Opinion: The Government's National Disability Strategy.

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Opinion: The Government's National Disability Strategy.

Opinion: we look at the Government's National Disability Strategy and explain how their section on Housing offers nothing new or meaningful.

AccessiblePRS Opinion on the Government National Disability Strategy Housing

Reading through the Government's new National Disability Strategy...

... it's hard to feel anything more than resignation at another piece of political flimflammery. Whilst Boris and his team ride the PR opportunity with fanfare and hyperbole, "the most far-reaching endeavour in this area for a generation or more" it really belies how little has been done since the Disability Discrimination Act came into effect, and how toothless and stunted that has proven to be 25years on. Boris's alleged "determination to level up the country" side-steps the immediate actions required to level the playing field in housing, and which he's been advised on by countless individuals and organisations. 

We're still in the realm of begrudging disability bolt-ons rather than an inclusive mindset. As Judy Heuman says in the 2020 film Crip Camp, "I'm tired of having to be grateful for an accessible toilet."

There are 1.8m people in the UK with an accessible housing need. I'm concerned about the 400,000 wheelchair users currently living in homes which are neither adapted nor accessible, who form a significant part of this statistic. (There are 1.2m wheelchair users in total in the UK.) In the UK, we have (1) a chronic shortage of wheelchair accessible housing, (2) a serious issue with the processes of finding accessible housing which exclude disabled and older renters, and (3) no understanding as a society and property industry about why these shortfalls are a serious issue that concerns each one of us.

Poor housing costs this country. The government knows it and the housing sector knows it, yet the Treasury continues to pick up avoidable NHS and welfare bills, through inaction to address this issue and regulate for it. Given the existing research, it's hard to imagine any other reason for the lack of minimum accessibility standards across the whole industry, other than vested interests? Have the big house builders competed to pay such ever higher prices in their land-banking that, factoring in shareholder value and profit, they are successfully pushing back against accessibility? Until there is a level playing field that all house builders have to adhere to, it's clear that house builders won't incorporate accessibility voluntarily in such a competitive market. 

Lack of accessibility concerns all of us. I'm not going to go into the hows and whys here, because it's a lengthy digression, but I'll come back and link this paragraph to a further article later. Whichever way you turn or angle from which you reason, there is credible evidence and research to support the call for a baseline minimum standard of M4(2) for all new build, and with 10% being to M4(3) standard.
Leaving wheelchair users behind, and citing headlines with non-transparent and easier-to-implement adaptations for ambulant people is not acceptable.

How is the National Disability Strategy lacking for housing?

"The proportion of homes in England with key accessible features nearly doubled between 2009 and 2018, from 5% to 9%."

Citing this statistic is deliberately misleading. The statistics they use lack transparency: for example 66% of accessible homes has a WC at entry level. Does this mean 66% of all homes, or just 66% of accessible homes? And if only 32% of homes has wide enough doorways, it isn't enough for there to be a WC on entry level, if I can't actually get in to use it, nor does a small cubicle with a WC mean I can use it as a wheelchair user.

"A transition social worker supported him to find suitable accommodation, along with MySafeHome, and he purchased a home with DWP support. It is the best thing we have ever done for my son." Sue

This is the HOLD scheme which is so hidden, that no-one I mention it to has ever heard of it - that's not quite true, one person had heard of it, but all the people he spoke to try and buy somewhere locally hadn't heard of it, so it didn't go anywhere for him. And in the 20 or so years it's existed, only about 1,300 people have bought through it. That's hardly a game-changer, though it could be if it were taken seriously. The importance of this scheme for wheelchair users is security of tenure and autonomy.

"Immediate steps."

Could these be more non-specific?? To "boost the supply of housing for disabled people by raising accessibility
standards for new homes"
means making the currently optional planning law for M4(2) and M4(3) properties mandatory nationally. There isn't anything else that will boost or raise standards.

"Accelerating the adaptation of existing homes by improving the efficiency of local authority delivery of the Disabled Facilities Grant, worth £573 million in 2021/22"

The DFG process is fabulous for some and really makes all the difference to their lives. However, it falls short for many. Go through the DFG process and you'll understand that it's a fraught process, and the glossy headlines don't resonate with many. We should remember that for the government and LAs, this funding is still a cost saving (for example, where a suitable home reduces care costs), so let's keep "generosity" in perspective. Of concern to me is the fact that some Local Authorities cannot spend their budget because they don't have the resources to staff the programme, and staffing doesn't come under the DFG capital spend. So if LAs can't assess and implement DFGs to meet demand, they can't draw down the allocated headline funds. Additionally, although there is a mandate for DFGs to be put in place for a wheelchair user to move into a new property, this isn't happening. DFGs are generally used by people who are already in a property and want adaptations to meet their changing needs. Remember adaptations can include simple things like grab rails or tap levers. Wheelchair users need wheelchair accessible properties, and with an inaccessible housing stock, this can mean major adaptations. So why aren't we building the right properties when the cost is far smaller? Leaving wheelchair users behind, and citing headlines with non-transparent and easier-to-implement adaptations for ambulant people is not acceptable.

"A decent home will mean different things to different people."

There is nothing vague or subjective about a decent home in the context of a national strategy: a decent home includes appropriate space standards, good lighting, accessibility, good indoor air quality, thermal and energy efficiencies, and use of healthy and sustainable building methods and materials.

"MHCLG completed a consultation on raising accessibility standards for new homes in England in December 2020, and has been considering the responses and next steps. MHCLG will confirm plans to improve the framework to deliver accessible new homes by December 2021."

We watch and we wait. M4(2) baseline standard with 10% M4(3) for all new build. But the report's inclusion of "These reforms must be informed by robust data and evidence of disabled people’s experiences" concerns me for two reasons. First, many Local Authorities don't record the required data, as was proven with Aspire's excellent research. Secondly, existing research seems to have been ignored by successive Governments.

I'm also concerned by what I see as a separation between public and private sector housing. Are we going to have two tiers where the private sector can build unsuitable housing, unfettered by planning regulations requiring what is actually going to be needed over the coming decades? Remember that what is built now should be around for over 100 years (though I doubt it with some of the poor quality building).

As an aside, self-builds in the UK represent only 6-8% of all new build. They're valuable because they're usually significantly better quality homes. By contrast, that figure is around 80% in Austria, where everyone experiences the benefits of a system that is set up differently. Again, subject for another article.

"Extending tenants’ rights on accessibility."  

This is about tenants having the right to adaptations in rented properties. As the report points out, this came into effect in 2010, and in reality it's a grey area of law which needs to be challenged through an expensive legal system, and sets landlords and tenants against each other, in a way that makes bad guys of the wrong people.

PLUS, where is any mention of security of tenure? This is important because when finding an accessible rental property typically takes wheelchair users months and sometimes years - just to find somewhere that is workable, not suitable - we need to address this. It's not that difficult: I was a landlord in Germany for years and all my tenants had some impressive rights, which worked well for me as the landlord, because I had the right to collect rent off them and a quick legal recourse should debt become an issue.

Security of tenure wouldn't be such an issue IF wheelchair users had choice when it came to relocating. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to make wheelchair users into undesirable tenants in the private sector. Quite the opposite: we need public/private collaboration so that everyone wins. I spoke about this in April 2021 to the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Private Rented Sector

In short, I don't read anything in the National Disability Strategy that excites me. Talk is cheap. Let's see some immediate actions which work for disabled people, show the government to be leaders and save the treasury a truckload of longterm cash by investing in property and actually levelling the playing field in the private sector, so that the industry is free to do the right thing.