Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) (AH 85)


About the Disability Rights Commission

  1.1  The Disability Rights Commission (DRC) is an independent body, established by Act of Parliament in 1999 to eliminate the discrimination faced by disabled people and promote equality of opportunity. We have set ourselves the goal of a society in which disabled people can participate fully as equal citizens.

Our interest in this inquiry

  1.2  Ensuring an adequate supply of affordable and accessible housing is central to this mission. Lack of choice and inappropriate housing has a fundamental and immediate impact upon a disabled person's autonomy (40% of respondents to a survey carried out for John Grooms Housing Charity felt their housing situation made them unnecessarily dependent on other people)1, but may also impact upon the experience of isolation, the role in public life and ability to shape their community.

  1.3  Disabled people of all ages are more likely to live in poverty than non-disabled people and only one in two disabled people of working age are currently in employment, compared with four out of five non-disabled people and experience social exclusion often in part due to their housing conditions. The current shortage of accessible housing (and even just the absence of any information on what accessible or adaptable housing is available in most localities) for example makes it extremely difficult for disabled people to consider applying for a job outside of their current area.

  1.4  We believe there is a huge gulf between the current and future needs of Britain's 10 million disabled people and the present supply. This is evidenced by:

    —  Research by ODPM which shows that there are an estimated 1.4 million disabled people in England who are in need of specifically adapted accommodation. Of this total, nearly one quarter (320 000 disabled people) are currently living in unsuitable housing.2

    —  Research by John Grooms Housing Association which has estimated a countryside shortfall of 300 000 wheelchair accessible homes.3

    —  The number of people who have required wheelchair adapted homes in general needs housing and supported housing has been steadily increasing from 2.6% to 3% and 1.4% to 2.1% respectively.4

    —  In 1996-97, while undertaking a study of housing needs of wheelchair users (Harris, et al 1997) Sapey and Stewart identified what appeared to be approximately a 100% increase in the number of wheelchair users in England and Wales over the previous decade.5

    —  Research commissioned by the TCPA (Town and Country Planning Association) which projects a need for upwards of 200,000 new homes per annum to 2021 and shows that the single biggest factor in the projected increase in the number of households—between 25% and 30%—is the fact that people are living longer. (Housing the next generation: Household Growth, Housing Demand and Housing Requirements, A report for the TCPA by Alan Holmans with Christine Whitehead of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, University of Cambridge. September 2005). As the Committee will be aware, there is a strong correlation between ageing and impairment.

  1.5  We believe there is a link between restricted supply of housing and high house prices. This is a problem for everyone but poses particularly acute barriers for disabled people who are more likely than non-disabled people to live in poverty.

  1.6  It follows that failure to tackle the general crisis in housing supply will disproportionately impact on disabled people who will face ever more restricted choice and life chances. But we submit that it is not enough to clamour for "more homes' or lower house prices. The crisis we face is not just about affordability. It is, crucially, also about a chronic dearth of housing which is accessible to disabled people and designed to meet and adapt to the needs of occupants over their lifetime.

  1.7  This is a crisis which the Barker Review completely ignored and which there is no coherent Government strategy to address. Our ageing population now makes this a fundamental and mainstream issue for housing and planning. Failure to address it will render any aspirations for truly sustainable communities null and void. We would therefore urge the Committee to make this issue a central focus and, to that end, we would be very eager to provide further, oral evidence.


The potential benefits of and scope to promote greater home ownership

  2.1  Disabled people are currently overrepresented in social housing. Economic and social inequalities, involuntary exclusion from the labour market and a benefits system that fails to adequately meet the extra costs associated with impairment combine with inflated house prices to put home ownership out of the reach of too many. We would certainly support action to widen housing tenure options and choice for disabled people. We would suggest that widening access to home ownership for disabled people is likely to require specific strategies and initiatives. We would further note that there are likely to be some disabled people who may not wish to become home owners, for a variety of reasons, and who would prefer to rent. Any housing strategy must also take on board their needs for better choice in the private rented sector. Whether we are seeking to expand home ownership or choice in renting one thing is vital: developing and maintaining a much larger stock of accessible/adaptable homes across all types and tenures.

The economic and social impact of current house prices

  2.2  House price inflation is an issue for disabled people because it serves to put the option of home ownership further out of reach, and thereby deprives people of real choice and control in their own lives and entrenches patterns of social exclusion. We consider it unlikely that the Government can meet their goal of increased employment rates among disabled people unless this issue is tackled effectively since disabled people will continue to be deprived of the ability to move easily to where suitable jobs may be in good supply. If the full provision for new housing as set out in the Government's Sustainable Communities Plan does not materialise it is likely that disabled people will be amongst the first to lose out in the increasingly fierce competition for homes.

