00How and why living space varies between cities

Recent proposals to further expand permitted development rights (PDR) would make it easier to extend residential buildings upwards by one or two floors. The policy is intended to deliver additional homes, and space, primarily by allowing groups of residents to collectively build upwards.

This report investigates the amount of space people have in different cities and how this has changed since 2011. It sets out what should be done to give people more space and make housing more affordable as the economy grows.

Key findings

  1. The amount of floor space residents have varies between cities, with residents of cities in the Greater South East of England having less space. In the Greater South East of England1, the average floor space per resident is 34.8sqm (374.3sqft) and in the rest of England and Wales, this average is 7.5 per cent higher at 37.4sqm (402.7sqft). This is due in part to the economic success of many cities in the Greater South East of England and their housing shortages, which means that residents in these cities attempt to save money on expensive housing by purchasing less space. An example of this is that the average resident in Blackpool has 64.2 per cent more room than the average person living in Slough.
  2. Some of the most cramped cities have continued to see the space per person shrink. Although residents living in some cities have seen their average space grow, a number of cities, including in the expensive Greater South East of England have seen their space per person fall since 2011. Between 2011 and 2018, the urban average floor space in England and Wales increased by 0.1 per cent. Brighton had one of the lowest amounts of space per person in England and Wales and this space has further shrunk, with a decrease of 3.4 per cent between 2011 and 2018. Preston, on the other hand, had one of the highest average spaces per person in England and Wales yet saw an increase of 2.1 per cent over the same period.
  3. The previous expansion of permitted development rights had the greatest uptake in cities with the greatest demand for housing. When PDR was expanded in 2013 to allow for office to residential conversions without planning permission, 2 the largest uptake of conversions was in the Greater South East of England. Houses built under PDR, unlike houses delivered under planning permission, were concentrated in the most expensive cities with the highest demand.

Figure 1: Average space per resident, 2018

Source:  EPC, 2019; ONS, 2011; ONS, 2017

Three things have to change to give people more space and improve affordability:

  1. Permitted development rights should be expanded to make it easier to build extensions and new homes. More policies should be introduced to increase the supply of housing where it is most needed. Allowing residents to add more space when they want to is crucial for improving affordability and increasing the amount of space that residents have in the most expensive and cramped cities.
  2. Existing building regulations and design guides should still apply to extensions and new dwellings delivered under permitted development. To address the criticisms of some of the homes delivered under PDR, existing building regulations and design guides should apply to any expansion of PDR for upward extensions. These extensions should follow the framework outlined in the recently published national design guide 3 and minimum space standards should be avoided.
  3. More widely, the planning system needs a much larger overhaul. The most expensive cities have the greatest demand for housing, and new supply needs to be concentrated in these cities to solve the housing crisis. PDR shows that more flexible planning can increase the number of homes in the cities with the greatest need. The next Government should rewire the planning system so that, in principle, once a local plan is in place, residents should be able to build new homes unless the local authority explicitly says ‘no’, rather than forbidding any development until the local authority says ‘yes’.



  • 1 Comprising London, the South East, and the East of England.
  • 2 In addition to relaxing the need for planning permission for office to residential conversions, the previous expansion of PDR also relaxed general building and design regulations, and Section 106 contributions
  • 3 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2019; National Design Guide. https://assets.publishing.service.gov. uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/835212/National_Design_Guide.pdf