Are property developers doing enough to ensure that new build homes are sufficiently compliant with accessibility regulations? Paul F Cockburn asks those in the know…
I listen as Conrad Hodgkinson explains how, “For the last 10 years of her life, my wife Christine – who had progressive multiple sclerosis – was completely quadriplegic and dependent on a wheelchair. Although we had, by pure chance, already bought a bungalow which we were able to adapt, we knew friends who were also wheelchair users, who found endless difficulties looking for somewhere to buy. I said to Christine, ‘What’s needed is a website that advertises accessible properties.’ As there wasn’t one already, we set one up!”
Some 12 years later, the Accessible Property Register gets between 600 and 1000 page views per day. It’s still the only site of its kind, exclusively advertising accessible properties. “It’s known within the disabled community,” says Conrad. “Organisations of older and disabled people that provide housing advice will refer their members to the site. What’s much more difficult, of course, is to get the source of the properties – builders and owners – to advertise on the site when they’ve got something suitable.”
Needles in haystacks
Current building regulations (‘Part M’ in England and Wales – the regulations for Scotland can be found here) mean that officially, all new properties should meet basic access standards. “Overall, the supply of property with at least basic wheelchair accessibility is increasing,” Conrad notes. “But that doesn’t address the problem of providing information that can make wheelchair users aware that there’s something that might be okay for them.”
Identifying accessible housing in the first instance can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. The No Place Like Home [PDF] report produced last year by Leonard Cheshire Disability made pretty grim reading. Among its findings were that only 5% of housing in England was wheelchair accessible, and that fewer than one in five councils had any kind of accessible housing register. The charity ultimately concluded that, “National governments and councils are failing to provide the disabled-friendly housing the UK needs”.
In recent years there have been calls for wider acceptance and implementation of the Lifetime Homes standard – a set of 16 design criteria for accessible and adaptable homes originally developed in 1991 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and now administered by Habinteg Housing Association.
According to Habinteg’s Chief Executive, Paul Gamble, it doesn’t help that the UK is currently failing to build enough houses. There’s also the oncoming demographic change, which will see the UK’s population grow proportionately older. “All the issues about ageing have functionally very similar impacts in terms of providing housing for disabled people,” he says. “It’s about how you ensure you have level access, that you’re able to cook and clean and bathe. The demographic shift everyone kind of accepts is happening, so the question now is what do we do about it?”
Austria is among Europe’s highest spenders on health and care. There, building homes that disabled and older people can live in for as long as possible is already considered best practice and seen as key to managing the costs of an ageing population. Since 2008, the country’s municipal governments have required most new homes to be built to an equivalent of the Lifetime Homes standard, while also ‘retrofitting’ existing homes to bring them up to speed. It’s an approach that Leonard Cheshire Disability believes should be replicated across the UK.
“Technically, the current Part M/Part T standards are good on inclusive design,” Gamble concedes. “The problem is that they’re optional. Our concern is that effectively, very little of this property will be developed. What we really want is that they make the Lifetime Homes standard mandatory, a national minimum standard.”
For proof of what could be achieved, look no further than London. Housing remains a controversial subject in the UK’s capital, but the Greater London Authority’s wider ‘planning and regeneration’ remit has enabled it to insist that all new housing developments are built to the Lifetime Homes standard.
Nor is it just about building regulations. In 2014, the Mayor of London allocated £40 million to affordable housing projects across the capital. This March this year came news of a further £35 million fund established in partnership with the Department of Health to provide loans or equity finance to private housing developers.
“This is really trying to stimulate the private sector to think more about the provision of specialist housing for older or disabled people,” says Richard Blakeway, London’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, Land and Property. “We’re really interested in seeing how our funding can either accelerate schemes or lead to new schemes.
“We’ve got an ambition in London to increase the number of homes being built, but for the first time we’ve specified – by Borough – the number of homes which are for older people, as well as the existing commitment across London to the Lifetime Homes standard and wheelchair accessibility.”
“We think there’s a real opportunity here in our town centres, of which London has something like 150,” Blakeway continues, “to not only increase the amount of residential housing in these locations but to do something which will help provide accessibility and services that people need on their doorstep.”
I think we’re at a really interesting point for the sector. It’s quite clear, given our ageing population, that we need to do more of this stuff. So this should act as a stimulus to the market; it’s an invitation to the market to be bold in what they’re proposing, and to put together some really creative thoughts and that – if necessary – there is funding available from us to help them deliver schemes.”
Not that Lifetime Homes standards are incomprehensible. “Inclusive design is just about making sure you’re removing those barriers to people using and enjoying the property,” insists Paul Gamble. “It’s also recognising that when you build a home, it’s not just about the person who buys it. It’s about the second or third householder who lives there, the fact they have visitors, friends and neighbours. We know how to do it – the question is, will we?”
Spreading the word on independent living
The adaptable kitchen and bathroom supplier AKW recently donated a number of its products to a new training facility for Health and Society students at the University of Worcester.
The University’s newly renovated Community Living Environment aims to replicate real-life situations, fulfilling an essential regulatory requirement in the development of competent healthcare graduates. The AKW equipment includes a fully accessible and custom-designed kitchen, with rise and fall units for wheelchair users, and two complete adaptable bathrooms.
AKW staff will also present a series of talks for the University’s students on designing environments for people with sensory impairments and dementia, thus helping future healthcare graduates gain a greater understanding of the features and benefits to be had from accessible living solutions.
According to AKW’s Core Sector Marketing Executive, Ben Shanley, “We feel that learning in an environment close to reality will really help students build up their professional skills and provide a greater awareness of adaptable solutions for independent living. Our products are aimed at improving the quality of living for people with disabilities – and in our opinion, the education of competent healthcare graduates is part of this intention.”
For more information, contact 01905 823 299 or visit www.akw-ltd.co.uk