  2.3  We would also urge the Committee to consider the economic and social impact on the life chances of disabled people, children and older people of the failure of current housing policy to insist on the Lifetime Homes Standards as the norm for all new development. These Standards must become mandatory in local and regional plans and in building regulations. See below for further discussion.

The relationship between house prices and housing supply

  2.4  As stated above we believe there is an obvious link between restricted housing supply and spiralling house prices. Major development in specific locations is particularly likely to affect prices. We consider that it is sensible for the planning system to respond to price and affordability as long as this is not the only or necessarily major determination. We cannot, for example, address the housing crisis without planning to meet current and future need for accessible and easily adaptable homes. Key to this is: (a) making the Lifetime Homes standards mandatory and (b) establishing a system for long term monitoring and evaluation of the national housing needs of disabled people across property types and tenure (a system which should be replicated at regional and local level to enable authorities to much more precisely meet the demand for appropriately designed and located housing available for disabled people).

Other factors influencing the affordability of housing for sale including construction methods and fiscal measures

  2.5  Disabled people need not just accessible homes but accessible homes connected to accessible transport infrastructure and accessible public and community services. This requires significant Government investment and a question mark hangs over the extent to which planned investment is adequate to the task. It is right, in our view, to expect house builders to contribute towards this through Section 106 agreements or new tax measures such as those proposed by the Barker Review. It should be possible to adopt measures which contribute to the accessible housing and infrastructure we need without creating disincentives to house building.

  2.6  Here we would also point out that adopting the Lifetime Homes Standards should not result in increased house prices, since building to this standard is inexpensive. On the other hand, we would point out the other very positive benefits to the Exchequer of adopting these standards.

  2.7  Adopting the Lifetime Homes Standards would reduce the demand on land, materials and financial resources required to provide institutional accommodation and make costly alterations to existing dwellings. It would also enable the occupants to remain in the same property for longer, maintaining their independence, existing social links and connections to employment, education, services and the local economy.

  2.8  As the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report Improving the Life Chances of disabled people points out:

    "Improving the suitability of new-build and renovated homes for disabled people would also help reduce future public expenditure on housing adaptations, equipment and care services. Adopting Lifetime Homes Standards would save, on average, £1,100 per dwelling on the cost of major adaptations while the average cost of building a three bedroom, five person house to Lifetime Homes Standards was calculated to cost an additional £100 to £300 per dwelling (in 1997 prices). This was calculated to be a total saving of £39million per year on major adaptations. Further savings would also be made in terms of expenditure on minor adaptations and equipment, care services, hospital stays, and temporary residential care. Lifetime Homes Standards apply to all age groups, including children and elderly people, so the potential savings would be significant."

The scale of the Government's plans to boost housing supply

  2.9  In the light of the recent TCPA/Cambridge University research showing a need for over 200,000 homes per annum to 2021, the scale of the Government's current plans (as outlined in the Communities Plan) appear rather modest. If, as seems likely, these plans are further driven down by local authorities and regional assemblies—without any consideration of the impact upon disabled people—the consequences will be severe. We are becoming increasingly frustrated by the Government's reluctance to fully adopt the accessible housing agenda since this would give disabled people such a strong stake in delivering the Communities Plan.

The relative importance of increasing the supply of private housing as opposed to subsidised housing

  2.10  We attach equal importance to increasing the supply of private housing and the supply of subsidised housing. What is equally important to disabled people now and in the future is securing a drastic increase in the supply of accessible and easily adaptable housing across all types and tenures. Further, there is a need for purpose built wheelchair housing as evidence by the John Grooms and ODPM research.

How the planning system should respond to the demand for housing for sale

  2.11  There is a more fundamental question which is how the planning system should respond to the demand for housing which is truly sustainable and can meet the needs of all members of a household over a lifetime. We have very clear views on that as outlined above. We feel that the planning system does need to take account of housing market information and an understanding of housing markets as well—it is a question of getting the balance right between this and social and environmental objectives. Our most fundamental concern is to ensure that new housing is sustainable. That involves adoption of Lifetime Homes Standards but also tough eco-standards. Disabled people are likely to benefit significantly from the latter given that they are disproportionately likely to experience fuel poverty. Our Chairman, Bert Massie, has spoken recently of his deep concerns over the impact on disabled people of steep fuel price increases combined with what is expected to be the coldest winter for years. Many impairments require extra warmth yet only disabled people over 65 are currently eligible for winter fuel payments. We have called for the urgent introduction of comprehensive winter fuel payments system to protect disabled people. In the longer term we would look to tougher eco-standards for new housing to reduce reliance on such payments and remove the need for them altogether.

