Why don’t we build homes that are fit for purpose?

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Why don’t we build homes that are fit for purpose?

Following the recent government consultation on Raising Accessibility Standards, Jacquel Runnalls highlights the wealth of evidence-based research proving the urgent need to build inclusive homes.

Why don't we build accessible homes in England 2021 AccessiblePRS.jpeg


This blog is based on my response to the recent English Government’s consultation on Raising Accessibility Standards For New Homes and wanting to highlight the history and wealth of evidenced based research that underpins the need to build housing, neighbourhoods and communities that are inclusive, accessible and adaptable, healthy and sustainable. 

Whilst this consultation was encouraging, it was disappointing to see recently published research into Part M (housing) referencing dated material. We must therefore make sure that organisations, such as the Government’s own Disability Unit, are aware of the wealth of up to date evidence, in producing their National Strategy for Disabled people. Particularly as one of its aims is to ‘improve data and evidence’ - Tell us your thoughts for our National Strategy for Disabled People - The Disability Unit (blog.gov.uk).

Another disappointment was the absence of references to an accessible and inclusive built environment within the recent Planning White Paper, or its precursor the Building Better Beautiful Commission report. However, encouragingly, maybe they have listened to feedback, as the current National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF) and National Model Design Code consultation makes reference to homes and buildings being functional, accessible and sustainable, with appropriate space, light and security. 

Setting the Scene/Demographics

The UK is signed up to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD), of which Article 19 references the equal right for disabled people to have 'full inclusion and participation in the community' and ‘choose their place of residence and where and with whom they live on an equal basis with others’. With 14.1m disabled people in the UK, it is imperative that we ensure a greater supply of accessible housing, not only to assist disabled people in their right to independent living, but significantly reduce health and social care costs.  
Our population is ageing. Within the next 20 years one in four of us will be aged over 65. One in five adults aged 65 - 69 yrs need help with one or more essential activities of daily living, such as using the toilet, bathing and cooking. This figure rises to more than one in two of us by our 80’s. Despite common misconceptions, more than 90% of older people live in ordinary housing and wish to be able to remain in their own homes and neighbourhoods for as long as possible. 

Lack of Accessible Housing

In addition to a clearly evidenced need for accessible housing, the latest English Housing Survey showed that 91% of homes do not provide the four most basic access features - which themselves do not provide genuine basic access or true visitability. Millions of us, particularly older and disabled people, live in homes that do not meet our daily needs. New build housing must be fit for purpose and look to address the needs of disabled and older people, as well as provide healthy, sustainable, inclusively designed housing that caters for the widest possible range of the population. This includes families - with children/using prams and buggies - and those working from home. Enabling us to easily access each other’s homes reduces isolation, loneliness and maintains social connections. 

Planning and requirements for accessible housing

The current lack of existing accessible housing is further compounded by the lack of accessible features in most new housing currently being built and, potentially, in the planning system for several years to come. To mitigate this to at least some degree requires mandating for the current optional categories of Part M for Dwellings and assist in supporting the NPPF and proposals set out by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in 2019 in relation to Local Planning Authorities evidencing local housing need for disabled and older people.

Currently Local Authorities should require the optional categories based on local need and whilst recent guidance on how to determine this was published, it was limited so unlikely to accurately reflect need. To try and address this issue, additional guidance is  provided in an EHRC toolkit in addition to strategic planning considerations. These were published as a direct result of the EHRC’s 2018 report Housing and disabled people: Britain’s hidden crisis which demonstrated that many disabled people were in desperate situations due to a significant shortage of accessible homes, and called on changes to the planning system to ensure more accessible homes were built. However, when determining need, it is also important to ensure a mix of property type, size and tenure, including larger wheelchair accessible family homes, which are often overlooked.

Taking a pragmatic, simpler approach, LPAs should require the ‘optional’ Category’ M4(2) Accessible and Adaptable as the baseline standard for all housing. Since 2004, the Mayor of London has required that 90% of all housing across all London boroughs be designed to M4(2) and 10% to M4(3), or its previous design equivalent, in addition to space standards. This demonstrates that it is possible to build to all these standards, even in the UK’s highest density city. These policies have also been supported by evidenced-based viability studies undertaken by independent consultants. Therefore, by adopting a similar approach for both M4(2) and M4(3), and the Nationally Described Space Standards, local authority officers, building control inspectors, designers, developers, house builders and all those involved would have certainty, and ultimately provide resource savings.

