1. Environmental
November 5, 2019

We face an accessible housing crisis of our own making

By Henry Smith

In a few short weeks Britain will be going to the polls in what some are calling the most consequential general election in decades. Whoever wins that election will have some serious questions to grapple with, from Brexit to how to respond to the climate crisis. At the same time, it is crucial that the domestic issues affecting people every day are not left to fall from the agenda once again.

Britain’s housing crisis is no secret, and it’s a crisis playing out on a number of fronts. For a start, we are simply not building enough good-quality homes to meet demand, and housing costs are spiralling. A shocking number of people, in particular those in later life, are living in non-decent homes – homes which are cold, damp, hazardous or in disrepair. And too many older and disabled people are trapped in homes which don’t meet their needs.

Today, only 7 per cent of homes in England are accessible, meaning 93 per cent of homes lack the basic features that make them even ‘visitable’ by disabled people. For disabled people, living in an unsuitable home is detrimental to all areas of life: for example, we know that disabled people living in inaccessible homes are four times more likely to be unemployed than those living in suitable housing.

Many people have mobility challenges from lifelong conditions or resulting from an injury or fall, and whilst it’s not inevitable, the likelihood is that most of us will become less physically able as we grow older. With the number of people aged 65 and over set to increase by more than 40 per cent in the next 20 years, it’s urgent that we begin to provide the homes that will keep us safe and independent as we age. But research shows that currently only 1 per cent of homes outside London planned to be built by 2030 are set to be wheelchair accessible.

When people live in homes that don’t meet their needs, they are more likely to suffer from falls or other health risks. The cost to the NHS of poor housing for over-55s – already an estimated £624 million for first time treatments – is set to rise sharply in the coming years. And the human cost is no less grave.

Politicians are now clearly agreed on the need to build many more homes, even if that ambition hasn’t yet become reality. But there’s a real risk that we are simply building a whole new generation of inaccessible homes – setting us up for an even more dire housing crisis a few years down the line.

The only way to tackle this crisis is to ensure that every new home we build is accessible and adaptable to meet our changing needs. That’s why we’ve formed Housing Made for Everyone (HoME) – a coalition campaigning to ensure that every single new home is built to accessible and adaptable standards. And today we’re calling on whoever forms the next government to take urgent action to make this a reality.

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So what needs to happen?

The next government must ensure that the accessible, adaptable design standard becomes the mandatory baseline for all new homes. Local Authorities need to ensure their housing policies adequately reflect the needs of older and disabled people, and housing associations and developers need to commit to providing high quality homes fit for the future.

Only with real political will and the concrete action to back it up will the change that’s needed come about. We are at a pivotal moment: fail to act, and we are condemning ourselves and future generations to living in homes that don’t meet our needs and which endanger our health and denigrate our quality of life for decades to come. Take action, and we can build a generation of homes that are genuinely fit for the future and which support our changing needs as we live for longer.

The good news is that a large part of the answer is fairly simple: make it mandatory for all new homes to be built to the accessible and adaptable design standard. This means features like step-free access, level thresholds, wide doorways and a toilet on the ground floor – which make homes easier to visit for a whole range of people, from wheelchair users to parents with pushchairs. It also means homes are easily adapted to meet needs we might have in the future – like installing grab rails or a wet room.

These changes will improve the lives of millions. The next government, whoever it may be, is facing a range of complex and divisive issues: this isn’t one of them.

Henry Smith is senior programme manager at the Centre for Ageing Better.

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