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.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.