‘Rabbit hutch’ and ‘shoe box’ are just two of the terms I have heard used to describe the size of modern homes, often by people who just returned dejected from a visit to a show home in a new development.
It is about ten years ago just now that I was last house-hunting in Stonehaven, and I noticed then how, the newer the house we were looking at, the smaller the rooms were, especially bedrooms. Available statistics seem to confirm that this trend has been continuing unabated in the interim.
Not all new homes are like this of course. Many are beautifully designed, spacious and with excellent amenities, but there does seem to have been a trend for homes to get smaller. This can be the case where the land value is high, such as in the north east, and the developer needs to maximise the number of units on the land to make the project viable.
We need only look across Europe at the average floor space of newly built homes to illustrate the problem. In Germany it is over one hundred and nine square metres, in Holland it is over one hundred and fifteen square metres, but Denmark enjoys one hundred and thirty seven square metres. We need more research to gauge the average size of new build homes in Scotland specifically, but one study suggests that the average UK homes are now smaller than all of the above at just seventy six square metres.
Of course we need more homes; the demographic changes we are seeing mean that households are smaller than they once were, and construction is not, and has not for some time, been keeping pace with demand. Successive Scottish Housing Ministers have been photographed, wearing the obligatory ‘hi viz’ jacket and hard hat at some new development or other, but the facts are chiels that winna ding, and the fact is that too many people are either unable to get a new home, or are having to settle for something that is in reality too small for their needs and lacks sufficient storage space for everyday living.
The long term effects on people living in homes that are effectively overcrowded are deeply worrying. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that in extreme cases, overcrowded homes can cause physical illnesses such as asthma, and mental illnesses such as depression.
Less extreme cases can impact on the social and emotional development of children, while at the same time degrading relationships and making it difficult to entertain visitors.
This is why I recently lodged a motion in the Scottish Parliament calling for a voluntary code that will see the introduction of minimum room sizes and adequate storage facilities in new build properties.
I would like to see the Scottish Government, local authorities, housing professionals and developers work together to ensure that new properties are not only spatially fit for purpose, but that they also form part of a wider urban design that delivers sustainable communities and encourages active lifestyles.
This is not to say that advances have not been made in the construction of new homes in Scotland. We have, for example, seen the introduction of improved insulation regulations, which keep our homes warmer and help alleviate the threat of fuel poverty.
There are, of course, some good news stories. Although subject to a similar trend, social housing and housing association homes have shown some resistance to the pressure to shrink. Some of the most recent design trends, like Chapelton of Elsick, may have started the fight back but there is still a long way to go.
If we want to do something about the problem, then a number of influencers will need to pull together and press for change but this is just one piece of the jigsaw that will see homes built that people genuinely want to live in, rather being funnelled into whatever they can afford. Here in the Mearns, with high land prices and local resistance to development, the pressure may yet continue.
Whether we rent or own our homes, the quality of housing is vital to us all, and that doesn’t mean only that they are wind and water tight and easy to heat. The room to live is also important and it is time Scottish Government was prepared to step up to the plate and ensure standards are introduced and adhered to.
We cannot tolerate a situation where rabbit hutch housing is constructed in order for politicians to play the construction numbers game. People will, after all, be living in these homes long after today’s current crop of Government Ministers have been put out to grass. Few of their kind ever leave a worthwhile legacy for future generations. Here’s their big chance then.