By 2013, the government wants all homes to be suitable for disabled and elderly people. This, as Jon Neale reports, has put housebuilders in a cantankerous mood, while overleaf, housing minister Caroline Flint uses her first column for Building to put the case for the new standards

Towards the end of last month, communities minister Hazel Blears shocked housebuilders by signalling that, from 2013, the Lifetime Homes standard is likely to become mandatory in England.

The government will definitely force all social housing to meet the standard, which is designed to ensure that homes are suitable for older and disabled people, from 2011. And, if the private sector “has not matched market need or expectations” by 2013, the government will “bring forward regulation” to impose criteria such as ground-floor toilets and wheelchair turning spaces. Moreover, although officials say they will work with the industry to implement Lifetime Homes, it will not consult on the exact criteria, admitting that they are pretty much set in stone. Although most admit that housing older people does present a problem, housebuilders have major concerns about the cost implications and the lack of consultation over the policy shift.

So why has the government done it? Over to Habinteg Housing Association, which has taken on the task of championing the standard from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the organisation that originally came up with the 16 criteria back in 1991.

Mike Donnelly, chief executive of Habinteg, explains why the standard is necessary: “We’re still building poky, inaccessible boxes and not thinking about the population they have to serve. This is not just about older people; it’s about parents with young kids or a younger disabled person. The real challenge is for the building industry to provide housing fit for purpose. The better ones will see this as a market opportunity.”

But, so far, the industry that will actually build these homes has been united in its dismay. The standard is seen as yet another burden placed on housebuilders, alongside the requirement for more affordable housing and the 2016 zero-carbon target. And this time, they say, they are not even being asked for their opinions.

Together, housebuilders say, these extra costs are driving down land prices and eroding profit margins, making it less likely they will get anywhere near the government’s target of 3 million homes by 2020.

John Slaughter, director of external affairs at the Home Builders Federation, says: “This is another layer of cost for the industry. And it’s not obvious that consumers want it. A turning circle for a wheelchair may be desirable for some, but it may lead to redundant space at extra cost. Do people want that?”

Even the government admits the estimated costs for implementing the standards varies massively – from £545 to £1,615 a dwelling, depending on size, design and the experience of the builder. Much of this extra cost is accounted for by a handful of things – increasing the overall floor area and providing a toilet, shower drainage and bedspace at entrance level. Each of these, according to calculations by the RICS, account for between £100 and £150 of its £547 estimate.

A turning circle for a wheelchair may be desirable for some, but it may lead to redundant space at extra cost. Do people want that?

John Slaughter, Home Builders Federation

Adam McTavish, director of sustainability services at consultancy Cyril Sweett, says: “One of the issues with Lifetime Homes is that it can be more difficult to achieve the standard on certain types of site and housing design.”

Indeed, the implications are far more severe for smaller units, as a certain amount of floorspace and frontage is required to allow ground-floor facilities or a winch in the bathroom.

Furthermore, some of the criteria are difficult to reconcile with existing planning guidance. For example, the need to minimise distance between front doors and car parking spaces, alongside the increased need for space, would seem to contradict government attempts to reduce dependence on the car and increase housing density.

Steve Wielebski is division director at Miller Homes, and has experience of building homes to the standard in Scotland, where the code was incorporated into building standards last year. He says: “We find that it requires between £1,500 and £2,000 per house, with smaller homes generally costing more. The bigger the unit, the easier it is to accommodate; it’s especially difficult with narrow-fronted houses.” He admits that it also requires a substantial rethink in terms of design, but adds that housebuilders and their customers have an ambivalent attitudes towards the standard.

A quick browse through the government’s own Lifetime Homes, Lifetime Neighbourhoods document, published alongside the announcement, gives other hint – aside from the meteoric increase in the elderly population – as to why it is so keen on the new standards. Apparently, in 1994, £350m was spent on providing adaptations for disabled people, of which £210m came from the taxpayer – a figure that could be reduced if developers would only build more spacious, expensive homes. The document reads: “Encouraging greater uptake of the Lifetime Homes standards from design stage will reduce the cost of adaptations, and also reduce care costs.” In total the saving if all new homes are built to Lifetime Homes standards is £92.5m.

According to the same document it will cost £400,000 more than it saves to build the homes at this standard. But, importantly, while the saving is to the public purse, the additional cost is borne by the private sector.

Lifetime Homes: the key points

  • There should be space for turning a wheelchair in dining areas and living rooms – and adequate space for them elsewhere
  • The design should incorporate provision for a future stair lift, a through-floor lift and a potential hoist from main bedroom to bathroom
  • In houses with three or more bedrooms, there should be a wheelchair-accessible toilet at entrance level, with drainage provision for a future shower
  • Communal stairs should provide easy access and lifts should be fully accessible
  • Car parking should be capable of being enlarged to 3.3m in width, and its distance from the home should be kept to a minimum
  • The approach to all entrances should be level or gently sloping
  • A living room and potential bed space should be provided at ground level
  • Fixtures, fittings and controls should be at a height at which everyone can use them.

‘If we’re not careful we won’t be building any houses at all’

Tony Pidgley, chief executive,Berkeley Group

This is going to have a big impact on regeneration schemes. The minimum space requirement under lifetime homes as I understand it is going to be 500ft2. We’re doing single-bed flats in London at 400ft2, which is perfectly acceptable for a starter place for young people – so at a stroke you’ve just added 25% to the cost. We’ve got to get this in context. Of course we’d all like homes built to this [Lifetime Homes] standard, but most people in life start at the bottom and work their way up. By doing this you’re just pushing homes further away from the first-time buyer.

We’ve got a bit of a problem with the housing market at the moment – sales are down 20% for us and we’re working in the honeypot of the country – so adding things like this will have an impact.

Sometimes it feels like every time we get a new minister we get a new hurdle to jump. If we’re not careful, we won't be building any houses at all.

‘This is a clumsy and quick response to the issue’

Alan Cherry, chairman, Countryside Properties

The reason they want to do this is understandable. But it's simply not the way to respond to this issue – it won’t contribute to sustainable communities. We need to have a mix of types of accommodation to encourage a mix of tenures. If all homes are Lifetime Homes then people are encouraged to stay on in their family homes for evermore as they get older. This deprives another family of the chance to succeed to that family home.

It’s an issue we have to address but this is a clumsy and quick response to it. I’m more concerned with the proper use of the nation’s housing stock. We do have to increase the range of homes that are suitable for people later in life, and I have sympathy for people who find themselves unable to use the home they've lived in. But making all new homes Lifetime Homes is not the answer.