The scale of housing development required to influence house prices and the impact of promoting such a programme on the natural and historical environment and infrastructure provision

  2.12  It is clear to us that large scale housing development, combined with tough new accessibility and ecological standards for house building and increased investment in accessible infrastructure and social housing, is necessary to bring house prices down and to realise disabled people's aspirations for equal citizenship. We see no reason why a properly managed programme should not enhance the natural and historical environment. As we understand it, the Government's intention is to reclaim as many brownfield sites as possible. Further we would advocate ensuring new builds are to the greatest extent possible carbon neutral, energy efficient and even energy-generating with the gardens and green spaces that research shows enables a far greater level of biodiversity than you could find in your average green field.

The regional disparities in the supply and demand for housing and how they might be tackled

  2.13  Fundamental to this will be requiring local authorities to establish Disability Housing Registers or equivalent schemes which could provide the basis for comprehensive monitoring and evaluation—and thus better planning for—the current and future housing needs of disabled people. Disability Housing Registers are an increasingly popular mechanism of matching disabled people with suitable, accessible housing reducing current waste and delays. They can be operated within traditional housing registers or within choice-based lettings schemes. As Shelter has pointed out "Developing DHRs would promote more accurate mapping of current and future levels of need." (Shelter memorandum to Joint Committee on the Draft Disability Discrimination Bill, February 2004). We have repeatedly called for such a system to be placed on a statutory basis—indeed this was a recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Draft Disability Discrimination Bill.

  2.14  Equally necessary will be realising the vision of community involvement in planning. Certain levers to address this have been included in recent planning legislation. We would also draw the Committee's attention to the potential of the forthcoming extension of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 to cover public functions (ensuring planning processes are comprehensively covered) and, more particularly, the forthcoming duties on the public sector duty to promote disability equality (from December 2006) for ensuring disabled people's involvement in ensuring sustainable regional and local housing development.

  2.15  The Disability Equality Duty (DED) marks a fundamental shift in disability discrimination law putting the onus for change on the public sector, rather than disabled individuals. Public authorities must give due regard in all decisions and functions to the need to:

    —  Eliminate unlawful disability discrimination.

    —  Eliminate unlawful harassment.

    —  Promote equality of opportunity.

    —  Promote positive attitudes towards disabled people.

    —  Encourage the participation of disabled people in public life.

  2.16  This is called "the general duty". Public bodies with a specific duty are required to set out their plans in a Disability Equality Scheme and to demonstrate how disabled people have been involved and to monitor and report on progress. Among those with specific duties are local authorities and regional development agencies. Regional assemblies will be covered by the general duty and there will equally be an expectation that they should involve disabled people in deliberation on Regional Spatial Strategies (reflecting certain requirements in regional planning guidance). Disabled people are sure to use this to lobby locally and regionally for the inclusion in development plans of explicit policies on Lifetime Homes, provision of wheelchair accessible homes and systems for mapping future need. Combined with the exhortation on authorities to develop clear and comprehensive policies for access and inclusion (a welcome addition to PPS1) the Disability Equality Duty will provide an invaluable tool to promote accessible housing through the planning system.

  2.17  It is worth noting that the Greater London Authority—to its great credit—has already taken a lead here enshrining a requirement for all new homes to be Lifetime Homes with 10% fully wheelchair accessible.

  2.18  However there needs to be a strong and clear lead given by the Government. Rather than merely expound the virtues of Lifetime Homes or Disability Housing Registers and urge voluntary compliance (something which in our experience is just not going to deliver the changes needed quick enough), the Government must make a clear, unambiguous commitment on these matters now. And in the case of Lifetime Homes this means embedding a requirement in the planning system and in the building regulations. At the time of writing we are anticipating a shift away from a commitment given to this very committee by the then Building Regulations Minister, Phil Hope MP on 10 March 2004 to undertake a review of Part M with a view to incorporating the standards. This is of great concern and we hope it is something the Committee will follow up.


1  John Grooms Housing Charity (2003).

2  ODPM (2005) Survey of English Housing 2003-04.

3  John Grooms Housing Charity (2003).

4  CORE Social Housing Lettings Database 1998-99 and 2002-03.

5  The evidence for the increase in wheelchair use lay primarily in two national studies. In 1986 the OPCS disability surveys had put the figure of wheelchair users in England and Wales at 360,000 (Martin et al 1989). Ten years later Aldersea's (1996) investigation into the NHS Disablement Services showed that the number was then approximately 710,170 in England, about a 100% increase.

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