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Housing: Accessibility Standards

Volume 835: debated on Monday 5 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they will implement their decision, announced in July 2022, to require all new homes to meet higher standards of accessibility.

My Lords, we have proposed to mandate the M4(2) requirement in building regulations as a minimum standard, leaving the current M4(1) standard to apply by exception only when M4(2) is impractical and unachievable. There will need to be a further technical consultation that the building safety regulator will need to take forward as part of its future work plan.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, and to the Government for announcing that these higher standards for lifetime homes will be implemented and mandated through the building regulations. I say that on behalf of the many charities that have been campaigning for years to have these higher standards brought into practice. But that announcement was 18 months ago, and we have seen very little progress in getting on with the consultation that should have followed. Since that time, 220,000 properties have been built that do not accord with the new standards, and every further month we leave the consultation, another 13,000 homes are built that do not accord with the standards. When will we see some results from the Government on this?

I am afraid I will have to disappoint the noble Lord, as I cannot give a specific timeframe for that further work. The building safety regulator is responsible for introducing updates to the building regulations and it is a new organisation with a busy programme of work. However, his points are well made. To reassure him, we are taking these considerations into account in a number of ways. For example, last December we published an updated NPPF which included a specific expectation that, when planning housing for older people, particular regard is given to retirement housing, housing with care and care homes. This reflects the Government’s understanding that we need to take into account accessibility and the changing needs of our population as we build new homes.

My Lords, Habinteg housing research shows that only 7% of our existing housing stock meets even the most basic accessibility standards. The Government’s report says that, on average, it would cost only an extra £1,400 to build a new three-bedroom semi-detached house to this standard—a tiny percentage of the cost of a new house. This would mean that thousands of elderly and disabled people could remain in their homes for life. The Government keep saying that they want to implement this standard. What is the delay?

My Lords, local planning authorities should already assess the housing needs of different groups, including accessibility needs for those with disabilities or older people, and reflect them in their policies and decisions. Guidance was introduced in June 2019 to help councils implement this policy and make use of the currently optional technical standards for accessible and adaptable housing, including M4(3) and M4(2)-compliant homes. As I have set out, we plan to take forward our commitment to move to mandatory for M4(2).

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if we are to reduce the number of people in hospital who do not need to be there as their medical treatment has been completed, we will need to make sure that their accommodation is fit to meet their current needs? That includes small things such as widening the door into the bathroom. Could this be accelerated so that we can address some of these issues?

The noble Lord is absolutely right, and that is what the different accessibility standards seek to address. I undertake to make clear to the department the view of noble Lords today about the importance of this work and the speed at which they wish to see it undertaken.

My Lords, further to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Best, I too welcome the decision to make these new accessibility standards mandatory, but the M4(2) standards have been around since 2015 and the building industry is already familiar with them. Surely, any consultation should be quite quick and the regulations should come into effect during the lifetime of this Parliament.

My noble friend makes a good case. As he will know, the Government have already consulted on the principle of this. A technical consultation would be needed to take forward the mandating of the standard.

My Lords, can the Minister estimate how much this—so far—18-month delay has and will cost the public purse through future adaptations of unfit homes and increased care costs due to a lack of the decent, accessible homes that the Government know are needed? Only 8,386 new social homes were built last year, but 52,800 families were added to social waiting lists. This adaptation of homes would enable some family homes to be freed up.

I emphasise that local planning authorities should already assess the housing needs of different groups, including accessibility needs, in their local areas and reflect these in their policies and decisions. As I say, guidance has been issued to councils to help them implement this policy and we have updated the National Planning Policy Framework to reflect some of the issues raised today, but there is also further work that we need to do.

My Lords, what environmental standards do the Government require of all new homes, as they would benefit everybody and the planet?

The noble Baroness makes a good point. We should look at these standards in the context of a raft of new building safety regulations and standards that have been taken forward in recent years, and the need for housebuilders to adapt to them. There was a significant uplift to the environmental standards in 2021 and we have just launched a consultation on the future homes standard, which will be brought in by 2025 and ensure that all new housing is effectively net-zero ready.

My noble friend surely is aware that for care homes and similar establishments, it is absolutely vital that these new changes be implemented. I recognise that she has been in her present position for only a brief time, but will she make that clear to those responsible and send out a note to housing authorities, drawing attention to what everybody seems to agree should be happening?

One of the ways we will signal and have signalled the importance of this to local authorities is through the update to the National Planning Policy Framework. It was updated in December 2023 to include a specific expectation that when planning housing for older people, particular regard is given to retirement housing, housing with care and care homes. So, we are already taking action.

My Lords, why is there no requirement to have solar panels on new buildings, particularly houses? Around me in Devon, thousands of houses are being built, not one of which has a solar panel. I should declare that I have had solar panels on my roof since 2009.

As I said, we had the interim uplift to energy efficiency standards in 2021, and we have just started a consultation on the future homes standard. That sets out two models that could achieve the standard, one with solar panels and one without. The reality is that the Government have focused on the outcomes that need to be achieved and can be achieved by a number of technologies. Those outcomes are consistent with our net zero commitments and targets, and we are committed to taking them forward.

My Lords, is this not just one aspect of the Government’s failure to enforce the standards to which they are theoretically committed, whether environmental, accessibility or others? Are they trying to trade off the standards against numbers because of their pathetic failure to meet the 300,000 homes a year ambition, which was stated time and again?

It is under this Government that we have seen some of the highest housebuilding rates in 30 years. We are on track to deliver 1 million new homes during the course of this Parliament. We are not trading off different standards, but we do need to consider whether any new standards we bring in are deliverable by builders and allow us to meet the needs of local communities and of our environment, and the need to build more homes.

My Lords, the Government do not seem to like timelines. The Minister says that there is an organisation responsible for bringing this about, so why does she not open a discussion with it to find out how long this will take it to implement, and have some timelines that people can work to and understand?

I reassure the noble Lord that the Government are in regular contact with the building safety regulator. It was created by the Building Safety Act in 2022 and will become fully operational next April. Since its inception, it has been building its capacity around a number of standards, as we have heard—and we have not touched on the broader building safety standards attached to fire and cladding. It is taking forward its work at pace.