To ensure a truly inclusive approach, there must be a requirement for a percentage of new build housing to meet the needs of wheelchair users and/or people who require additional space, particularly as this type of housing is in even more scarce supply. Habinteg’s recently updated 2020 Forecast for Accessible Homes Insight report, Habinteg Housing Association analysed local plans and previous data from the English Housing Survey showed that despite at least 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK, a rapidly ageing population, and 400,000 wheelchair users living in homes that are inaccessible, just 1.5% of new homes outside of London are set to be suitable for wheelchair users. 70% of new homes due to be built over the next ten years won’t be required to meet any of the optional accessible and adaptable standards and there will only be one new accessible home built in the next 10 years for every 77 people in the population.

Despite at least 1.2 million wheelchair users in the UK, a rapidly ageing population, and 400,000 wheelchair users living in homes that are inaccessible, just 1.5% of new homes outside of London are set to be suitable for wheelchair users. 70% of new homes due to be built over the next ten years won’t be required to meet any of the optional accessible and adaptable standards and there will only be one new accessible home built in the next 10 years for every 77 people in the population.

Accessible housing – a brief history to date (England)

Campaigning for housing that is accessible and adaptable housing has been a long and arduous one, and still is! 
Following the 1975 DoE circular on Mobility Housing, a very basic timeline of Lifetime Homes Standards (LTHS) and principles underpinning the introduction of the 2015 Part M ‘Access to Buildings’ Building Regulations, Volume 1: Dwellings, and specifically the optional Category 2: Accessible and Adaptable Dwellings is provided below:

  • 1980s : The Access Committee for England was set up to consider the design of housing with the idea of LTHS coming latterly from discussions between the Helen Hamlyn Foundation and Habinteg Housing Association.

  • 1990s : The Joseph Rowntree Foundation brought together housing experts to form the JRF Lifetime Homes Group resulting in the original 16 Lifetime Homes design criteria. It was also hoped that these would be fully integrated into a new Part M for Access to dwellings, but it was not to be.

  • 2000s: in 2008 the Government published Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society and the Lifetime Homes Standard was included within the ‘Health and Wellbeing’ requirements of the 2010 Code for Sustainable Home’s Technical Requirements, as applicable to grant-funded housing initially. It was due to become a requirement for all new housing and as a result house builders seemed to be gearing up to build to this standard.  

    Alongside this, in 2008 the JRF transferred the lead role in overseeing LTHS to Habinteg who convened a new technical advisory group. Revisions were proposed to make LTHS more practicable for volume house builders to implement and to modern housing typologies. 

  • 2010: Following consultation, including by Government, the new 2010 Lifetime Homes Standard was issued and Habinteg granted the trademark.

  • 2012: Government at the time had also commissioned research to further evidence and support the application of Lifetime Homes including cost savings and health benefits. Despite LTHS being dropped by the new administration, no doubt in favour of volume house builders, the research was published in 2012.

    N.B. There is a British Standard for general needs housing, which expands on similar principles to the Lifetime Homes Standard: BS 9266:2013 - Design of Accessible and Adaptable General Needs Housing.

Wheelchair housing has always been seen are more specialist housing so has not undergone quite the same journey, and can sadly be overlooked as a result. Most of the campaigns and research have concentrated on accessible and adaptable general  needs housing but this will not be suitable for most / many wheelchair users.

  • 1975 : DoE 1975 Circular Wheelchair Housing.

  • 1997 : First edition of the National Wheelchair Housing Advisory Group’s Wheelchair Housing Design Guide (WHDG).

  • 2006: Second/updated ‘Wheelchair Housing Design Guide’ co-authored by Habinteg and Stephen Thorpe. 

    N.B. Both WHDG’s were seen as standard design requirements for new build (social) wheelchair housing commissioned/funded by national Housing bodies and local/regional planning authorities (including the Greater London Council). There were also many well-recognised (some evidenced-based) local authority wheelchair design guides, often written by Housing Occupational Therapists. Whilst they were broadly very similar, it led to more confusion and uncertainty for house builders, particularly for those working across regions - e.g. having to work with several different guides across the different London Boroughs. 

