Building for Equality: Disability and the Built Environment Contents


85.Although no definitive figures are available, a wide range of organisations giving evidence to us reported a significant deficit in the availability of homes that met what they considered an acceptable standard of accessibility: these included disabled peoples organisations and local Access Groups,139 the Design Council, the RTPI, RIBA, British Healthcare Trades Association and other professional bodies.140 Habinteg, a charity and housing association specialising in accessible homes, told us that there are at least around 300,000 disabled adults whose housing need is unmet, and that this figure was likely to be an under-estimate.141 Age UK cited research from 2005–06 estimating that over 750,000 people aged 65 and over needed specially adapted accommodation because of a medical condition or disability, and of these, 145,000 reported living in homes that did not meet their needs. Age UK argued that those figures are now likely to be even higher.142

86.The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) used data from the English Housing Survey, which measures the number of homes with the four ‘visitability’ features: level access to the entrance, a flush/level threshold, sufficiently wide doorsets and circulation space, and a toilet at entrance level. The Government reported that the overall proportion of new homes being built incorporating these four features had increased from 13 per cent before 2001 to 68 per cent since 2001.143 The proportion of all homes having these basic features—that is, existing as well as new stock—was, however, just seven per cent in 2014.144 Although this is an improvement from three per cent in 2007,145 it still leaves 93 per cent of housing in England unvisitable by significant numbers of disabled people. One of our witnesses, Zara Todd, gave an example of what this can mean in practice. Seeking to rent a flat in Norfolk, she told us:

I had to go to 22 letting agents to get two viewings, just to find a flat that did not have stairs to get into it. I now rent somewhere that is not accessible, but it was the best that I could do from 22 letting agents.146

87.This chapter will examine the contributions that can be made to the supply of accessible, and not just visitable, homes through general policy to increase housing supply.

Government policy on increasing the supply of housing

88.Household projections for England forecast that an average of 210,000 new households will form in England each year between 2014 and 2039. Housing output has been increasing in recent years, but is still well short of the estimated 240–250,000 new homes needed to keep pace with household formation.147

89.The Government’s ambition is to deliver one million new homes over the next five years. The Housing White Paper published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in February 2017 is intended to deliver “radical lasting reform”, and addresses the whole house-building process, from identifying sites to getting homes “built quickly and sold on fair terms”.148

90.We accept that the primary focus of this work is on increasing the number of homes built; accessibility is moot, after all, if there is a lack of homes to apply the standard to. Nevertheless, the Minister for Housing and Planning gave a welcome acknowledgement that accessibility must be an element of the work to ‘fix’ the housing market:

If you are asking me, when I go into the House of Commons and answer questions, whether most of the questions are about that national housing crisis that we are facing and what we are going to do about it, yes. That is where the number one pressure on me is. However, it is very important, if you are doing my job, that in trying to solve that problem you do not lose sight of what is still a very important issue about how we ensure that our housing stock is accessible. In particular, not just, if you like, catching up with the historic fact that we have not given proper priority to this issue in the past, but also recognising the nature of the demographic change that the country is undergoing and the fact that this is going to be a growing issue.149

91.The Minister told us that one of the proposals in the White Paper was to use the new power under the Neighbourhood Planning Bill to set out in guidance that “planning authorities should set clear policies using the Optional Building Regulations to bring forward an adequate supply of accessible housing to meet local needs”. He expected this guidance to be in place by summer 2017.150

92.We welcome the Government’s acknowledgement that accessibility is an important element in ensuring that the country has adequate housing supply, and the expected new guidance on local policies for accessible housing. However, many local authorities already have their Local Plans in place, and may not recognise the need to review their housing policies.

93.We recommend that, once the new guidance under the Neighbourhood Planning Bill is adopted, the Department for Communities and Local Government undertake an audit of local plans to identify those that do, or do not, meet that guidance. Where this audit reveals gaps in accessible housing policies, the Government must take action to press local authorities to amend their Local Plans in line with the new guidance as a matter of urgency.

Improving supply through standards for new homes

94.In March 2015 the Government announced a new approach to the setting of technical housing standards in England, and published a new set of streamlined national technical standards for what is required under planning processes.151 These replaced many different sets of standards, including for accessible housing, that had developed inconsistently across the country.

