Julia Park hopes the upcoming Part M changes will recognise the pressing need to adapt for the future

Julia Park

Few would deny that it’s taken far too long for the world to face up to climate change, but something much more fundamental has been overlooked, not just for decades or even centuries, but for millennia. I’m talking about growing old.

Across the world we have been painfully slow to factor ageing into the way we design and construct the built environment. Even societies that revere older people for their wisdom and care for them in extended families have given little thought to eliminating the physical barriers which limit so many lives. The view that older people, and those living with disabilities, are “better off at home” has become widely entrenched: including in Britain. Ironically, we failed there too; the concept of accessible housing is barely 30 years old, and it’s been a tortuous journey so far.

Lifetime Homes, a 16-point standard devised to make life easier for older people, was developed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the early 1990s. Respected by some but resented by others (including many designers) as a voluntary standard, it gained relatively little traction and not all of it made sense. The fact that walk-up flats could still achieve Lifetime Homes status was a major anomaly.

In 1999 a watered-down version was taken into regulation through Part M, which until then had only dealt with public buildings. This gave weight to the issue but was painfully inadequate in terms of content, requiring, among other things, step-free access to the main entrance (unless that was too difficult …), and a small, ground-floor WC (unless there were no habitable rooms on that level …).

Having ignored the implications of rising life expectancy for so long, we have a huge amount of catching-up to do

The inadequacy of Part M meant that, despite its flaws, the full Lifetime Homes standard lived on for another 16 years and was often cited in planning policy. It was all very messy.

In 2015 two higher levels of accessibility (“optional requirements”) were added to the meagre baseline in a new volume of Approved Document M. The baseline was renamed M4(1) Visitable dwellings (or category 1) and remains the default. The two optional requirements, M4(2) Accessible and adaptable dwellings (or category 2), which is very similar to Lifetime Homes, and M4(3) Wheelchair user dwellings (or category 3), must be justified before being invoked. Local planning authorities are required to prove need and viability before defining the proportion of new housing that should meet each of the optional requirements. The category 2 and 3 homes are listed in the planning conditions, but testing falls to building control.

The government expected most local authorities to opt in and require something like 30% to 50% of new homes to meet category 2, and 5% to 10% to meet category 3. In practice the proportions vary from 0% to 100%. London (demographically the youngest part of the country) requires 90% of new homes to meet category 2 and the remaining 10% to meet category 3, but about half of authorities still require nothing more than the baseline. I assume this is partly because assessing need and viability is difficult and developers fight back if they try. The level of disparity makes it a postcode lottery, not an effective policy. It’s too complicated and it’s still very messy.

I was hopeful when the government launched a consultation on accessible housing last September. The tone of the introduction was remarkably positive. Four of the five rather nuanced options represented an improvement on the current situation; all but one proposing that category 2 becomes the new baseline. And quite right too. The demographic evidence is compelling: by 2050, one in four people will be over 65; only 11% of existing homes provide the four main features required for even the lowest level of accessibility, and 80% of today’s homes will still exist in 2050.

Having ignored the implications of rising life expectancy for so long, we have a huge amount of catching-up to do. The lockdowns have given all of us a glimpse of what, for many older and disabled people, is an everyday reality – because getting out is still difficult. Most homes have been tested and many haven’t scored well. Factor in age-related mobility problems and the shortcomings intensify.

The near certainty that over two centuries every home will be occupied by someone whose life would be transformed by an accessible home is justification enough 

The need to reduce embodied carbon is another driver; every new home we build today should last at least 200 years. Over that period, we can assume that each will be home to something like 20 households and 70 individuals. Thousands of visitors will cross each threshold. These will be people of all ages, ethnicities and faiths. All will experience bouts of illness; the vast majority will grow old and most will use a mobility aid at some point. As we know only too well, their lives will change in ways they can and can’t predict.

The near certainty that over two centuries every home will be occupied by someone whose life would be transformed by an accessible home is justification enough. But the benefits of universal application go beyond that; we all want to visit our friends and family in their homes too. That relies on knowing that we will be able to get through the front door, use the toilet with dignity, and feel relaxed enough to enjoy the company and the change of scene that can mean so much, particularly to those who live alone. The fact that a category 2 home benefits people of all ages, and disadvantages no one, clinches it.

The consultation on the changes to Part M was far from perfect. Regrettably, the best outcome – tying category 2 and the Nationally Described Space Standard (NDSS) together, was either not considered or rejected – crazy given that they were designed to be mutually supporting. Part M isn’t perfect either. The descriptions of each category are confusing, the guidance is poor in places (particularly category 3 bathrooms) and the adaptable features need to work for all forms of construction and tenures. It would make sense to fully install the shower required in the ground-floor toilet when using prefabricated pods and when building for rent, for example.

Implementation has been poor, and more work is needed to ensure that those who would benefit most from an accessible and adaptable home understand what they offer and where to find them. That argues strongly for local accessible housing registers and compulsory labelling in marketing literature and tenancy agreements.

Unfortunately, the outcome of the consultation (which had originally been expected in March) is now due “by the end of the year”. There is talk of more research; not a bad thing, but likely to take years, and it’s worrying that the direction of travel hasn’t been confirmed. I remain hopeful, however. If we’ve learned nothing else over the last 18 months, it’s that dealing with the things we can predict will put us in a better place to deal with those that we can’t. Accessible housing has never been seen as a priority, and we need to change that.