I have just about managed to escape the snowstorm that has been hitting Britain over the last few hours. Instead, I am lolling on a sofa looking out to the rainy mists of Milan, in Italy. Everyone here is up in arms because property prices have now become so high that even high-flying banking executives?not exactly your average salary earners?struggle to buy anything more than a one-bedroom flat.
Over supper last night there was much moaning and complaining. ‘Oh, it could be worse,’ I said, trying to cheer people up. ‘It could be as bad as London.’
I promptly launched into that sure-fire crowd rouser that is the story of the Chelsea broom cupboard?beg your pardon, studio flat?which went on the market for £170,000. My friends were suitably horrified. Not, however, at the extortionate price (though they did agree that it was a tad steep). No, what shocked them into speechlessness was the size of the place. When they finally recovered, one of them blurted out: ‘7ft 3in by 11ft 3in? That’s what, 7.5 square metres? But that’s not even a bedroom!’
You see, Italian law requires a single bedroom to be at least 9 square metres?96 sq ft?in area, while double bedrooms and living rooms must be at least 14 square metres (151 sq ft), with a minimum height of 2.7m (about 9ft) in rooms and 2.4m (roughly 8ft) in corridors and hallways. Some local authorities have even more stringent requirements: they put the minimum area for a studio flat to about 28 square metre (301 sq ft) if inhabited by only one person up to 40-45 square metres (430-480 sq ft) for two people; insist that at least one bathroom must have proper windows; and, in some cases, forbid basement flats.
Interestingly, many of these prescriptions were first included in a health bill?not a planning one. They are considered minimum sanitation and hygiene prerequisites to ensure that a home is not noxious to human health.
Bring these criteria into the UK, though, and a large number of London homes, and quite a few in the countryside, would suddenly become inhabitable.
Now, I am not advocating yet more government regulations than those that are strictly necessary. However, there is worrying food for thought in the fact that what can be sold as a studio flat in Britain would not even make it to a bedroom in Italy. I wonder whether we haven’t gone too far.
Mind you, there is always worse. Fancy a Japanese style sleeping tube, anyone?