95.The new standards relevant to accessible housing are set out in Approved Document M (Access to and use of buildings) Volume 1: Dwellings, in effect from 1 October 2015. Approved Document M introduced three categories of dwellings, set out in the following table:




Previous standard

Category 1/M4(1)

‘Visitable’ dwellings

Mandatory to all new-build dwellings

Unchanged since 2004

Category 2/M4(2)

Accessible and adaptable dwellings


Lifetime Homes standard (or a local variation)

Category 3/M4(3)

Wheelchair user dwellings


Wheelchair housing design guide (or a local variation)

96.Category 1 is a standard of ‘visitability’, not accessibility. Approved Document M (volume 1) explains that “In the Secretary of State’s view, requirement M4(1) will be met when a new dwelling makes reasonable provision for most people, including wheelchair users, to approach and enter the dwelling and to access habitable rooms and sanitary facilities on the entrance storey”. Specific features include level access between ground floor habitable rooms and the toilet, and wall-mounted switches and sockets outlets, in habitable rooms, that are “reasonably accessible to people who have reduced reach”.152

97.Categories 2 and 3 are optional standards which apply only where a local authority, through its local planning policies, “has determined that higher standards can be justified on the basis of need and provided the viability of development is not compromised.”153 This is done through a local planning authority’s Local Plan, which should set out the proportion of new dwellings in the area that are required to meet each of these higher standards. This is then applied to individual developments through planning applications. Once triggered by inclusion in a Local Plan, the optional standards have the same legal weight as any other element of the Building Regulations. DCLG cited research carried out for the review of housing standards published in 2015 that predicted an increase in the proportion of homes built to the former ‘Lifetime Homes’ standard (Category 2 in the new scheme) from 31 per cent in 2015 to 45 per cent by 2024.154

98.We have considered three significant issues that arise in relation to these standards and their application as a means of ensuring an adequate supply of accessible homes: the limitations of standards that apply only to new build dwellings, whether the minimum standard is high enough, and constraints faced by local authorities when deciding whether to adopt optional higher standards.

Limits of application

99.The Department for Communities and Local Government told us in their written evidence that the Regulations and Approved Document M (also often referred to as ‘Part M’):

set out one way in which new building work [ … ] in most common situations should make reasonable provision for accessibility.155

100.The British Standards Institution’s Committee responsible for standards on access to buildings for disabled people were concerned that “the application of this Part of the Building Regulations is limited (via the statutory instrument) mainly to new build, some types of material change of use and where proposals represent a ‘worsening’ in terms of compliance.156 Martin McConaghy of the Access Association explained that this meant that “there are whole areas of work where people think the building regulations would apply but they simply do not.” He cited an example of conversion of a mill building into 200 flats, to which Part M of the Building Regulations would not apply. He noted that this is a considerable problem when efforts are being made to re-use existing buildings for housing.157 Nick Rogers, Design Director at developers Taylor Wimpey, was also concerned that the differentiation between new build and conversions meant that there was not a “level playing field”.158

101.Bob Ledsome, Deputy Director of Building Regulations and Standards at DCLG, told the Committee that “historically, Part M has not applied to changes to use of dwellings”. The Government had chosen to maintain the status quo because of the “practicalities [ … ] in trying to adapt existing buildings to these standards.”159 He gave the example of the requirements on staircase width, which he felt “just may not be possible with an existing building and an existing staircase, where the conversion wants to make use of the existing staircase.” He stated that, “if that staircase had to be taken out and replaced, it could throw the viability of that particular development into question.”160

102.Prior to the introduction of the new standards regime, local authorities were able to choose to apply accessibility standards to any ‘new dwelling’, including a conversion, and the Greater London Authority (GLA) had adopted a policy of doing so. This is no longer an option.161 In their evidence to us, the GLA called for this flexibility to be restored.162

103.While we recognise that some, small-scale, conversions of existing buildings to housing may not be able to meet the standards of Part M, we do not agree that this means none can. Significant developments are currently able to go ahead without any provision for accessible housing—not even the minimum ‘visitability’ standard. It is not beyond the ability of Government to create, within the Building Regulations, a presumption that the relevant standards will apply unless there is good evidence to show that they cannot do so.

104.We recommend that the limits of application of the Building Regulations applicable to Part M Vol. 1 be amended so that Part M and its optional requirements apply to all new dwellings—both new build and conversions.

