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The rise of co-living in England: Planning permission and design factors

What is a co-living space? We explain why English big cities are promoting this idea and what makes these different from HMOs, apart hotels and student halls

6 January 2024
6 minutes read
Diverse group of individuals engaging in a meeting at a co-working space with lush indoor plants, exemplifying collaborative work environment and creative interaction.

Are you ready to lead the way in transforming urban housing?

As property developers, you have a unique opportunity to redefine city living with co-living spaces, a rapidly growing trend in England's cities.

With cities facing increasing populations and limited affordable housing, co-living isn't just an option—it's a necessity. It's a chance to create housing that's not only profitable but also meets the needs of today's society.

But the journey from idea to a thriving co-living community comes with its own set of challenges and opportunities.

Designing and building a co-living space requires more than standard property development. It demands attention to detail, an understanding of communal living, and a vision to create spaces that are more than just a place to live. They need to be vibrant, functional communities.

In this article, we'll be your guide to co-living development in England. We'll explore why co-living is on the rise in major cities, how it differs from traditional housing like HMOs, apart hotels, and student halls, and we'll delve into the essential aspects of planning permission and design that make a co-living space successful.

Whether you're embarking on your first co-living project or looking to refine your existing development strategies, this guide is a valuable resource to understand and navigate co-living development in England's bustling cities.

Now, let's begin.

Modern and stylish hotel lobby bar with artistic lighting, wooden accents, designer stools, and ornamental plants, showcasing contemporary interior design and luxury hospitality.
A visionary design concept for a co-living space in Canary Wharf, London, developed by Urbanist Architecture, blending innovative spatial design with communal living principles

What is co-living?

Co-living, also known as large-scale shared living schemes, is a form of accommodation providing completely private rooms and bathrooms, with shared kitchens and living facilities. These facilities are expected to be always available for cooking, dining, relaxing and socialising for the residents and their guests.

The best way to discuss what a co-living space is would be to define what it is not. A co-living space is not a flatshare, not a hotel and not student accommodation. It is a type of accommodation completely unique to itself. 

For single-person households, co-living provides an alternative option to HMOs and self-contained flats. It is a style of living that allows for sufficient individual space, and opportunities to socialise with your community.

Chic and spacious lounge area with a modern marble bar counter, eclectic hanging lights, designer stools, and indoor greenery, reflecting a blend of natural elements with contemporary design.
A visionary design concept for a co-living space in Canary Wharf, London, developed by Urbanist Architecture, blending innovative spatial design with communal living principles

What is Policy H16?

In 2021, The London Plan introduced Policy H16: Large-scale purpose-built shared living. With policies, such as H16, The London Plan aimed to accommodate the emerging ‘new’ ways of living. 

These policies provide guidance and requirements for a type of place to live that hadn’t existed in policy terms before.

Policy H16 sets out many different requirements for a co-living development, such as; good design quality, operation under single management, spatial size requirements for both private and communal spaces, a list of minimum provisions for communal amenities, a management plan, affordable housing provision and more.

The co-living space requirements are a new addition to ensure that every resident is being provided with the sufficient area necessary. Some key standards are as follows:

Standard Private Unit Size

18 - 27 sqm

Accessible Private Unit Size

28 - 37 sqm

Internal Communal Amenity Size

Minimum of 5 sqm of ‘essential’ internal communal facilities per resident - aimed to be distributed on every floor

External Private Unit Size

Minimum of 1 sqm per resident - one or more areas with minimum of 40 sqm

Kitchen

Minimum 0.6 sqm per resident with at least 5 cooking stations per kitchen

Dining

Minimum 0.5 sqm per resident

Laundry

1 washer and 1 dryer per 10 residents

Along with providing guidance for co-living developments, Policy H16 has helped to define the concept. The London Plan defines co-living as:

“Large-scale purpose-built shared living developments are generally of at least 50 units. This type of accommodation is seen as providing an alternative to traditional flat shares and includes additional services and facilities, such as room cleaning, bed linen, an on-site gym and concierge service. Tenancies should be for a minimum of three months to ensure large-scale purpose-built shared living developments do not effectively operate as a hostel.” (The London Plan 2021, p.212)

Policy H16 in the London councils’ plans

In proper UK planning system fashion, each council has their own interpretation and adaptation of regional and national policies.