  • 2015: Part M of the Building Regulations Access to Buildings’ Category 3: Wheelchair Housing introduced for the first time in building regulations, but only as an optional category, which has to be required through planning.

  • 2018: Third Edition WHDG was published by Habinteg and was co-authored by Centre for Accessible Environments and the Royal College of Occupational Therapists Specialist Section in Housing. It was updated due to the introduction of Part M and Category 3 for Wheelchair Housing, and is wholly aligned with M4(3).

    Whilst the principle to streamline guidance and standards was acknowledged following the Harman Report in 2012, the subsequent Red Tape Challenge and Technical Housing Standards Review appear to have been weighted in favour of house builders with limited consideration to the evidenced need for, and wider benefits of building accessible and adaptable housing.  The 2014 Housing Standards Review consultation response reported large support for Lifetime Homes Standards as the baseline, reporting ‘many suggesting that Lifetime Homes Standards should be absorbed into the regulation’ and ‘In particular, it was suggested that the baseline standard should be increased’ and ‘a number suggested the number of tiers be reduced to two with a higher national standards set out by regulation’.
    Therefore when the building regulations were finally published in 2015 with three categories and M4 Category 1 as the only mandatory requirement, this saw a subsequent drop in standards and effectively a backwards step. This included housing funded by national housing bodies. 
    It is worth noting that England is effectively now behind other U.K. countries - e.g. Northern Ireland have required that all social housing be built to the LTHS since the 1990s. Wales incorporated it within their Housing Quality Standards, and Scotland have similar (slightly enhanced) requirements within their Building Standards. 

Research, evidence and campaigns

Following on from the introduction of M4(1) in 2015 for general housing, there has been an increasing and wide-ranging acknowledgment that this is insufficient. To meet local and national housing need there must be a requirement to design housing and neighbourhoods which are inclusive, fit for purpose, accessible and adaptable to meet current and long term requirements, in addition to evidenced savings to housing, health and social care.

The experience of Covid 19 has also led us to realise the detrimental impacts on our health due to poor, inaccessible housing including poor space standards and limited access to light and outdoor space. 
This is additionally demonstrated through an ever-increasing amount of research, publications and organisational / parliamentary campaigns supporting the requirement for accessible housing. A startling updated 2016 BRE report ‘The Cost of Poor Housing to the NHS’ showed that non-decent and inaccessible housing potentially costs the NHS £1.4bn per annum. There have been numerous subsequent publications from Habinteg, Care and Repair and the Centre for Ageing Better. Other previous evidential research is listed below:
In addition to the research above, there have been a variety of recent Parliamentary Roundtables and Inquiries into decent and accessible housing, also calling for M4(2) as a minimum, in addition to the need to build wheelchair accessible housing both across sector/tenure such as:

Other current campaigns calling for accessible housing are:


Taking into account all of the research, evidence base and campaigns into account, it is inappropriate to simply quantify benefits in terms of up-front build costs, which in some instances will be negligible or nil. Covid-19 has further highlighted the need for healthy homes and neighbourhoods and the broader benefits needed. 
The recent accessible housing consultation paper referred to potential savings to social care and increased familiarisation costs but provided no costings of the wider, preventative health and resource benefits of building accessible housing. Again, this is despite wide ranging, evidenced based research over many years including the powerful BRE research, mentioned previously, and the potential for accessible, adaptable and decent housing to save the NHS £1.4bn per annum. Critically, the Housing Standards Review consultation (the precursor to the introduction of Part M for dwellings) failed to monetise benefits which negate build-cost and create considerable resource and societal savings such as:

  • Reduce or delay the need for people to move into residential care.
  • Reduce the demand for temporary residential care.
  • Ensure that people can be discharged home from hospital due to their home providing the appropriate access features, either temporarily or longer term.
  • Enable their home to be adapted to provide appropriate and safe access.
  • Reduce the pressure on local authority adaptations budgets (financial and resource/staffing) through building to LTHS - e.g. Northern Ireland have evidenced significant savings over many years. Wandsworth Council’s Regeneration Team in London are further applying the principles of M4(2) and M4(3) to future-proof new build housing - such as providing full wet floor showers under baths in addition to adopting generally more inclusive, accessible layouts from design stage. This will provide savings to adaptation budgets, reduce disruption and enable people to remain in their home longer, in addition to reducing the need for health / social care / housing staff input.
  • Reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls. 
  • Enable people to live more independently with reduced need for home care / assistance.
  • Enable a person to remain in their own home, and therefore local community, longer. 
  • Reduce isolation and loneliness by enabling a person to go out into their local community.
  • Enable friends and family who may also be disabled and / or older to visit.
  • Provide easier access for all e.g. children with buggies, trades etc.
  • Provide a sense of wellbeing and improved mental health.

