When it comes to housing, the provision of even basic accessibility features is woefully low. After publishing its recent forecast of accessible housing, Habinteg Housing Association argues we cannot afford to ignore the issue any longer
Accessible homes are vital to enable older and disabled people to live safely and independently. Habinteg’s recent Insight Report: A Forecast for Accessible Homes revealed that less than half of all planning authorities have set requirements for new homes to meet higher accessibility standards. This is why Habinteg welcomes the government’s updated planning practice guidance, published last month, on housing for older and disabled people, which includes advice for councils in preparing their Local Plans.
The guidance is something Habinteg has been calling for since it was promised as part of the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017. It is an important reminder to local authorities that they should be setting clear policies to address the housing needs of disabled and older people. It also clearly reinforces the government’s expectation that planning policies make use of the optional technical standards set out in Part M (4) Volume 1 of building regulations since October 2015.
Habinteg’s report identified 181 local plans that were either adopted or drafted after the introduction of the optional technical standards. Within this group, 81 referred to outdated standards for accessible homes and five plans even set requirements for a specific percentage of new homes to be built to those superseded standards – a situation which we have seen can make planning conditions vulnerable to challenge by developers.
We very much hope that this new guidance will encourage those planning authorities that haven’t already done so to take action now on setting (or amending) policies to reflect the housing needs of disabled and older people in their area. It’s vital that policies are specific and written with reference to the appropriate Building Regulations standard without which the desired outcome will be in jeopardy.
Currently, only 7% of homes in England have even the most basic, access features so it is vital that we take action now to plan for the needs of our whole population. As a housing association with a long history providing accessible housing, we know that such homes are in as high demand now as ever. Too many disabled and older people are making do in homes that are just not suitable for them.
Habinteg’s Insight report also identifies the extent to which local authorities are addressing the lack of accessible homes in their planning policies. The findings revealed a worrying forecast. Of new homes due to be built outside London by 2030, just 23% will be built to an accessible or adaptable standard. The report also shows that the availability of suitable homes is set to remain a postcode lottery, with the amount of new accessible housing planned in each region varying drastically from one for every 24 people in Greater London to one for every 270 people in West Midlands.
For wheelchair users the picture is even bleaker, with only 1% of planned homes outside of London due to be suitable for wheelchair users. Our researchers were unable to identify plans for any wheelchair accessible homes at all in the West Midlands region.
This is why it was great news for us that the then-Prime Minister spoke in June about the importance of better design standards for all new homes. Theresa May announced an important consultation on improving the accessibility of all new homes. Anyone familiar with the Part M4 optional technical standards will know that we’re not talking about grand designs for every home. The ‘accessible and adaptable’ – M4(2) – standard that will be consulted on as the new regulatory baseline standard is purely an ordinary home with some thoughtful design features that make it easier to get around and more adaptable to the changing needs of the household over time.
Habinteg believes that setting the M4 (2) standard as the baseline is the only logical step to take. Creating a national policy will establish a level playing field and more certainty for developers. It would also allow stretched planning teams to focus attention on ensuring that a sufficient number of new homes are suitable for wheelchair users to live in. This is critical if wheelchair users are to have their needs met regardless of location.
Of course, consultations and implementation of any new regulations takes time. So until we have a new accessible adaptable baseline established, Habinteg is looking to the Planning Inspectorate to challenge any Local Plan that fails to set specific requirements for the delivery of a proportion of all new homes to meet M4(2) Category 2 and M4 (3) Category 3 standards. Policy wording is robust, stating clear percentages for each type of accessible home. Through the Centre for Accessible Environments, we will continue to offer expert consultancy and training – ensuring that those who are planning and building the homes have the information they need to deliver.
We will contribute to the consultation and continue to work with disabled people to ensure the voices and views of those in need of accessible homes are at the centre of the government’s action on accessible homes. The positive outcome we hope for would end the accessible homes postcode lottery and give disabled and older people a better chance of a home that meets their needs, wherever they are in the country.
Tel: +44(0)20 7822 8700