The myth of the shrinking British home

Writing in today’s Guardian about the government’s hint that it might weaken England’s already not particularly strong housing space standards, Rupert Jones says

In 2014, researchers from Cambridge University found that, at an average of 76 sq m, the UK’s newly built homes were the smallest by floor area in Europe. At the other end of the spectrum was Denmark at 137 sq m (having all that space probably helps explain why it is allegedly the world’s happiest country).

The 76 m2 new build home is probably Britain’s favourite housing statistic, appearing regularly for years now in popular media and academic research. I’ve become very familiar with it over time, but I know that not everyone is aware of its history. So I thought I might set it out for those keen to learn more about this distinguished datum.

The Guardian helpfully provides the following table comparing new build home sizes in the UK to the rest of Europe.

Table: average size of a newly built home across Europe.

The source is this 2014 paper by Malcolm Morgan and Heather Cruickshank, who agree that ‘The UK has the smallest homes by floor area in Europe’ but who don’t come up with the figures themselves, instead citing a 2010 paper on ‘Internal housing space standards in Italy and England’ by Nick Gallent and others. Here’s Figure 5 from that paper:

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Confusingly, the notes to the table say these are dwelling sizes for the EU in 2005 even though they are taken from ‘Housing Statistics in the EU, 2002’. So it seems that as of 2017 we are still quoting statistics from 2002 to describe the size of ‘new’ homes in England (or the UK, or Britain – the terms seem to be used interchangeably).

It’s actually worse than that, though. Go to the original EU statistics (you can find a Word version via Google) and in table 2.1 this is what you see:

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The ‘UK’ (actually England) figure of 76 m2 dates from 1996. So the figures being used to describe new build homes in 2017 are around 20 years out of date.

But wait! Where would figures on the average size of new build homes have come from in 1996? As far as I know the only reliable source was the 1996 English House Condition Survey, a survey of around 13,000 dwellings across the country (the data is available to users of the UK Data Service here).

A sample of that size can’t give you reliable figures on homes built in the last couple of years, so I suspected that the 76 m2 ‘new homes’ figure was based on a longer period. Looking at the 1996 EHCS data, it divides homes up into several age categories, with the most recent one being anything built since 1980. And indeed, when you calculate the mean floor area of homes built in England since 1980 the result you get is … 76 m2.

So there you are. In 2017, our most commonly used statistic for the size of new homes in Britain is actually based on homes built between 20 and 35 years ago.

What’s doubly frustrating about this is that we have perfectly good, much more recent statistics that we should be using instead. The English Housing Survey is the successor to the English House Condition Survey, and the 2014/15 housing stock report says that the average size of homes built since 2005 is 87 m2, compared to 94 m2 across the stock as a whole. Note, both of those figures have increased since 1996: English homes are getting bigger, not smaller.

In fact, the EHS report has a whole chapter on space standards. This concludes (paragraph 3.19) that “there is no clear evidence to conclude that each cohort of English homes is, on average, smaller than the cohort before it”, and includes this chart:

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What this indicates is that homes built in the 1980s are on average the smallest, with homes built since 1990 significantly larger.

For a much fresher estimate we can refer to statistics from Energy Performance Certificates, the latest release showing that new homes built in Q4 2016 had an average floor area of 92 m2. So please, use 87 m2 (homes built since 2005) or 92 m2 (homes built in late 2016) but just stop using 76 m2.

By the way, if for some reason you’re not convinced by any of this, go read Neal Hudson.

This post is already too long so I’m not going to get into any detail why people keep using this out of date factoid (hint: it makes new homes sound nasty), or how average new build sizes in England really compare to the rest of Europe (below average but not the smallest), what affects average home size (housing type, land prices) or whether we should demand that new homes are more spacious (this is relevant). If we could just stop perpetuating the myth of the shrinking British home that would be more than enough for one day.

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