Ask someone what they value most in a home and the word ‘space’ is likely to figure in their answer. Ask someone what would improve their home and they are very likely to say ‘more space’.

We value space for different reasons; status is a factor but overwhelmingly it’s simply that we can’t live without it. Space gives us the opportunity to enjoy a rounded life – to relax, play, cook, eat, study, sleep, bathe and socialise comfortably in a safe and private environment over which we have reasonable control. It is the key to accessibility, adaptability and choice, and central to our identity, wellbeing and sense of belonging. Well-configured space is empowering and enabling – it allows families to do things together and individuals to have time alone.

Despite this, space is often the first thing to give, in the race to the bottom that has become an accepted part of competitive tendering and land acquisition. Even reputable architects, working for good clients, often feel obliged to chip away at the very thing we all value so much.

Protecting liveable space through minimum standards is not a new idea. England’s first space standard was a key component of the Tudor Walters Report of 1918. The British soldiers who returned from the First World War were exhausted and traumatised. Above all they craved normal family life. Lloyd George’s determination to honour the report and build ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’ gave thousands the opportunity to start a new life in a home that gave them dignity and hope.

Space standards have come and gone over the last 100 years; abolished for political reasons rather than for practical ones. Many still talk fondly of the ‘Parker Morris Space Standards’, introduced in 1961 and abolished by Margaret Thatcher in 1979.  Fearing that as society became more affluent those on lower incomes were starting to get left behind, Parker Morris’s aim was to ensure that every household should have access to a warm and spacious home. A home that provided a set of spaces that would enable the members of each household to engage in a wide range of ‘everyday activities’ in reasonable comfort.

Today, as in the past, not everyone is convinced by space standards. ‘Good design is more important than the amount of space you have’, is one of the arguments. Within reason, I’d probably agree but it isn’t a matter of ‘either or’; we are entitled to expect both.

‘Space standards are a one-size-fits all’, is another. The figures in our current, cross-tenure standard, the optional ‘Nationally Described Space Standard’ (NDSS) range from 37m2 (for a single person apartment) to 138m2 (for a six bedroom, three storey house for eight people). And those are just minimum areas; developers are always free to exceed them.

‘Shouldn’t we all have less stuff? Well, yes, probably. But the generic furniture set that underpins the NDSS assumes that any two people who share a double or twin bedroom will also share a wardrobe, a chest of drawers, a desk and a chair. There are only enough seats in the living room for the number of bedspaces, and the sofas, armchairs, kitchen table (in fact everything except the beds) are very small by current standards. The spaces only work for people with ‘less stuff’.

Of course space is expensive. In urban areas land cost tends to be the biggest single outlay; build cost starts at around £2,000/m2. Yet the density of new suburban housing remains stubbornly low. The latest figures from MHCLG show that the average density of new housing developments built last year was 31 dwellings per hectare; one fewer than the previous year. That can’t be sustainable.

The economic arguments are open to challenge and invariably one-sided. Instead of fixating solely on the cost of space, we need to focus on its value and the human cost of not having enough. Space standards exist primarily to protect those with the least choice; usually people on lower incomes. This growing cohort comprises people of all ages. For many reasons, it includes a disproportionately large proportion of vulnerable and disabled people, compared with the general population.

Those who manage to access social and affordable rented housing are allocated a home with only the number of bedrooms and bedspaces they need. That makes perfect sense as long as that home gives them the space they need and meets other basic standards. Increasingly that’s not the case. National funding standards, including space standards (measured under the HQIs) were abolished in March 2014, 18 months before the NDSS came into force. Local authorities have to prove need and viability before adopting it. As many have failed to do so, the size of new social and affordable rented homes is now largely determined by their postcode.

It is because we all appreciate the value of space and its ability to support family life that we are concerned by its absence. Inevitably life-limiting, and sometimes life-threatening, the effect of small spaces on wellbeing is more likely to be mental than physical, but it can be both. Harm to mental health is more difficult to detect, quantify and monetise but that only makes it more concerning. We know that couples and families who live in very small homes are significantly more likely to experience conflict and tension in their relationships with each other. For single people, particularly those living in small, single room studios, life can be isolating and depressing. The words ‘trapped’, ‘worthless’, ‘ashamed’ and ‘hopeless’ are often used. I heard someone say, ‘I’m existing, not living’.

These are people who, 50 years ago, could reasonably have expected to be housed by the state. Their council-built homes would have been built to Parker Morris Standards; underpinned by the belief that ‘everyone is entitled to a good measure of the share of the social wealth’. It remains a compelling principle.

Parker Morris also felt passionately that quantity should not come at the expense of quality. Our government says the same but not with nearly as much conviction. Under permitted development rights, made permanent in 2016, office buildings can now be converted to residential use without going through the normal planning process. That means that even where the NDSS has been adopted, it can’t be applied. Single person studios of 13m2 and doubles under 15m2 have shocked not only the housing sector, but also the wider public. Imagine your bedroom becoming your entire home. Picture what you would have to give away and the things you that could no longer do. These examples have served as a wake-up call; the case for mandatory space standards has never been stronger.

This article was written by Julia Park, head of research at Levitt Bernstein, as part of a series of expert blogs for the TCPA's Healthy Homes Act campaign.