Market Opportunities

An additional benefit to house builders is that M4(2) and M4(3) should be seen as a marketing opportunity, particularly in light of Covid-19. By providing homes that people want to live in, are flexible and adaptable to meet longer terms needs, will cost less and be easier to adapt and will enable them to receive visitors more easily to reduce social isolation and loneliness – all the benefits as cited above. Previous research in Northern Ireland demonstrated that people would be willing to pay more for the attributes that LTH provided. It is commonly misunderstood, and therefore overlooked, that disabled and older people have real buying power (often referred to as the ‘purple pound’). In terms of marketing and promotion, consideration could also be given to a potential trademark and / or rating so that purchasers are aware of the property attributes.
As research has evidenced, there is a severe shortage of accessible housing across all tenure, including wheelchair housing i.e. not just social housing, so building it should be seen as an opportunity. Unfortunately, many house builders also appear to view the provision of wheelchair housing as a ‘negative’. Aside from the additional space and potential for ‘good’ design features which anyone would want (particularly now in light of Covid-19), they misunderstand the requirements and the need to design inclusively i.e. that it can be designed attractively at no extra cost. Wheelchair adaptable properties do not need to install an accessible kitchen and can provide an attractive, contemporary wet room or even a bath over the shower without any additional fixtures or fittings (rails, seats). In fact there have been examples of developers understanding this concept and using the private sale / shared ownership wheelchair units as the show flats. 
It is evident that many house builders / developers also do not market wheelchair housing appropriately, or at all, so frustratingly renters and buyers are unaware that they exist. This in turn perpetuates their myth that no one wants them - a complaint often anecdotally heard from house builders. Research mentioned previously demonstrates the opposite, as well as research from Commonweal Housing which found that over 90% of wheelchair users struggle to find accessible homes for private rent.  Due to the chronic shortage of wheelchair accessible houses for sale and rent, there are also an increasing number of organisations being set up to assist people with additional accessible housing needs, such as AccessiblePRS
It's time to embrace a progressive, innovative, inclusive approach!

Jacquel Runnalls AccessiblePRS search
Jacquel Runnalls is a member of the Access Association and is the Royal College of Occupational Therapist’s national Lead on Accessibility and Inclusive Design - having undertaken a Masters of the same title.  Over many years she has been involved in several projects with the Mayor of London including the original Supplementary Planning Guidance on Accessible London: Achieving an Inclusive Environment, the London Accessible Housing Register, the Mayor of London’s Best Practice Guidance on Wheelchair Accessible Housing and the London Housing Design Guide.  Through her role for RCOTSS-Housing, Jacquel sat on the Government’s Technical Housing Standards Review (which ultimately produced Part M for dwellings), was invited to speak in Hong Kong on UK Accessible and Adaptable Housing Standards, co-authored the 2018 Habinteg’s 3rd Edition Wheelchair Housing Design Guide and worked with Habinteg on the EHRC’s ‘Housing and Disabled Peoples Toolkit for Local Authorities’. She is currently a member of British Standards Committee B559 (responsible for BS8300: Accessible and Inclusive Built Environment and BS9266: Accessible and adaptable housing). She continues to be involved with, and provides feedback to, a range of consultations and working / All Party Parliamentary Groups and was previously invited to give evidence in Parliament to the Inquiry into Housing and Older People. 
Jacquel has sat alongside Guy Harris on several working groups over the past few years and has recently joined the APRS team. She is a specialist housing occupational therapist who has worked with disabled and older people over many years to provide a person centred approach to designing general and specialist housing and neighbourhoods, from pre-planning through to post occupancy, in addition to other buildings types and the general built environment.