Helen Tonks on MicroHomes

overcrowded09:20 Tuesday 15th April 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

[A]NDIE HARPER: Should we start building 37 square metre properties in Cambridgeshire to solve our housing crisis? That’s what we’re asking this morning, as Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme investigates the Government’s plans to roll out the minimum space limit of 37 square metres right across the UK, and not in London alone. Now they’d be cheaper to heat, more energy efficient, but could we really expect people to live in an area that small? Helen Tonks is the Head of Housing at Cambridge based social housing association the CHS Group. Helen, good morning to you.
HELEN TONKS: Good morning Andie.
ANDIE HARPER: Now obviously the aim is to try and find a home for everybody, and given the limitations on space and cost, building everyone a nice house with a big garden is not an answer. Is this, do you think?

HELEN TONKS: I think it may be a solution for a particular limited scenario, perhaps for a short term accommodation for people in crisis, or possibly for people, particularly young people, just starting out in work who need an affordable solution, perhaps near their work. If it can be done at much lower cost then it gives them a chance to save up and move on later as they get better off. I can’t imagine living in a micro-home as being a long term lifestyle for most people. I think, beyond it being perhaps a niche solution, I can’t see it being a long term solution, and potentially could store up problems for the future. We spent a lot of the last century trying to reduce overcrowding and getting space standards more generous. Not fantastically generous, but generous enough that families could settle and grow up, and have stable communities. And I can’t see a community of micro-homes being anything but short term, perhaps transient.
ANDIE HARPER: They are ingenious, the way they cram everything in, so it is possible to have a sort of sitting room, a shower room, somewhere to sleep and a kitchen. Then they’re very ingenious, but you’d go stir crazy if you spent any time in them, wouldn’t you?
HELEN TONKS: I think I would, and I think most people see their homes as somewhere that they spend a lot of their leisure time, time with their children growing up. Even if they don’t have children, then it’s a leisure space. And although I’m sure there’s a lot to learn from the ingenious ways of energy efficiency and good use of space, I think maybe those lessons can be applied in a slightly larger home that you feel more comfortable in.
ANDIE HARPER: And presumably the sort of people that you are dealing with, I know there’ll be some single people who might find this ideal. but generally you are catering, aren’t you, for people of one or two adults and children.
HELEN TONKS: Exactly. Yes. And what we’re trying to do is to help long term sustainable stable communities to develop, where people can grow and establish their families. And for that I think you need to have a home that you’re comfortable in, that you can use the space well. I think it was mentioned earlier that in a cramped space, the achievements of children at school can be compromised, if they have no privacy to study. There’s a lot of research about if you eat as a family, how good that is for family life. That might be actually quite difficult if you’re sitting with plates on your knees. And I think the effect on family and social interactions could store up problems for the future, if this became a major solution.
ANDIE HARPER: Now as I said at the outset, really and truly just building more homes is the answer, but it’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons. So if this isn’t the answer, these micro-homes, and cramming people in, what is?
HELEN TONKS: Well particularly in Cambridge, as you said earlier, we do have a very overheated market, both in rented and owner-occupied housing. And it’s a very complex market. There are lots of issues about planning and funding, and a lot of good work going on about how all of us can work together to increase the supply. Above and beyond all of that complexity, the fundamental issue is supply, and that’s what drives up the cost. And for the people that we house, the costs outside of the accommodation that we can provide, and we try and keep the rents as low as we possibly can, is totally out of most of their affordability, so that their choices are much more limited. It’s supply supply supply.
ANDIE HARPER: So we do need ingenious solutions. We do need properties that can be built quite cheaply, don’t we?
ANDIE HARPER: But I think we’ve moved past the age of stacking them up, a bit like blocks of flats.. So even if they’re small, they need quite a bit of land, if you’re going to come up with a large number.
HELEN TONKS: They do. And a large part of the problem isn’t necessarily the building cost, although I think there are ingenious ways that you can use different building methods to increase energy efficiency for example. The cost of land is generally the biggest cost, before you even put a spade in the soil. So yes, we need to make much much better use of space, and I’m sure there are compromises which use the best of design lessons from good use of space. But actually still think long term about stable communities and how actually people can settle in those communities, make good use of space, but feel that they do have good space.
ANDY HARPER: Sure. It’s been really good to talk to you Helen. Thanks for joining us.
HELEN TONKS: Thank you Andie.
ANDIE HARPER: Cheers. That’s Helen Tonks. Helen is the Head of Housing at Cambridge based social housing association the CHS Group.