The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) announced its plans this week for a “radically simplified” system of standards in the design and construction of new homes.
The aim is to reform England’s current jumble of building regulations, guidance, codes, and local and national standards.
Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat communities and local government minister, said this system was “complicated and confusing” and “ripe for reform”.
As expected, the government has decided on a three-tiered structure for access standards, but only the basic level will be mandatory for all new homes.
This “level one” standard will provide a new version of the existing Part M of the building regulations, which currently provides “adequate accessibility” for most people.
Level two will offer increased accessibility and adaptability, roughly equivalent to the current Lifetime Homes standard administered by Habinteg Housing Association; and level three will provide wheelchair-accessible housing, again similar to a standard currently administered by Habinteg.
But the optional levels two and three will “only apply where it is right to do so, with councils deciding whether they apply to developments being built in their areas”.
The government admitted this week, in a summary of responses to last year’s consultation on its review of housing standards, that there had been “significant support” for setting the national minimum standard at a level higher than Part M.
Liam Proudlock, a disabled access consultant with Proudlock Associates, said the new system could work “really well” if councils had enough good quality research to feel “quite well justified” in imposing levels two or three in their planning conditions.
But he said there were concerns that developers could challenge local authorities that imposed conditions on the number of level two and three homes that should be built.
He said there were also concerns among access consultants that the government’s draft proposals for levels two and three had involved some “watering down” of the existing Lifetime Homes and wheelchair-accessible housing standards.
Proudlock, who coordinated the Access Association’s response to the government’s consultation, said: “It could work well, but it could be a disaster.
“Anything that makes it simpler [to build houses] is obviously a good thing. House-building is too complex. With the right standards in the upper levels, it could work well.”
Habinteg, which provides affordable accessible homes and support services, said it was disappointed that the government had failed to take the opportunity to set level two as a “minimum default” for new homes.
It said there was an “urgent need” for the government to produce guidance for local authorities that would ensure they take into account the “long term socio-economic benefits of accessible homes”.
Campaigners have previously suggested that these benefits could include savings on health, social care and housing adaptations.
Paul Gamble, Habinteg’s chief executive, said: “Enshrining three levels of accessibility in the regulations is a significant recognition of what the public need from their future housing.”
He said it was critical that councils’ planning teams were “given the tools and support” to enable them to assess the “long-term need and viability” of building accessible homes in their area.
He added: “The long term savings to health and social care budgets gained by building to accessible, adaptable standards must be reflected in viability assessments.”
Gamble said the Greater London Authority had already set “level two” Lifetime Homes as a minimum access standard.
He said: “We want to see more planning authorities take this sensible long-term approach to their housing investment.”
The government will publish draft regulations and technical standards this summer.
19 March 2014