TLDR: The government can’t afford not to invest in accessible housing and adaptations. All new housing needs to Category 2 at minimum. Even with this, we will not meet the need with building alone, and must also invest in adaptations (DFGs), making homes decent, and reducing barriers to moving to an accessible property. Every accessible home is a sound investment.
Though there are still hundreds of people dying of Covid-19 every week, the word “recovery” is creeping back in to our vocabulary. People are sharing stories of their battle with the virus, or the pressures of lockdown, or planning to restart work or their small business. We’re slowly trying to figure out what the new “normal” will be like.
Economic recovery is being offered by the government as a symbol of hope. ‘It’ll all be OK, as we’re going to build houses!’ – the news seems to say. Well, we do need more housing, but what we need even more is accessible housing.
The shortage of accessible housing, also known as the accessible housing crisis, affects 1.8 million people in the UK. That’s 1.8 million people living in homes that are unsuitable or unsafe for them, which are unnecessarily harming their health and wellbeing. That’s people who couldn’t leave their homes even when lockdown ended. That’s parents who can’t tuck their kids in at night as the bedrooms are upstairs. That’s people “making do” with something almost impossible.
If you’re a money-watcher, this follows the rule that harm costs. The lack of accessible housing costs the NHS a lot in preventable GP consultations (Leonard Cheshire Disability, 2015), hospital admissions and delayed discharges. It contributes to the employment gap and education gap between disabled people and peers. It increases social care costs, and contributes to social isolation/exclusion, and reinforces negative stereotypes of us “not fitting”. Moves to care homes are often the result of unsuitable housing that can’t be adapted and no longer matches a person’s needs, which has both short term and long-term costs to social care, as well as exposing the person to further physical and mental health risks.
The proposed surge in house-building is a great opportunity to address the situation, and one that the government can’t afford to miss.
How much new housing needs to be accessible?
At the moment, local authorities are duty-bound to consider the need to calculate the proportion of accessible housing needed and state it in their Local Plan. If they don’t, they may be leaving themselves open to legal action by disabled people and DDPOs.
However, local data on disabled people’s housing needs isn’t easy to put together. There’s little national guidance on how to do so, and it’s not something that many councils would have experience of doing in-house. But it’s not impossible, and, if any local authority is struggling, I’d gladly do the estimates for free.
Right now, many Local Plans do not state a proportion of accessible housing to be built in their area. They seem not to have bothered, and this will only lead to a greater shortage in accessible housing. Ignoring a solvable problem isn’t going to make it go away.
However, instead of placing a demand on local authorities which they seem to be finding difficult to meet, there is a neater solution.
National data is already available, and demonstrates that the lack of accessible housing is so widespread that local variation seems to become statistically negligible. We need more accessible housing everywhere, now.
Approximately 30,000 homes are built in the UK every year (https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-house-building)
Let’s say we get ambitious, increase our building rate, and build 800,000 homes in the next 20 years. Let’s say we build all of them to a minimum of Category 2. This wouldn’t even solve half of the accessible housing shortage, and that’s without considering population growth. If we count that in, we can reduce the accessible housing shortage by about a quarter through building alone.
[Anyone who would like the full calculation, please comment or contact me and I’ll provide it separately.]
Does this mean that accessible housing is a lost cause? No!
Every house built will have a person or family living in it, and every one of those people will have their lives shaped by how well their house fits them. 800,000 accessible homes means 800,000+ people not put at risk, not socially excluded by the newly built environment, and not “making do” but “doing their thing”. That’s worth it.
My suggestions on what needs to happen in national policy:
– Build all new dwellings to a minimum of Category 2 (adaptable), unless it can be proven that a given site is unsuitable for this, in which case as many accessible features as possible are to be maintained.
– Build the maximum number of Category 3 (wheelchair accessible) dwellings viable in a given area, and consider ways to improve viability.
Building accessible housing is one key part of the solution. There are other opportunities to be taken alongside this, including:
– Increasing funding for and public knowledge about Disabled Facilities Grants. By improving the accessibility of the housing stock we already have to match the needs of the people living within it where possible, we can further decrease the shortage of accessible housing. By setting funding to an annual level based on need (not demand dampened by lack of information), this will also create sustainable jobs. Also, the social care savings generated per pound spent on DFGs are up to ~£7 per year (Isle of Wight Council); money watchers, take note.
– Remove barriers to moving into accessible properties. Choice Based Lettings systems do not usually allow accessible housing to be held for a short period to allow the right tenant to apply. Social housing could be better managed and advertised to make sure that accessible properties are more readily available to those with access needs. Also, minimum residency requirements can leave people unable to move to an accessible home and at avoidable risk for years, and arbitrary age requirements placed on accessible housing lock younger disabled people out of the accessible housing sector, which may be breaches of legislation.
– Clear information and guidance around the HOLD scheme, discretionary housing payments, and home improvement grants offered by local authorities would improve access to, maintenance of, and retention of safe and suitable housing.
– Accessible housing registers, better informed estate agents and landlords, and advice for consumers on how to look for a home that will meet their changing needs will also help make sure that those seeking a home can find the right property.
– Support to prevent and resolve homelessness must be strengthened. Disabled people are disproportionately affected by homelessness, and once again, effective support is cheaper and avoids extended periods of risk and harm than ignoring the issue. Making support available at an early stage can prevent someone losing their tenancy, and Housing First approaches have been shown to be effective.
Accessible housing, everywhere, now, please.