Thirty years ago, I acted as an advocate for a man who, paralysed following an accident, had spent three years in a residential home separated from his wife and children because of a lack of accessible housing. Today one in five people with spinal cord injury are discharged from hospital to a care home because suitable housing is not available.
But this isn’t just an issue affecting people with spinal cord injury (though with one person becoming injured every 8 hours these are significant numbers). A review of the costs and benefits of housing adaptations found that suitable housing can significantly reduce the need for health and social care (including admissions to nursing/residential care) amongst older and disabled people in general.
During the period that disability was identified as a civil rights issue, rather than - as is too often the case these days - as being about ‘vulnerable people’, one of the demands concerned access to suitable mainstream housing.
Thirty years ago, housing for disabled and older people was designated as ‘special needs’ housing. Mainly available in the social housing sector, it was often physically separate from ‘general needs’ housing and was commonly confined to one bedroom properties. By the late 1980s, roughly two-thirds of ‘special needs’ housing were one bedroom or bed-sits yet most disabled people lived in households which required two bedrooms or more - which meant that while housing need amongst disabled people was severe local authorities and housing associations often had difficulty letting their unsuitable ‘special needs’ housing.
A small number of local organisations of disabled people (such as Greater London Association of Disabled People) started campaigning on housing issues in the 1970s and 1980s and the British Council of Organisations of Disabled People held a Conference on housing in 1987 which identified a shortage of suitable affordable homes and an inadequate legislative framework. Shelter took up the issue and published its own research in 1990(1), followed by sponsoring a Conference on housing and independent living (2). This was the first time that disabled people led a Conference attended by professionals and politicians.
Habinteg, a housing association originally set up by Scope, together with the the Joseph Rowntree Foundation got involved, not only in funding the Conference and further research but also in their role as housing providers. The Foundation worked with architects and disabled people to develop Lifetime Homes standards and both the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust and Habinteg demonstrated how to build homes to these standards without significant additional costs.
This is not just an issue for the current population of disabled and/or older people. The clue is in the name: the aim of Lifetime Homes standards is to build housing which is suitable for households over the course of their lifetimes - from families with young children through to households with age-related mobility issues. The initial standards - level access, plug sockets and light switches easy to use, a downstairs toilet, windows you can see out of from a seated position - evolved to the current 16 standards intended to create homes that are suited to the needs of the majority and easily adapted when people acquire significant mobility and/or support needs.
Although adherence to Lifetime Homes standards in social housing was made mandatory by the last government, it remains up to local authorities as to what they require from the private sector. Progress has been slow : only about a third of new housing is currently being built to Lifetime Homes standards. The Greater London Authority is the only local authority in the country which requires all new homes to be built to Lifetime Homes standards (and 10% to wheelchair standard), and only 4 out of 10 local authorities require at least some proportion to reach these standards.
Yet there is a danger that new legislation could halt what progress has been made. The Deregulation Bill, nearing the completion of its journey through Parliament, is an expression of the Coalition government’s belief that the state should have a minimal role and that most things are best left to ‘the market’.
As Richard Best (Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation at the time the standards were developed) said in the House of Lords during debate on the Bill:
"We know now, as our population ages, how inadequate standards of accessibility—steep steps, narrow doorways, cramped bathrooms, having no downstairs loo, and so on—have helped to create an A&E crisis. The false economy of skimping on accessible, disabled-friendly standards on day one can mean that, later, thousands of us have to remain in hospital when we could otherwise be discharged; readmissions multiply as we are returned to inaccessible properties; and premature moves into expensive residential care are necessary because our homes are inaccessible."
He also pointed out that new housing currently being built is to a lower space standard generally than in the rest of Europe and that, while the need for more and more new homes is indeed great, we should always bear in mind what Aneurin Bevan said when he was the post-war Housing Minister: “In one year’s time we will be judged on the number of homes we have achieved; in ten years’ time we will be judged on the quality of those homes”. Lower standards result in homes being less adaptable for changing needs, thus increasing costs and diminishing the quality of people’s lives.
The government has tried to claim that the Deregulation Bill is not a threat to Lifetime Homes standards. The Bill allows local authorities to adopt ‘optional standards’ in Building Regulations which are technically a better way to implement standards than, as currently, through planning controls. However, local authorities will be required to demonstrate that they have carried out a ‘rigorous test’ of the need for Lifetime Homes standards. It is the government’s view, expressed in the House of Lords debate and elsewhere, that these are not standards which should be generally applicable and that they are costly for developers and might make local housing developments unviable.
Lifetimes Homes Standards are a way of ‘mainstreaming’ an issue which affects most households at some point in their lives but which current dominant ideology wants to treat as a minority ‘special needs’ issue. From the Coalition government’s point of view the standards are seen as ‘optional extras’ rather than as something to be achieved for the benefit of society generally. This is just one example of the retreat from progress made in the recent past. Sometimes this retreat is subtle and nuanced as it is here. Everyone agrees Lifetime Homes standards are a ‘good thing’ but confining their advantage to a particular group undermines their value as a general social good, from which we will all benefit.
Political ideology driving the reduction in the role and responsibility of the state is responsible for this move away from a universalist approach. Disability and old age are mainstream issues. We should not be talking about the ‘special needs’ of ‘vulnerable’ people but about what we want for ourselves when we grow old, if we acquire an impairment and/or long-term health condition, or have a child who is disabled. I don’t know anyone who isn’t affected in some way (either personally or through friends or family) by the needs associated with impairment, illness or old age. It’s about time government and developers alike recognised this.
(1) Jenny Morris, 1990: Our Homes, Our Rights, Shelter
(2) Linda Laurie, 1991: Building Our Lives: Housing, independent living and disabled people, Shelter.