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Volume 700: debated on Thursday 27 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What response they have received to the publication of their strategy for housing in an ageing society, Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods.

My Lords, the Government published Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods—A National Strategy for Housing in an Ageing Society on 25 February. The response from stakeholders has been positive and supportive and the strategy has been welcomed as a major step in raising awareness of the need for better housing and related services for older people and for setting actions to help to achieve this.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but I thank her all the more for the hard work and commitment that she has put into creating this excellent national strategy, which has indeed been well received by organisations representing older people. However, does she share with me a profound disappointment that the housebuilders have rejected the proposal in the strategy that by 2013 they should adopt the full lifetime homes standards of accessibility and adaptability for new homes? In view of the obduracy of the housebuilders, would she consider bringing forward changes to the building regulations so that, from now on, all new homes can enjoy the much higher and better standards of accessibility and adaptability that are prescribed within this excellent strategy?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind words. This is the world’s first strategy on housing and ageing and we have had global responses to it. We need such a strategy because one in five children born today is likely to live to 100. Therefore, we have to match our housing policies with our policies on ageing. I was disappointed with the reaction of the Home Builders Federation. I understand that the task is challenging but, on the other hand, there is a huge market for adaptable and flexible homes for older people. We consulted the federation informally and formally. I hear what the noble Lord says, but we think that the best way forward is for us to work with housebuilders by providing advice and support in the next two years to help them to adopt the standards voluntarily, after which we will review the situation, with a view to regulation.

My Lords, the report highlights the fact that the private rented sector is the most poorly performing part of the housing market. Does the noble Baroness feel that the sector is an appropriate place for frail elderly people? If it is, how can we monitor and raise standards in a sector that is dominated by individual private landlords?

My Lords, I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Baroness says. Some of the poorest conditions and poorest people are to be found in the private rented sector. That is why we have commissioned Julie Rugg to have a thorough look at the whole issue of tenure and conditions in the sector. As we said in the report—and this is part of our health and social care strategy—we have put £33 million more into handyperson and handy van services, so that they can visit and repair the stairs, for example. People fall over loose stair carpets and are hospitalised. When one considers that a grab rail costs £50 and a hip operation costs £6,000, one sees why this is a cost-effective policy.

My Lords, while the adoption of the lifetime homes standards for all new buildings will undoubtedly be a welcome step, the reality is that the vast majority of people will inevitably grow old in existing homes, of which there are some 22 million or 23 million. Desirable as the new standards are, the real question that we have to ask is whether we can do enough to adapt existing homes, which have often been built to much lesser standards, to make it possible for the vast majority of the elderly to grow old in them in comfort. Are the Government acting in this field already? I suspect that they are not.

My Lords, the whole strategy is a coherent approach to housing supply. The noble Lord is quite right—one of the problems for older people is that they do not know what the best choices are. Hence, we start with a national advice and information service, which makes it easy for them to make the right choice at the right time and not be forced into making the wrong choice. Housing information, alongside a much expanded service for repair and adaptations, will make the difference, but if older people had better, more adaptable homes to go to, they would be more likely to move out of larger, inappropriate housing. That would free up more housing for younger people as well.

My Lords, lifetime homes standards make it much easier to make further adaptations. We have a whole section in this report on how we have been able to, I am delighted to say, put another £100 million over the next three years into the disabled facilities grant, which is a vital grant to enable big adaptations to be made for severely disabled people. We are also speeding up and streamlining the system so that it does not take so long to get the sort of stairlifts or downstairs adapted bathrooms that make all the difference between people being able to stay in their homes and being institutionalised.

My Lords, talking of the disabled, the Minister will be aware that, in the past three years, the shared-space street concept has led to shared-surface streets, where demarcation between vulnerable pedestrians and vehicles is removed and they have to rely on eye contact to avoid one another. Guide Dogs research has demonstrated that shared surfaces affect the safety, confidence and independence of blind and partially sighted people. In some towns, no-go areas have been created. In promoting lifetime neighbourhoods, will the Government make a clear statement that shared surfaces discriminate against blind and partially sighted and other disabled people, effectively excluding them from the street environment, and that clearly defined pedestrian-only paths—a safe space—must be provided for safer and independent travel?

My Lords, the concept of a lifetime neighbourhood addresses exactly the sort of problems identified by the noble Lord. We should be moving towards age-friendly cities. Part of the challenge that we identify—I would like to take the noble Lord’s advice on this—is how to build in ways that do not trap older people in their homes without the confidence to go out, not just because the spaces or shops are inaccessible and dangerous to get at; the whole environment needs to be welcoming and safe. In the next 10 years, there will be another 2 million over-65s in this country. We need to think much more creatively about the sort of planning and space sharing that we are undertaking.

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that her proposals for making these better homes will not be used as another excuse to increase the community charge, such as the valuers are doing to pretty houses with nice views?

My Lords, these 16 elements that make a home more accessible—ranging from wider doors to electric sockets that you do not have to double over to switch on—are simple. The total cost is estimated to be about £550. There is no reason why this should add to the cost of homes or anything else.

My Lords, given what the Minister said about the number of people over the age of 65 increasing by 2 million and the need to be more creative in our thinking about how to adapt, will she say what creative work is being done to use the tax system to enable families to adapt their homes to care for elderly relatives?

My Lords, I cannot answer that question directly. However, because this is in the front line of a range of preventive services in health and care, we are looking at ways in which families can be supported through the community, in their own homes, with their families and in their own neighbourhoods, so that they can support one another. That must be a cost benefit to everybody.