Enabling local authorities to apply the standards

105.As explained above, the higher standards are optional. Their use depends on a local authority not only wanting to apply them, but also being able to prove that there is a local need for accessible housing, and that applying the standards will not affect the viability of development. Andrew Gibson of Habinteg told us that this created a “patchwork across England in terms of whether they build or not and whether the standards are consistent.”163 Bob Ledsome (DCLG) explained the Government’s position:

The Government took the view that it was right to have these as optional requirements because the local needs would differ, and it was right that local authorities should have the opportunity to take their own decisions based on their circumstances and their housing needs. They need to do a housing needs assessment as part of their general planning policy development process anyway. Furthermore, they had to take account of viability issues as well, and therefore local authorities could determine how and to what extent they would wish to apply the higher optional standards rather than them just being applied in a blanket way across all development.164

106.Prior to the development of the ‘optional’ standards, the Greater London Authority had a policy of requiring all homes to meet the Lifetime Homes standard, equivalent to M4(2) of the Building Regulations, but they were now concerned that the process required to maintain this could be quite cumbersome. Jennifer Peters, Strategic Planning Manager at the GLA, explained:

we have to get together our evidence; the national planning policy guidance sets out what kind of evidence you need to bring together about why you need these standards. [ … ] we looked at the whole gamut of access needs, not just disabilities. Through your life you need different levels of access and to make sure that homes are fit for purpose in the long term we felt that was necessary for all homes. We went through that process. We developed a needs evidence document, which we got consultants to do but as officers we contributed a lot to. [ … ] We then had to go through an examination in public defending our policy, and at that stage we had the Home Builders Federation there, challenging our approach and saying that they did not agree with our evidence of need and particularly talking about the impact on viability. Through the examination in public process, we managed to argue and were successful in keeping our policies and there is an inspector’s report that sets out that in terms of evidence of need he felt that it was robust.165

107.Bradford and District Strategic Disability Partnership explained the process from the perspective of an access group: their local planning authority had completed the necessary study on need and viability, which had found a need for both category 2 and 3 properties. It also found that “10 per cent wheelchair accessible (category 3) and 90 per cent adaptable (category 2) “did not significantly impact viability in most areas.”166 Nevertheless, more work was needed: their understanding was that the ‘core strategy’ as it existed would be adopted, followed by an amendment to insert the proposed housing policy, which itself would first be subject to an inquiry in public with the adoption of the policy dependent on the outcome of that inquiry and the report of the planning inspector. The Partnership noted that it would therefore be “some more years” before disabled residents of the area would begin to see housing being built to a consistent standard which they felt would meet the district’s needs. The requirements to demonstrate immediate need, they argued, were at odds with ensuring that “wherever people live or choose to live there should be real choice” in the housing and locations available to them.167

108.In contrast, the Home Builders Federation expressed concern that:

In practice [ … ] neither the assessment of evidence of the need for nor of the cost impact of the proposed application of the optional Part M standards on development viability have been considered with sufficient rigour in local plan examinations.168

This risked local plan policies “overproviding for the level of new homes built to higher accessibility standards compared to actual need”, as well as an underestimate of the impact on development viability. They felt that “few proposed local plan policies have been robustly tested in this policy area” and that this had been the case in London.169

109.We agree that local authorities need to understand the housing needs of their local population, and welcome the Government’s changes to the Neighbourhood Planning Bill that seek to ensure that this happens. However, we do not see why a local authority should be required to prove such need if it wants to prevent inaccessible housing from being built. Even in the unlikely event that, currently, few residents need accessible homes the reality is that this will change—whether through disabled people being born or moving into the area, or existing residents acquiring disability through illness, accident or the natural ageing process.

110.Wherever people live or choose to live in the future, there should be real choice in the housing available to them. For this to happen we need to ‘future-proof’ our housing policy by changing the starting point: rather than requiring a local authority to prove that there is a current need to be met, we should start from the assumption that there is such a need.

111.The Government should remove the requirement on local authorities to prove an immediate need for accessible housing when applying optional access standards to proposed housing within their area. Developers should be able to obtain exemptions from these standards only in specific cases where they can bring forward evidence that such a need does not exist.

The appropriate minimum standard?

