The Government has now released its long-awaited consultation paper on building standards. So far the press have mainly focused on space standards, rather than the implications for accessibility. The Government’s review considers several options to make progress, while recognising the challenges of a rapidly ageing society. The main proposal on accessibility is to establish three levels for building standards to take account of differences in local housing need. At the moment, Part M of the building regulations determines the ‘visitabilty’ of new homes. This covers areas such as level step free entrance and floor, and having a downstairs loo. The Government propose that this should remain a baseline standard that applies to all housing.
At the same time they suggest, as one option, an ‘intermediate’ second level standard that could be based on the lifetime homes standard and a third level for specialist wheelchair accessible housing. This would mean that the number of homes built to either the prescribed ‘lifetime homes’ or wheelchair access levels would be determined by projected local demand, following a local authority’s assessment. While giving local authorities flexibility it would establish a consistent standard at each of the suggested levels to reduce the cost and complexity of the variety of different local requirements, which are applied at the moment.
Whilst these proposals have the potential to make real progress on accessible home design – it could be argued that having an ‘intermediate’ level goes against the principle of universality contained within the concept of lifetime homes.
The lifetime homes standard, devised by Habinteg Housing Association, covers features such as – the height of windows and sockets, having a level threshold entering the home, the capacity to install a stair lift, and flexibility to have a downstairs bedroom. Its 16 elements can all easily be incorporated into mainstream housing, making it an ideal candidate for incorporation into the baseline standard. If applied to all mainstream housing it would also significantly reduce the overall cost of implementation. One of problems with an ‘intermediate’ level is that local authorities may focus on specialised housing rather than looking at the benefits of its application to all mainstream housing, where the majority of us currently prefer to live as we get older.
The Government is inviting views on the three level option, but is also open to looking at extending the baseline standard. (Part M). This could be an opportunity to incorporate at least some of the key elements of the lifetime homes standard into the universal baseline standard. The Government have made it crystal clear that cost is a core consideration for them. Habinteg and Age UK have argued that as well as considering the immediate costs of accessible universal design, it is vital to take a longer term view. We need to carefully consider how far improvements in design can reduce the demand on health and social care by allowing more of us to live independently at home in the future. Current economic conditions may limit how far we can go with universal standards, but it makes sense to regularly review those standards based on agreed objectives such as an increase in the number of people who can obtain care at home.
One of the critical issues is how the house building industry will respond – especially in the current financial situation. There is a danger that the industry uses its considerable influence to scupper any meaningful progress, despite the powerful arguments put forward by the disability lobby. This makes it all the more important that as well as disabled older people, everyone engages with the issues this paper raises. Despite its technical nature we would like as many people as possible to tell the Government about the importance of making progress on accessibility – so that more of us can live healthy, independent lives at home as we get older. Even if you send a letter or short paragraph expressing your views it could make a difference to the outcome.