The London Plan must be followed by every planning authority within Greater London; however, they are free to add additional requirements to those in the London Plan. Below are a few examples of how different councils have adopted Policy H16 into their local plans.

If you don’t see your council below, it is important to conduct additional research into what may be required of your co-living development, here are some select examples of how Policy H16 is reflected in local plans.

If your local plan does not include any information about co-living spaces, it is best to refer back to the London Plan as your one guide to development, and advisable to take your scheme to pre-application to better understand your council’s stance on co-living spaces. 

Westminster (2019)

Westminster’s City Plan, finalised in 2019, shows support for the development of co-living schemes, suggesting that they offer young professionals an acceptable form of accommodation. 

They suggest that it can be particularly advantageous for young professionals when the communal space offers various live/work amenities. The council “welcome[s] innovative ways to deliver more housing and address the high cost of traditional self-contained market housing” (City Plan, p.65).

Hackney (2020)

Hackney’s local plan 2020-2033 shares similar principles as Policy H16, as well as adds a further restriction to proposed co-living developments. It includes the principle that development is only appropriate when the site has been deemed unsuitable for conventional self-contained accommodation. It also requires the provision of at least 10% adaptable wheelchair-accessible units. 

Traditional types of homes are still the priority of the council; however, it recognises the value of co-living spaces where standard residential accommodation is not suitable.

Southwark (2022)

Southwark council echoes the policies set in Policy H16. Similar to The London Plan, the council stipulates an affordable housing contribution of at least 35% of accommodation or cash payment when housing cannot be provided on-site. It does so to offset an unrestricted spread of co-living spaces. 

Lambeth (2020)

Lambeth’s Policy H13 addresses their council-specific requirements for co-living developments. Their policy builds upon the foundation set by London Plan Policy H16.

Tower Hamlets (2020)

Tower Hamlet’s supporting text for Policy D.H7 discusses “a recent growth in London of purpose-built, large-scale, higher quality HMOs charging commercial market rents. This includes, for example, accommodation modelled on student housing but available for a wider range of occupants or accommodation described as ‘co-living’.” 

It’s interesting that Tower Hamlets continue to view this as a subset of HMOs, rather than - as the London Plan seems to suggest - an entirely separate type of residence.   

Building a co-living space outside of London

Given the newness of co-living in the UK, the majority of developments are within London; however, their growing popularity is inspiring other large cities, such as Manchester or Birmingham, to consider such schemes. 

Where the boroughs within Greater London must abide by Policy H16, those councils outside the capitol are free to regulate co-living planning as they please. 

Like some councils in London, various councils across the country have yet to incorporate co-living in their local plans, and others have extensive policy documents for their regulation.

For example, the Birmingham city council published a supplementary planning document solely on large-scale purpose-built shared living schemes. The council details the definition of co-living, the sui generis co-living class, necessary features and facilities, extensive application considerations, spatial requirements and planning policy relevance.

As the concept of co-living gains popularity, we can expect to see detailed planning documents, similar to that of Birmingham city council, being developed by large and medium-sized cities across the UK.

Co-living spaces vs HMOs

We have seen that a co-living space is a building with 50 or more rooms, all sharing communal dining and living facilities.

You may be thinking this sounds very similar to a very large HMO (house in multiple occupation), and many argue that they are the same thing. So is it a popular misconception that co-living spaces are simply bigger, up-market, fancier versions of HMOs?  

Sure, on the surface it seems like they like to fulfil the same function. And how different can a communal kitchen and living room with private bedrooms be?

However, co-living spaces are expected to offer more than the typical HMO. This is clearly demonstrated in the Policy H16 requirement for a management plan agreement before planning permission is granted.

