They spoke out as the Department for Communities and Local Government closed the 10-week consultation on its Housing Standards Review, which aims to reform England’s current jumble of building regulations, guidance, codes, and local and national standards.
Last year, when announcing the review, the government made it clear that it wanted to “reduce bureaucracy and costs” for house builders, although it promised to deliver “quality, sustainability, safety and accessibility”.
Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat communities minister, who commissioned the review, pledged at the time that “essential safety and accessibility protections” would “remain untouched”.
But the changes proposed in the review are complex and experts warn that vital changes could be introduced without most disabled people realising what had happened.
Tracey Proudlock, director of the disability and access consultancy Proudlock Associates, said the review was “critically important”.
She said the government currently plans to “dilute” some existing standards, such as the amount of space that has to be provided in ground floor hallways, and the need to have space available for a through-floor lift if one is ever needed.
She said: “There are things in there that are quite dangerous and will set back housing opportunities.”
Proudlock also said it was vital that the design standards took the form of regulations rather than being just “optional”.
The consultation document suggests a three-tiered access standards system.
Level one would provide a new version of Part M of the building regulations, which currently provides “adequate accessibility for most people, including many older people, and basic visitor access for people who use wheelchairs”.
Level two would be an alternative to the existing Lifetime Homes Standard, administered by Habinteg Housing Association, and would provide “adaptability as well as improved accessibility for everyone”.
The highest level of accessibility would be a revised version of the current Wheelchair Housing Design Guide, also administered by Habinteg. Homes built according to these standards would secure “very good accessibility for most people, including the majority of wheelchair users”.
The consultation document says that this three-tiered system would allow a mix of properties to be built according to the level of need for accessible homes in a local area.
Habinteg, which specialises in affordable, accessible homes, wants level two adopted as the “default setting” for all new homes, and for those standards to be incorporated into building regulations.
A spokesman for the housing association said: “We are really, really keen that access is adopted as a universal standard.”
Habinteg said that housing organisations should have to provide evidence if they wanted to build a development that was only to level one standard.
And it said it was concerned about the emphasis on the cost of accessible housing in the consultation document, and the “scant consideration” given to the likely savings such housing would bring to spending on health, social care and housing adaptations.
Paul Gamble, Habinteg’s chief executive, said there had to be “proper regulation and enforcement of new standards”.
He said: “The need for accessible and adaptable homes is growing and this is a golden opportunity to create standards that help us deliver more of them.
“With the right framework and regulation, a national set of standards could make a big impact on the number of accessible homes built.”
Sir Bert Massie, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission and a former Habinteg board member, said: “Britain has an ageing population and will face the increasing costs of providing care and support for older people.
“This could be provided in costly care homes or hospital but for many it would be better if they could stay at home. They will need housing with accessibility features.
“The government needs to deliver housing standards that are forward-looking and recognise that poor housing standards have an impact on people’s lives and lead to increased public expenditure.”
24 October 2013