The challenges and controversies of co-living


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What is co-living? Originally synonymous with student accommodation, co-living is a new class of residential accommodation, first gaining prominence in London but now becoming a feature nationwide.

Although only accounting for a very small proportion of the overall housing supply, co-living is growing, being crowned as one of the solutions to the current housing crisis. This form of housing offers en-suite bedrooms with shared kitchen and living facilities, with many boasting onsite gyms, shared working areas and even cinema rooms. Predominately targeted at young professionals, this new approach to housing offers an alternative in a housing system which currently offers arguably restricted options of affordability, choice and quality. Co-living offers the benefit of more affordable short-term and flexible accommodation with increased social engagement, with the aim to encourage communal interaction and build community. However it is not without its challenges and controversies.

Provision for affordable housing

As the co-living schemes currently on the market are operating as ‘sui generis’ (rather than within a residential use class for planning purposes), normal polices on affordable housing cannot be applied. Co-living is not normally accepted as a suitable form of affordable housing as these developments commonly consist only of bedrooms. This means that in many places across the country, co-living schemes fall outside policies requiring the provision of affordable housing, whilst others are unable to provide conventional on-site affordable accommodation due to space standards.

The draft London Plan, as well as a small number of London authorities, have sought to address this by adopting specific policies requiring co-living developments to pay a financial contribution towards affordable housing provided via that borough’s affordable housing programme. More authorities will no doubt follow suit. The door is not closed to on-site affordable co-living space, but it appears the move is for coliving development to fund conventional (off-site) affordable housing.

Space standards

Co-living is often criticised for the small bedroom space provided to residents. The minimum space standards as set out in the London Plan for a studio flat in London is 37 sq. m. These restrictions do not apply to co-living developments with shared amenities for residents. Most local authorities have no policies dealing with co-living space standards and, where policies are in place, there are no minimum space standards for co-living housing. With a current gap in the standards, you can find developers offering a double en-suite room of 9.2 sq. m.

The language adopted within the draft London Plan leaves scope for interpretation, stating that the rooms should be “appropriately sized to be comfortable and functional for a tenant’s needs...”. But there is no further guidance in respect of what can be classed as “appropriately sized” and at which point the space allocations are no longer acceptable.

The GLA commenting recently on a co-living scheme in Redbridge said, “While it is accepted that the residential space standards are not strictly applicable to the type of housing proposed, the applicant had been strongly encouraged to meet them wherever possible throughout pre-application discussions”.

While co-living residents have access to a variety of communal facilities, it is questionable whether the current lack of regulation of this accommodation is sustainable.

The Collective and the New Wandsworth Scheme

The pioneer of the co- living trend is The Collective, who opened their 11- storey, 546 bedroom, Old Oak scheme in West London May 2016, boasting the title of the world’s largest co-living space. Following on from the Old Oak scheme, their newest endeavour is that of the 292 room Trewint Street scheme in Earlsfield. This scheme includes a pedestrian and cycling bridge, a café and amenities including a cinema room, library, workspace, gym and roof terraces.

Outside of London?

The concept of co-living has been one predominately championed in London, it is clear that this approach is beginning to filter into other cities. The most recent example is a proposed development in Salford set to provide 1,500 apartments which would be a mix of coliving and student accommodation.

With the revised draft of the emerging Greater Manchester Spatial Plan being published for consultation in January, it will be interesting to see if co-living is a subject on the agenda and whether there is an appetite to encourage or constrain this new trend in housing.

Other cities across the county, particularly those with thriving student communities will no doubt soon have to grapple with the challenges, and opportunities of co-living.

What next?

It is clear that further guidelines are required if the concept of co-living is to be able to operate at its full potential in London and other cities. The problems stem from the concept of co-living not neatly fitting into any of the normal planning use classes, so falling outside policies on affordable housing provision and minimum space standards. Without any national guidance or legislative change, it will be up to individual local authorities to decide how to treat co-living planning applications in their areas. For co-living developers, this will create uncertainties provided by conflicting local authority planning policies, or perhaps no policies at all.

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