We face an accessible housing crisis of our own making

You can learn a lot from buses. Image: Getty.

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.

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.


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.