Representatives of the home-building industry are engaged in a countrywide campaign to defeat attempts by councils to ensure more accessible homes are built in their areas, research by Disability News Service (DNS) has shown.
Home Builders Federation (HBF) has lodged “worrying” objections to plans for accessible housing drafted by at least 15 local authorities in England since March.
The objections to councils’ draft local plans concern their proposed targets for the proportion of new homes that should be built to accessible housing standards.
HBF has repeatedly objected to targets describing the proportion of new homes that should be built to the basic M4(2)* accessible housing standard and also to those for new homes built to the stricter M4(3) standard for wheelchair-accessible properties.
Both the government standards are currently optional, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) called last week for them to become mandatory, in its major report on equality and human rights across Britain.
DNS has found HBF objections raised since March to draft local plans drawn up by more than 15 local authorities, including Liverpool City Council, Sevenoaks District Council, Reading Borough Council, East Cambridgeshire District Council, Kettering Borough Council, Darlington Borough Council, Sunderland City Council and Middlesbrough Council.
Each of the objections is critical of the council’s attempts to impose targets for local housing developments that would see a certain proportion of new homes built to M4(2) and M4(3) standards.
HBF describes itself as “the principal representative body of the house-building industry in England and Wales”.
Its membership includes “multi-national PLCs, regional developers and small, local builders” and its members account for more than four-fifths of all new housing built for sale in England and Wales at market prices and “a large proportion of newly built affordable housing”.
In response to Liverpool’s draft plans, HBF says: “The HBF does not consider that this policy is required, it is considered that local needs can be met without the introduction of the optional housing standards.”
It calls for the policy to be “deleted in its entirety” or, if the council retained the targets, “ensure they have the appropriate evidence to support this policy”.
In the objection to the Sevenoaks plan, it says: “It cannot be sufficient to state that there is an ageing population who are more likely to require such homes.
“Our aging population is a national concern and one faced by all areas. If this were sufficient justification then the Government would have made the standard mandatory.
“Therefore we do not consider the Council to have provided the evidence required by national policy to justify all new homes being built to the optional standard M4(2).”
HBF even objected to Sunderland’s proposal to require just 10 per cent of larger new developments to be built to the M4(2) standard, which it says was “not considered to be sound as it is not justified or consistent with national policy”.
DNS was first alerted to HBF’s frequent objections to local accessible housing plans by Cllr Pam Thomas (pictured, front), a wheelchair-user and a prominent Labour member of Liverpool City Council.
She was not available to comment this week, but she told a fringe meeting at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool in September: “The law doesn’t help us at the moment.
“We want to [ensure more accessible housing] through our local plan but some developers and the Home Builders Federation in particular objected, as they do everywhere.”
She told the meeting that HBF objected to such plans at every opportunity.
An EHRC spokeswoman said this week: “Inappropriate or inaccessible housing is increasingly leaving disabled people trapped and isolated within their own homes.
“This is unacceptable in a modern society. The objections from Home Builders Federation are worrying and demonstrate the concerning attitudes that we raised in our recent housing inquiry.
“Local authorities told us about their frustration at the system which pitches them against developers who challenge the viability of proposals for accessible housing.
“The situation would be greatly improved if building regulations were amended to ensure that all new houses were built to a good minimum standard of accessibility and adaptability.”
Baroness [Sal] Brinton, president of the Liberal Democrats and a wheelchair-user, who spoke about the accessible housing crisis in a House of Lords debate last week, told DNS that it was “concerning that local councils are trying to do the right thing but are being pushed back by developers”.
She said that M4(2) homes were “designed to be inclusive and flexible for a whole range of households”, and that the government should amend building regulations to ensure that they become the “mandatory minimum” for all new homes, “especially given the very small extra building cost per housing unit and the reduction in costs of adaptations at a later stage”.
She added: “This saving is much more stark when health and social care costs such as domiciliary care, residential care [and] hospital stays are added into the picture.”
Baroness Brinton called on the government to act immediately on advice from parliamentary committees, including the Equality Act 2010 and disability committee, which she was a member of, and organisations such as the accessible housing charity Habinteg, and “amend the building regulations to ensure category M4(2) becomes the mandatory minimum”.
An HBF spokesman said in a statement: “Planning policy provides the opportunity for local authorities to set figures in local plans for houses to be built to M4 standards.
“If they choose to do so, the planning system requires local authorities to provide evidence of the need in their area.
“If they abide by this requirement their request will be supported by the local plan inspector and house builders will abide by the adopted policy.
“HBF looks to ensure that local authorities are abiding by their responsibilities under the planning system and are planning for the right amount and types of homes in their areas.”
He added: “Housebuilders will adapt new dwellings to meet the purchasers’ specific requirements.
“We believe that such an approach is a better way to provide the type and number of accessible homes required in a particular area as opposed to a blanket requirement for such modifications that may not reflect local need.”
HBF says it would only be able to take legal action against a council over its accessible housing policies – through a high court judicial review – if it believed a planning inspector had made an error in deciding on those plans. It has yet to take such action.
*Homes built to the M4(2) standard have 16 accessible or adaptable features, similar to the Lifetime Homes standard developed in the early 1990s to make homes more easily adaptable for lifetime use, while M4(3) homes are those that are supposed to be fully wheelchair-accessible
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