Of course, entering the market as a co-living space is a great way for upscale developers to avoid the (misplaced) stigma associated with HMOs, but you will be expected to provide more services than in a traditional HMO. 

Co-living spaces are expected to go beyond the established HMO-style living experience with a focus on design, sustainability and community. We will explore some of the services that are expected of co-living spaces later.

Co-living spaces vs apart hotels

So it seems like it is possible to distinguish a co-living space from an HMO, but it does sound very similar to an apart hotel, a set of apartments that offer short-term accommodation and hotel services.

A key difference is a goal of co-living to foster community.

The London Plan defines an apart-hotel as 

“Self-contained hotel accommodation (C1 use class) that provides for short-term occupancy purchased at a nightly rate with no deposit against damages”

Most councils, and Policy H16 of the London Plan, require minimum stays of three months in any co-living space. It is not the goal of co-living spaces to operate as upscale hostels or business travel accommodation. Requiring a minimum stay is what sets these spaces apart from apart hotels. Residents have the opportunity to meet and connect with their building community - rather than meeting like passing ships in the night as they would in hotels.

Modern lobby featuring comfortable leather armchairs, chic pendant lighting, and lush vertical gardens, creating a luxurious and green indoor environment.
A visionary design concept for a co-living space in Canary Wharf, London, developed by Urbanist Architecture, blending innovative spatial design with communal living principles

What use class does co-living fall under?

All buildings and land in this country fall into one (or more) use classes. The idea is that if you want to change that use, you will need planning permission - although in some cases, you can use permitted development instead. 

Most types of accommodation fit into the C class: C1 is hotels (and, as mentioned above, apart hotels, at least according to many authorities, including the Mayor of London). C2 is residential institutions, C3 is your standard flats and houses and C4 is small HMOs. Large HMOs are not in class C - they are in their own use class (or, in planning terminology, sui generis). Many councils treat student accommodation as sui generis, too, although some student flat developments have been considered as C3.

The London Plan makes it clear that Policy H16 is for “sui generis non-self-contained market housing.”

There are a couple of consequences of that. The first is that turning a building into or from shared living will always need full planning permission. The second is as these are the not individual flats that you would expect if they were labelled C3, the national space standards (under which the smallest possible unit is 37 sqm - as opposed to Policy H16’s 18 sqm) do not apply.

How to use H16 to get planning permission for co-living

As someone who may have a vested interest in the development of a new co-living space, you are probably asking if H16 can be used to justify conversions. Yes, it can!

Now that co-living spaces have been entered into policy, adherence to those policies is a material consideration in the planning application. If you are considering an application for co-living space planning permission, you will need to demonstrate that your schemes will promote an inclusive and diverse contribution to the neighbourhood. 

The London Plan asks boroughs to seek large-scale purpose-built shared living schemes that will contribute towards the creation of mixed and inclusive communities. Demonstrating your scheme’s ability to fulfil this can be leveraged to your council.

The likelihood of getting planning permission for your co-living scheme is to convince the council that a development of this type is the most suited and most advantageous for its surroundings, and H16 provides the policy to support these claims. 

If you are a developer trying to get past the stigma (however undeserved it may be) that HMOs have acquired, I can imagine you are wondering whether H16 can be used with proposals of fewer than 50 units.

Yes, you can! While the London Plan defines co-living schemes as developments with generally 50 or more units, it is not a requirement. Submitting an application referencing Policy H16 for a co-living space will require extra details and resources than submitting an application for a large HMO. 

Be prepared to meet different room size requirements, communal area size requirements and provide an in-depth management plan. As an H16 co-living space, you will be expected to offer additional services that would not need to be supplied to your HMO, such as a concierge service and room cleaning

Developing and operating a co-living space is a large undertaking, if it is only rooms and basic facilities you are looking to provide it is better to stick with an HMO. But, if you are ready to take your property to the next level, H16 is your guide there.

