02How much space do people in different cities have?

There is variation in the amount of space that residents in different cities across England and Wales enjoy. This is shown in Figure 1, which depicts the average floor space per resident in 2018. Although the urban average floor space in England and Wales in 2018 was 36.5sqm (393.4sqft) per resident, residents in some cities have much more space than this and residents in other cities have much less. In Blackpool, residents had much more space than the national average, with 44.6sqm (480.2sqft) for each person. On the other hand, residents in other, more expensive cities such as Slough had much less room with the average person having just 27.2sqm (292.4sqft) of floor space.

Figure 1: Average space per resident, 2018

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

Differences in the average floor space per resident between cities may be driven by a number of factors. Demographic differences between cities will play a role in determining how much space people choose to consume. In cities with larger families or large populations of students such as Leicester and Exeter, there might be more sharing of existing homes between people, and lower space per person. Similarly, cities which are on average older, such as Bournemouth, may have more space per person if there are more households who are retired.

In addition to demographic differences, the variation in space will be affected by the cost of land. In cities with more productive local economies and higher wages for residents, land is more expensive because it grants access to these benefits. Residents who want to access them are making the choice to purchase less space in order to save money.

In cities such as Slough and London, for example, worker productivity and wages are high and, as a result, the value of land is increased. The opposite is likely true in much of the North of England and Wales, where productivity is on-average lower. As a result, land is cheaper, so people can afford to consume more space. Of the eleven cities in England and Wales with the most room, only one is in the Greater South East of England, where land is the most expensive, whereas eight out of the 10 roomiest cities are in the North of England and Wales, where land is more affordable.

How has the amount of space people have changed?

That more affordable cities have more space per person than expensive cities is not necessarily a problem. But residents in different cities do not just have different amounts of space. They have also seen very different changes to the space that they have in recent years.

Figure 2 shows the relative change in space per resident across cities between 2011 and 2018. On average, across all cities, space per person increased by 0.1 per cent. However, the change in space per resident also differed between cities. At the two extremes, Cambridge had the largest average increase in space per resident of 10.3 per cent (3.4sqm/ 36.2sqft), whereas space in Coventry became more cramped with a decrease of 9.3 per cent (3.1sqm/ 33.5sqft) per resident over this period.

Figure 2: Average change in space per resident, 2011-2018

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2019; ONS, 2011; ONS, 2018

More than half (51.7 per cent) of the cities across England and Wales saw a decrease in the space per person between 2011 and 2018, with another fifth (22.4 per cent) seeing an increase in space of less than 1 per cent. As Box 2 shows, this is not because houses are getting smaller – in fact, they are bigger than existing homes in 69 per cent of cities. Rather, the issue is that people are increasingly forced to share the same, existing space between more people to access these cities’ benefits. These cities require more floor space, in both new homes of all kinds and in the extension of existing properties, to meet people’s different needs.

Box 2: Are homes getting smaller?

The data in this report shows that average new homes in England and Wales are 87.1sqm/ 937.3sqft, 2.6 per cent larger than existing homes, which are on average 84.8sqm/ 912.7sqft. However, this hides differences across the country, some cities are building larger average homes than they already have, such as Huddersfield, where new homes are 102.6 sqm/ 1103.9sqft, 15.6 per cent larger than existing homes.

Some cities like Luton have considerably smaller dwellings, at 63.5sqm/ 683.6sqft, but this does not necessarily translate into less space per person. In Oxford, Birkenhead, Reading and Aldershot, new homes are smaller than existing homes, but space per person in each of these cities has increased. In other cities, the opposite applies – new homes in cities like Exeter, Huddersfield, York and Southampton are bigger than existing homes, but space per person is falling.

How effective have previous policies been?

Looking at the previous take up of changes to PDR gives an idea of how a future expansion of PDR might be taken up. In May 2013, PDR was expanded in England to allow for office buildings to be converted into residential dwellings without planning permission.

Figure 3 shows the proportion of new dwellings delivered under PDR10 between 2015 and 2018. Only a few cities had a high uptake of these conversions, nearly all of which were located in the Greater South East of England where housing is most expensive and residents already have the least space per person. Crawley and Basildon had the largest uptakes with 38.7 per cent and 30.7 per cent of new dwellings delivered under PDR respectively. Conversions made in these cities increased the total floor space when other housing options were more limited.

Figure 3: Proportion of new dwellings as permitted development rights, 2015-2018

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, 2019

In most cities in the rest of England and Wales, the housing supply is less strained. As a result, these cities saw very little uptake of office-to-residential conversions. Almost half of the cities in England saw fewer than 5 per cent of new dwellings delivered under PDR, most of which were located outside of the Greater South East of England. Five cities, all of which were outside of the Greater South East of England apart from Cambridge, including Barnsley, Mansfield and Telford had extremely low uptakes of office-to-residential conversions, with each city seeing fewer than five conversions between 2015 and 2018.

The introduction of PDR office-to-residential conversions allowed housing supply to be driven more closely by local demand. Total floor space was increased in cities where it was most needed with residential conversions having a higher uptake in cities where space was more limited. Therefore, if PDR were to be expanded to allow the development of a wider range of new homes and extensions, it follows that this new floorspace would also be concentrated in cities in the Greater South East where housing is most expensive, and potentially in cities of the Midlands where space per person is low despite lower land values.

Box 3: Is PDR forcing people to have less space?

Since this previous expansion of PDR, there have been certain cases where the poor use of Permitted Development rights has delivered housing that is poorly designed or with a low floorspace.11 This was the case because the extensions built under PDR currently have to adhere to looser building regulations and were exempt from national minimum space standards.

The general impact of PDR on the size of new dwellings is not clear in the EPC data, yet there have certainly been small flats delivered under PDR.12[/footnote] Although some cities, like Luton and Crawley, with a large share of new homes delivered through office-to-residential conversions, saw the average size of new dwellings fall, this association is less evident for most cities in England and Wales. Furthermore, cities like Liverpool and Birkenhead also saw the average size of new dwellings fall without many office-to-residential conversions under PDR.

Reintroducing national minimum space standards would not ensure people have more space per person, because people make choices about how much space they want to buy depending on their local housing market. A national minimum standard would have a limited effect in cities where housing is inexpensive and people can afford to buy lots of space. But in expensive cities, minimum floor areas would force people to either pay for bigger (and thereby more expensive) homes than they would wish to, or share a too-large dwelling with other households to save money. The solution in these unaffordable cities is to instead build more homes of all types to fit people’s different needs and to increase people’s incomes so they can buy more space if they wish.


  • 10 Predominantly office to residential conversions.
  • 11 Financial Times, 2018; ‘Slums of the future’? UK office-to-homes policy sparks fears.  https://www.ft.com/content/48fbe55c-ffb2-11e8-ac00-57a2a826423e
  • 12 [footnote]The Telegraph, 2017; UK sees boom in number of properties smaller than 37sqm: Would you buy a ‘micro-home’?  https://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/uk/uk-sees-boom-number-properties-smaller-37sqm-would-buy-micro/