A long-awaited government promise to introduce stricter minimum accessibility standards on new homes does not go far enough, say disabled campaigners.
Ministers have now pledged to introduce new rules that will force all new homes in England to be built to the M4(2)* standard of accessibility, except for cases where this is “impractical and unachievable”.
This will mean that all new homes will need step-free access to all entrance-level rooms, as well as facilities and other features that will make the homes more easily adaptable over time.
But the government has opted not to introduce rules that would ensure a minimum proportion of new homes are built to fully wheelchair-accessible standards, known as M4(3).
Instead, the decision on what proportion of new homes have to be wheelchair-accessible will continue to be left to local authorities in their local plans.
The announcement came through the government’s much-delayed response to its consultation on raising accessibility standards for new homes, which ended in December 2020.
There will now be further delays while the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) consults on the detail of the regulatory changes, and then submits guidance and regulations to parliament for approval.
A DLUHC spokesperson said the consultation would be launched “in due course”.
Of the 413 responses to the consultation, nearly one sixth came from the building and property industry.
But 98 per cent of those who responded to the question still backed the idea of raising the accessibility standards of new homes.
And 31 per cent backed the government’s chosen option, although even more (37 per cent) supported the idea of imposing M4(2) but also setting a minimum proportion of M4(3) homes.
Only six per cent supported the “do nothing” option, which would have seen ministers wait to see the impact of recent government changes to optional technical standards before taking any further action.
Accessible housing experts Habinteg Housing Association warned last year that an estimated 400,000 wheelchair-users were living in inaccessible housing.
Disabled campaigner Fleur Perry, who wrote three years ago to the then housing secretary Robert Jenrick to warn him that his failure to act on accessible housing could be unlawful, said she believed the government’s response had “not gone far enough to make sure there’s enough accessible housing for everyone who needs it”.
She said: “Planning for the right amount of accessible housing is critical to make sure that disabled people can live in a safe and suitable home, are able to move whenever they need to, for example for starting a family, work opportunities, or fleeing domestic abuse.
“It’s a key component of independent living. The shortage is not a problem we can ignore.
“Making category two (adaptable) housing the basic standard will help.
“These are homes designed to be suitable for people’s changing needs over time and to be suitable for a wide variety of people.”
But she said there was “no plan to increase the number of wheelchair-accessible homes”.
Perry said: “The decision that has been made is to continue to expect local authorities to calculate what percentage of homes should be built to wheelchair-accessible standards in their area.
“This has been the expectation for the last seven years, yet very few local authorities have put this in place, meaning very few wheelchair-accessible homes are being built.”
Perry said: “Without urgent action, the shortfall of wheelchair-accessible housing will continue to grow.
“I’d like to ask the developers, planners, architects, builders and policy-makers one question: When you or a member of your family needs to use a wheelchair, where are you going to live?”
Cllr Pam Thomas, a disabled city councillor in Liverpool and the council’s cabinet member for equality, diversity and inclusion, said the government’s decision was “a move in the right direction”.
But she said there was “still a long way to go before disabled people with mobility limitations will have anything like equality in accessing housing”.
She said: “The standards agreed should provide more access and adaptability, but not enough for wheelchair-users.”
She also criticised the government for opting for another consultation, which would delay implementation, despite the many years of research which show “how to achieve accessible housing in practice”.
And she said she expected the home-building industry to “use all their influence” to “delay and minimise” the reforms.
Thomas said the existing rules that mean local councils have to show local demand for wheelchair-accessible housing if they want it to be built plays into the hands of home-builders, because local authorities “probably know that many people are on social housing waiting lists for years on end, but hardly anything about those in the private sector”.
She said: “This means home-builders can simply say there is no evidence of local need for wheelchair-accessible homes and dismiss the evidence of national level.”
Liverpool City Council is one of the few local authorities that has introduced strict rules on accessible housing through its local plan (PDF), which was agreed by the city council in January.
This means all new homes in Liverpool must be built to be more accessible and adaptable for those with mobility impairments, and 10 per cent of them must be wheelchair-accessible and adaptable.
This took years to achieve through the local plan process, and was challenged by the home-building industry, Thomas said.
She said: “Thankfully, the planning inspector agreed that Liverpool had enough evidence of need.
“Now we are seeing that it is possible and there is a ray of hope for all those waiting for accessible property in the social or private sector.”
She said the city was already starting to see accessible homes being built because of the local plan.
Habinteg said the government announcement was “a significant step towards tackling the UK’s acute and growing shortage of accessible homes”, but that it regretted the government’s failure to set new rules for a minimum proportion of homes built to M4(3) wheelchair-accessible housing standards.
Disabled blogger Kerry Thompson, who lives in a Habinteg home, said the changes would “make adaptations more achievable and economically beneficial and in the long term will alleviate pressures on health and social care services and budgets”.
She said: “I am looking forward to seeing the progress that comes from these changes because living in an accessible home shouldn’t be seen as a luxury.”
DLUHC said that raising accessibility standards would free local authorities’ attention and focus so they could put their resources into improving their local plans for M4(3) homes.
Eddie Hughes, minister for rough sleeping and housing, said: “Older and disabled people must have homes which are suitable for their needs, and allow them to live comfortably and independently.
“This consultation has made clear raising the accessibility standard of new homes is supported not just by people who use accessible homes, but by industry and wider stakeholders as well.”
Ministers have long been resistant to taking action to ensure new developments have to include a significant proportion of wheelchair-accessible homes.
But such measures have been in place in London for the last six years, with a minimum of 10 per cent of new homes in the capital having to be suitable for wheelchair-users.
In April, Disability News Service reported how the government agency Homes England was set to spend £15 million helping to fund more than 1,000 new family homes across three English counties, but none of them would have to be built to the M4(3) standard, leaving decisions instead to councils and their local plans.
*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
Picture: A Wyatt Homes property in Dorset. Homes England failed to impose any accessibility conditions on the £15 million funding it announced in April to help the “traditional housebuilder” build more than 1,000 new family homes across three English counties
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