112.While removing the requirement to prove need would go some way towards addressing the shortfall in accessible housing, many organisations made the argument that the minimum requirement should also be raised. Age UK, Habinteg, the Access Association, City of Nottingham’s Disability Involvement Group, the Thomas Pocklington Trust and Later Life Ambitions all proposed that M4(2) be made the new minimum standard.170 The decision taken by the Greater London Authority to, in effect, do this was widely praised in submissions.171

113.While the Home Builders Federation felt that the current policy position “represents a fair balance between the various considerations involved”172 the mandatory level, M4(1), was felt by many to be insufficient to meet today’s housing needs. The standard was designed to enable a wheelchair user to visit a property, yet Andrew Gibson of Habinteg, himself a wheelchair user, told the Committee of his experience with this standard of ‘visitability’:

What it means to me practically [ … ] is I can get in the front door, probably move around downstairs and I might or might not be able to use the toilet. [ … ] Yes, it is visitable but it means you probably cannot stay there. You probably cannot use the facilities. If you are there for a party you leave after an hour.173

114.Age UK argued that the higher standards of M4(2) were necessary to meet the needs of an ageing population.174 Habinteg suggested that making this the mandatory minimum would reduce costs associated with care needs.175 Inclusion London said it would like to see all new social housing built to this standard or higher,176 and Sheffield Access Liaison Group pointed to a successful application of the M4(2) standards in Sheffield, arguing for them to be adopted by other cities.177 Vaila Morrison, an architect and a carer of a disabled child, suggested that Category 2 and 3 should become the standard for all multi-home developments, including homes for sale and social rent, with Category 1 being reserved only for self-build and individual householders.178

115.The Government expressed concern that raising the minimum standards could affect the viability of developments. Bob Ledsome argued that:

We have to accept that M4(2) and M4(3) have higher costs and that can impact on the viability of development. It may well be that for local authorities in other areas where there is lower land-values as opposed to London, which is much more easily able to absorb increased costs for design standards, etc, it is perfectly legitimate to take the judgment that, “In this case, we may not be able to apply M4(2) or M4(3) to the extent that it has been done in London.” That is absolutely the role of the local authority, the planning authority, to be able to do that.179

116.However, as Andrew Gibson of Habinteg pointed out, some other local authorities outside London have adopted M4(2) as their minimum standard. He told us that Leicester and Reading had already done so, and Liverpool, Brighton and Newcastle were actively considering it.180

117.Habinteg also queried the Government’s estimates of the number of local authorities that had concrete plans to build more accessible homes: evidence from the Government estimated that in 2012–13, 76 per cent of local authorities had policies on the Lifetime Homes standard (now M4(2)), with 42 per cent having a policy requiring compliance of all or some housing developments with these standards.181 In contrast, research by Habinteg in 2016 found that only 8.2 per cent of councils had what they considered to be “robust accessible housing plans”.182

118.The cost of compliance with M4(2) was the primary concern for those who felt the current minimum was sufficient. The Home Builders Federation (HBF) argued that:

if the balance is struck in the wrong place there will be consequences for other planning policy objectives in local plans and for overall housing affordability and supply.183

HBF cited evidence that estimated the cost of building to M4(2) as being “up to about £1,500 per dwelling”. It argued that “if a high percentage of Category 2 dwellings is sought in a local plan policy, this may [ … ] have a not insignificant bearing on project viability, particularly in lower value market areas” and that “the onus should be on thorough and robust policy examination to ensure the balance of interests and requirements served by the provision of new development is fairly and appropriately struck overall.”184

119.The following table sets out the estimates used by the Department for Communities and Local Government in the Housing Standards Review in 2014.

Table 1: Access costs summary

1B Apartment

2B Apartment

2B Terrace

3B Semi-detached

4B Detached

Cost all dwellings (extra over current industry practice)

Category 1

Category 2






Category 3 (Adaptable)






Category 3 (Accessible)






Source: DCLG, Housing Standards Review: Cost impacts, September 2014 at p. 38185

This reflects evidence given by Habinteg that the additional cost of building to Category 2/M4(2) standards was only around £512 for a three-bed house.186 However, with the cost of the extra space required to meet M4(2) included, the estimated cost could indeed rise to just below £1,500.187

120.Nevertheless, when asked about the proposal to use category 2 (M4(2)) as the minimum standard, Nick Rogers, speaking for the major developer Taylor Wimpey, acknowledged that while there would be a short-term impact on developers if standards were raised quickly, this would not necessarily last:

