life”.

The lack of adequate indoor space also raises the importance of private space outdoors. We need to answer important questions. Are balconies and outside private areas the size of the average patio large enough? Do families need more garden space for safe, supervised play? Where little private amenity space is provided, then is landscaped communal open space generous enough, secure from non-residents, well-landscaped and planted, well-maintained and benefiting from sunshine? Do differences in communal open space needs require separation – should there, for example, be child-free spaces?

Plans giving only the minimum space requirements to their residents should be rejected

A lot of new schemes, especially in tower blocks, are aimed largely at people without children. Is there a danger that schemes become over-concentrated by particular household types? Is it detrimental to the community that different household sizes are not mixing together? Given the evidence that living in tower blocks is not conducive to family life, does this mean that a move away from tower blocks is desirable, and should we therefore create a more diverse mix of dwelling types at lower levels? This could, for example, be achieved in central Croydon if the proposed Westfield towers were replaced by lower-rise homes spread across the top of the new shopping centre.

The issues involved in the floor-space size of new homes are serious matters. We must insist that they are considered by Croydon’s planners and by the planning committee. Applications should be judged on the basis that they provide space higher than the minimum standards, and should be rejected if they fail to do so.

Correction: this article was amended on 9th May 2018 to reflect the fact that the Whitstable Place development is not part of Inspired Homes. 

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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  • Ben Miller

    It could be summed up in a Keith Joseph-style, ‘Poor-quality housing for poor-quality people’.
    If my Lady had had her health we’d have cleared off in an old bus.