It’s no secret that the UK’s housing sector is in crisis. Headlines scream about the shortage of new-build homes. TV pundits talk constantly about the need for more affordable homes.
The crisis fewer people mention is the accessible housing crisis – and the woeful condition of Britain’s housing stock.
Britain has the oldest housing stock in the EU. Millions of homes are cold, damp and in a poor state of repair. These poor-quality homes are disproportionately lived in by older people, with 1.3 million people aged 55 and over living in a home with at least one ‘category 1 hazard’ – defined as something that poses a serious threat to the health or safety of people living in or visiting your home.
As well as homes being in poor condition, many are inaccessible – only 7% have all four accessibility features that make them visitable to most people (level access to the entrance, a flush threshold, sufficiently wide door sets and circulation space, and a toilet at entrance level).
Not meeting these criteria means people who have a disability or who have lost mobility with age are at a huge disadvantage when looking for a home or when visiting friends and family, and are increasingly disabled by their environment.
We cannot allow ourselves to accept this. With concerted action from developers and homebuilders, from planners and architects and from national and local government, we can build better homes that everyone can live in, regardless of their age or ability, and improve the homes we already have.
Who wants to buy an accessible home?
When we talk about homes that are accessible, or that could be adapted in the future, we aren’t talking about building expensive houses that look like hospitals or having emergency pull cords and clinical equipment in every flat.
There’s no reason we can’t build beautiful homes with wider doorways and level access thresholds at the entrances. Bathrooms can easily include integrated grips and handles, or the infrastructure for grab rails when they’re needed, and walk-in baths anyone can use. It isn’t difficult to design stylish kitchens with lever door handles and waist-height ovens.
Accessible homes are about flexibility for the future, so that they can be adapted as our needs change. Rather than causing stagnation in the housing market, these common sense solutions will open up the market to a massive segment of the population that is currently being missed.
What’s more, first-time buyers may not be thinking about the future when they pick up their first set of keys, but you never know how long they will remain in that property, who they might have to visit, or who will buy it years later. It is about the lifetime of the home, not just the first resident.
The lack of suitable homes is causing older people to stay put until a crisis forces them to move. Research commissioned by Greater Manchester Combined Authority, funded by the Centre for Ageing Better, reveals that many over 50s cannot move home in the way that they would like, due to a lack of suitable housing options.
Just 3.4% of over-50s move home each year – half as many moves compared to the rest of the population. Although those with greater wealth can more easily move, and the least well-off receive more support from social care, those on low- and middle- incomes can find themselves trapped in homes which are no longer appropriate for them as they age.
Age-proof homes can unlock huge commercial opportunity
This is a missed opportunity for businesses in the housing sector. A big cohort of people is not buying homes – or selling them – because of failings in the system.
To address the problem, we need more diverse housing options that meet the needs of older people, across all types and tenures.
Specialist retirement housing will play a role, but since more than 90% of over-65s live in ordinary houses and flats, clearly they should be the sector’s priority.
Recent polling by YouGov, commissioned by the Centre for Ageing Better, showed that nearly three quarters of all adults think all new homes should be built to be suitable for all ages and abilities, while 48% of people think society is not doing enough to enable people to live independently at home as they get older.
Crucially for those in the business of buying and selling homes, a third of those polled said they would be encouraged to purchase a home with characteristics like walk-in showers or handrails, with a further 48% saying they would be neither encouraged nor discouraged.
And this isn’t just true of older people. A quarter of 18-24s and 25-34s said they would be encouraged to buy homes with these features. Around half wouldn’t be encouraged or discouraged.
We must put renewed investment and interest into improving our existing mainstream housing stock and support local authorities, planners and developers to deliver new homes that are future proofed and accessible to everyone, regardless of age.
Building age-proof homes is good for everyone
Building new homes to a decent standard now will ensure that people of all ages will benefit from the features of inclusively designed homes. It’s not just about older and disabled people now.
This is about our future selves, our families, and our friends, and ensuring we all have the home environments we need to remain independent, safe and socially connected.
And while building new and better homes is important, we can’t forget that 80% of the homes we will be living in by 2050 are already built. We must improve the condition and accessibility of existing housing, ensuring homes are safe, hazard-free and well maintained.
Councils, housing associations and others must give people timely advice and access to funding to adapt and repair their homes.
We are living longer than ever before – a fantastic opportunity – but the homes we live in don’t always help us to live well into later life. A radical rethink would be good for everyone.
*Dr Rachael Docking is Senior Programme Manager (Homes) at the Centre for Ageing Better