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Research undertaken in 2014 by spinal injury charity Aspire found that around 24,000 households were waiting for a wheelchair accessible social or affordable home. Policy Manager Andrew Shipley explains why we urgently need a new blend of political leadership and socially responsible development to overcome this escalating crisis of accessible homes. Andy’s aim is to initiate a debate, that draws on the wealth of expertise, creativity, and experience within the RSA community to generate new thinking and perhaps yield new solutions.

“It’s no better than living in a prison…and I sit here during the day and night seriously thinking, ‘why not just end it, why not!’”

This desperate statement comes from the report, The health and wellbeing of spinal cord injured adults and the family: examining lives in adapted and unadapted homes. Published in February by Spinal Injury charity Aspire, this independent research from Loughborough University reveals a disturbing picture of damaged psychological and physical health for those forced to live in housing not designed or adapted to meet their needs. The findings mirror those in an earlier study into the health and wellbeing of spinal cord injured adults forced to live in care homes. Shockingly, both studies report a high proportion of participants admitting to considering suicide due to their unsuitable housing.

The root of the problem

The cause of spinal injured people, and indeed many other disabled people, being forced into unsuitable housing is England’s chronic shortage of accessible homes.

Research undertaken in 2014 by Aspire found that around 24,000 households were waiting for a wheelchair accessible social or affordable home. The same research showed that, at the average rate of allocation across the country, it will take around 6 years for these people to be suitably housed. The level of need for accessible homes is actually much greater than this. Leonard Cheshire disability has reported that around 300,000 disabled households are living in unsuitable accommodation, a 17% increase over the last 5 years and contrasting with a fall of 21% in the total number of people waiting for a home. It doesn’t stop there. We are an aging society; according to the King’s fund, 40% of people aged between 65 and 81, around 4 million of us, have a disability or long term health condition. This is likely to rise to six million by 2030.

Who is paying the price?

As well as the devastating personal impact on the health and wellbeing of disabled people and their families, if unaddressed, this crisis will incur substantial and escalating costs on health and care budgets. A bed in a Spinal Cord Injury Centre, for example, costs the NHS £960 per day. When patients spend additional weeks in hospital because a suitable property can’t be found, a sizeable but avoidable drain on public finance occurs. The same is true when people are readmitted for treatment for bladder infections or injuries incurred by living in unadapted housing. The Building Research Establishment report, The Cost of Poor Housing to the NHS, shows hospital admissions due to poor and hazardous housing costs the NHS between £1.4 and £2.5 billion every year. There is also an additional impact on social care costs. One hour’s care a day costs around £5,000 a year and the more inaccessible a property is, the more hours of care and support are likely to be needed.

A national response to a national challenge?

You might think a national problem of this scale would require a Government response of similar proportions. In fact, in 2008, such a response did emerge. In Lifetime Homes Lifetime Neighbourhoods; A housing strategy for an aging society, published in February 2008, the Government established a trajectory for housing development that would have culminated in 2013 with all new homes being built to the ‘Lifetime Homes’ standard (a design standard that enables mainstream housing to be more accessible from the outset and easily and cheaply adapted for use by disabled people). Unfortunately, this bright vision rapidly faded under the glare of the global financial crisis later that year. In the 2009 Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the Government abandoned the 2013 Lifetime Homes target. Since then, successive administrations have moved towards deregulation.

The coalition government’s streamlining of planning guidance into the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), retained the requirement on local authorities to plan for the housing needs of a range of social groups including older and disabled people. The Housing Standards Review 2015, introduced optional guidance for “accessible, adaptable housing” and “wheelchair user” housing, into the Building Regulations. Being optional, however, it is questionable whether these standards will be adopted widely enough by local authorities to significantly reduce the national shortfall.  

Unfortunately, recent policy reforms have only fuelled greater uncertainty regarding future supply, and even the retention of existing accessible stock. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 poses challenges for the future provision of accessible housing. The extension of the Local Housing allowance cap to the social sector and the 1% rent reduction have, according to housing associations, created financial uncertainty that could undermine their ability to deliver new social housing. Reforms within the Housing and Planning Act 2015-16 could prevent significantly fewer accessible homes being built and shed existing ones from the system. Centrally imposed ‘starter homes’ targets, and dedication of local planning obligations for their delivery, may compromise councils’ ability to secure planning agreements that respond to local need for accessible housing.  The extension of the right to buy for housing association tenants, and the disposal of “higher value” council housing to subsidise it, also threaten to haemorrhage existing adapted and accessible homes away from the current supply.

This looming crisis will only be resolved with political vision and leadership. Sadly, national Government appears to have abdicated any leadership on this issue. In a reply to a written question from Bridget Phillipson MP on 12 May 2016, Planning Minister Brandon Lewis confirmed: “the Department for Communities and Local Government does not collect data on the number of specially adapted homes.” 

What is certain is that ‘business as usual’ won’t house our increasingly disabled population. We urgently need a new blend of political leadership and socially responsible development to overcome this escalating crisis. The Loughborough research participants, and the growing numbers enduring life in intolerable housing, deserve a solution.

Andrew Shipley is Policy Manager at Aspire


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