What is expected of a co-living space (with examples)

You have learned that co-living spaces are not just buildings of 50 or more flats, they share kitchen and living spaces. You also have learned that they are not HMOs. By this we mean to say, co-living spaces are more than just big houses rented to unrelated people.

When operating your co-living space you are going to be expected to provide more than just a kitchen and living space - even though that is what we just said sets co-living spaces apart from flats. The examples of currently offered co-living schemes will demonstrate the requirement for social and lifestyle offerings.

Sunlit conservatory with a vibrant collection of large potted plants, green trim, and a vintage chandelier, offering a peaceful and green oasis in an urban home.

Mason and Fifth

This co-living space, located in Bermondsey, London, is a clear example of the services expected of your new development. 

Not only does this scheme provide luxury communal spaces - their programme offers activities such as monthly house dinners, guest speakers and expert-led workshops, quarterly full-house parties, catered breakfasts and a holistic mind/body wellness programme.

This scheme is a demonstration of the expectations derived from the co-living reputation. In its recent growth, co-living has earned the reputation of accommodation for young, wealthy, urban professionals. Or as this scheme proudly proclaims, “a cross between a large, chic shared house, a private members club and a wellness retreat.”

Elegant urban lounge area with a modern curved sofa, brass coffee tables, chic accent pillows, and indoor plants, complemented by large windows with a cityscape view.

The Collective

This co-living company, with UK locations in Old Oak and Canary Wharf, advertises an all-inclusive bill that includes gym access, regular cleaning and linen change, a golf simulator,  swimming pool, sauna, cinema and cultural events programme.

As we said, a co-living space is much more than just an extremely large house.

Sophisticated recreation room with a classic green billiard table, elegant lighting, and minimalist decor, flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass walls for a modern, open feel.
A visionary design concept for a co-living space in Canary Wharf, London, developed by Urbanist Architecture, blending innovative spatial design with communal living principles

Urbanist Architecture’s co-living projects

Urbanist Architecture has worked on the initial stages of what will be - when completed - an extremely ambitious and very high-end office to shared living conversion. We were engaged to carry out a comprehensive appraisal of its planning prospects and a full architectural feasibility study with conceptual design solutions to understand how vast open-plan office spaces can be transformed into stylish and inviting places to live.

Conscious of the requirements of Policy H16, we knew that getting the shared living areas right was every bit as important as the bedrooms. We’ve stressed throughout this article that the intention behind the policy is that these should be communities, they exist for people who genuinely want to spend time with their fellow residents. 

With that in mind, we designed chic places to eat, cosy niches for private conversations, a cinema room, a pool room and a gym. All aimed at providing not just comfort and convenience, but the kind of shared experiences that help to build friendships.  

As we are a firm that really appreciates the chance to work on interiors as well as priding ourselves on our planning expertise, this very much played to our strengths. 

We also are currently working on two apart-hotel projects, one in London and one on the south coast, which means we have become very aware of the planning and practical differences between these two fast-growing contemporary types of accommodation.  

Modern co-living space corridor with minimalist design, featuring spherical pendant lights, wooden accents, and stylish stools, creating a warm and inviting communal area.
A visionary design concept for a co-living space in Canary Wharf, London, developed by Urbanist Architecture, blending innovative spatial design with communal living principles

How Urbanist Architecture can help you

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based RIBA chartered architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus in proven design and planning strategies, and expertise in residential extensions, conversions and new build homes, we help landowners and developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you're seeking a multidisciplinary team of London architects specialising in crafting thoughtful and practical design solutions tailored for co-living spaces, we are the perfect fit.

Our approach involves a meticulous preparation process tailored to co-living concepts, addressing both architectural and interior design requirements. We also provide expert guidance in securing planning permissions, ensuring that your co-living vision can be seamlessly transformed into a tangible reality.

Nicole Ipek Guler, Charted Town Planner and Director of Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Nicole I. Guler

Nicole leads our planning team and specialises in tricky projects, whether those involve listed buildings, constrained urban sites or Green Belt plots. She has a very strong track of winning approval through planning appeals.

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