Five years down the line, we are all on a level-playing field. We are all buying land based on the new standards and it perhaps is not so much of a problem. It is transitions. Fifteen years ago, housebuilders were shocked that they had to put toilets downstairs in two-bedroom houses.188

While there were commercial considerations, for Mr Rogers these were more about ensuring a level playing field with competitors than the additional costs of building to the higher standards. He also told us that “it helps us when local authorities are clear and say, ‘This is the standard. We need to achieve it here.’”189

121.The evidence to us is clear that the minimum standard set in Approved Document M4(1) is simply too low to meet the needs of the population, and should be retained only for those properties where the higher standards would demonstrably make development unviable. While we recognise that there are additional costs involved, those resulting from meeting M4(2) make up only a fraction of the cost of building a new home.

122.We recommend that the Government amend the default minimum baseline standard for all new homes under Part M of the Building Regulations (vol. 1) to Category 2 (M4(2)). We accept that there may be a need for exceptions to this policy, but the minimum of ‘vistability’ under M4(1) should only be available where an applicant for planning permission can prove that it would not be feasible to meet the new minimum standard.

139 Inclusion London (DBE0097); Hull Access Improvement Group (DBE0173); Bradford and District Strategic Disability Partnership (DBE0139); Gosport Access Group and Disability Forum (DBE0117); Muscular Dystrophy UK Trailblazers (DBE0127); Thomas Pocklington Trust (DBE0123); Later Life Ambitions (DBE0108)

140 Access Association (DBE0057); British Standards Institution’s (BSI) Committee B/559 – Access to buildings for disabled people (DBE0084); British Healthcare Trades Association (DBE0113)

141 Habinteg (DBE0100) citing the English Homes Survey

142 Age UK (DBE0156)

143 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0124)

144 Department for Communities and Local Government, English Housing Survey: Adaptations and Accessibility Report, 2014–15, p 2

145 Q108 (Bob Ledsome, DCLG)

146 Q11

147 Tackling the under-supply of housing in England, Briefing Paper Number 07671, House of Commons Library, 19 January 2017

148 Department for Communities and Local Government, Fixing Our Broken Housing Market (February 2017), Foreword by Secretary of State Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP

149 Q213

150 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0192)

151 Department of Communities and Local Government, ‘Planning update March 2015’ (Accessed 20 April 2017)

152 Department for Communities and Local Government, Approved Document M: Access to and use of buildings, volume 1: dwellings (March 2015)

153 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0124)

154 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0124)

155 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0124)

156 British Standards Institution’s (BSI) Committee B/559 – Access to buildings for disabled people (DBE0084)

157 Q44

158 Q128

159 Q219

160 Q226

161 Q132 (Jennifer Peters)

162 Greater London Authority (DBE0106)

163 Q112

164 Q117

165 Q122

166 Bradford and District Strategic Disability Partnership (DBE0139)

167 Bradford and District Strategic Disability Partnership (DBE0139)

168 Home Builders Federation (DBE0111)

169 Home Builders Federation (DBE0111)

170 Age UK (DBE0156); Habinteg (DBE0100); the Access Association (DBE0057); City of Nottingham’s Disability Involvement Group (DBE0142); the Thomas Pocklington Trust (DBE0123); Later Life Ambitions (DBE0108)

171 British Standards Institution’s (BSI) Committee B/559 – Access to buildings for disabled people (DBE0084); College of Occupational Therapy Specialist Section in Housing (DBE0076); Access Association (DBE0057); Later Life Ambitions (DBE0108)

172 Home Builders Federation (DBE0111)

173 Q118

174 Age UK (DBE0156)

175 Habinteg (DBE0100)

176 Inclusion London (DBE0097)

177 Sheffield Access Liaison Group (DBE0099)

178 Vaila Morrison (DBE0085)

179 Q124

180 Q125

181 Department for Communities and Local Government (DBE0124)

182 Habinteg (DBE0100)

183 Home Builders Federation (DBE0111)

184 Home Builders Federation (DBE0111)

185 Department for Communities and Local Government, Housing Standards Review: Cost Impacts (September 2014)

186 Q125 (Andrew Gibson)

187 Department for Communities and Local Government, Housing Standards Review: Cost Impacts (September 2014), table 1

188 Q144

189 Q116

24 April 2017