04 April 2008
The idea of 'lifetime homes' – designed to meet the needs of older or disabled residents – is fast catching on. But how about the costs to developers and first-time buyers? Neil Merrick investigates
Within days of moving into her new Basingstoke home, Janine Waters realised it boasted more space than a typical four-bedroom property. Not only are all the doorways wide enough to take a wheelchair, but there is even room on the first-floor landing for a small office, complete with a PC work station.
After six and a half years on the council waiting list, Waters was delighted to find anywhere to live with her partner and three children. It was only later that she discovered she had been allocated a 'lifetime home' — one that is built not just for its present occupants but also for whoever might live there in the future.
Neither Waters nor any of her family are disabled. Nor do they have any elderly relatives who are likely to move in and require a stair-lift or other adaptations. But if the government has its way, all social housing and other homes built with public funds will meet the lifetime homes standard from 2011.
Within another two years, ministers want all new homes in England to come up to the standard, which was first drawn up in 1994 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. This has angered private developers, who claim it will raise prices for first-time buyers.
Waters is a tenant of Sentinel Housing Association, which owns about 7,000 former council homes in Basingstoke and nearby Hart. Following the Basingstoke transfer in the mid 1990s, Sentinel spent £40m knocking down 140 homes at Oakridge Village and building twice as many new properties — including some for private, or shared, ownership.
Just 10% of the Oakridge estate, about one mile from the town centre, meets the lifetime homes standard, which is partly designed to avoid expensive alterations as people grow older (see box). While some homes are targeted at elderly or disabled people, other families simply enjoy having more space.
Waters' home, immediately next to the community centre, has three storeys. A gently sloping path runs across the front garden to the front door, behind which there is a spacious hallway. Directly opposite the door is a large toilet, with handrails to support a wheelchair user, while stairs more than one metre wide lead to other floors.
The first-floor bathroom has been built next to a main bedroom so the joining wall could be knocked through to create en-suite facilities.
In the kitchen, a large cupboard lies directly below the first-floor landing — allowing the option of creating a lift shaft.
'We need more homes like this,' says Waters, who moved in nearly six years ago while work was continuing elsewhere on the estate. 'You aren't necessarily going to have a house full of disabled people. It is catering for a mix of people.'
The decision to build 10% of Oakridge Village to the lifetime homes standard was partly due to pressure from Basingstoke & Deane Council, the local planning authority. Other Sentinel schemes include a similar proportion of lifetime homes but Julie Porter, the association's head of development, agrees with the government that it should really be 100%. 'If you only do 10%, how can you guarantee that it will be the same 10% that will require adaptations?' she asks. 'People are living longer and want to remain living independently.'
In spite of claims from private builders that the standard might add up to £2,000 to the cost of a home, Porter believes the true figure is 'in the hundreds' of pounds and greatly depends on the design of the home and the space standards used by architects.
The government's National strategy for housing in an ageing society, published in February, suggests the standard may result in extra costs of £547 per home, but the Department for Communities and Local Government has yet to publish its full research.
The strategy, which also calls for age-friendly cities or neighbourhoods with better access to amenities, was generally welcomed by public sector bodies and registered social landlords. But no landlord greeted it with quite as much pleasure as Habinteg Housing Association, which has been lobbying for lifetime homes for the best part of 20 years.
All Habinteg properties have been built as lifetime homes since the standard was published. Today it owns 2,120 homes, including 530 of an even higher standard for wheelchair users.
Mike Donnelly, Habinteg's chief executive, argues that many of the lifetime homes criteria add little or nothing to costs and, in the case of positioning light switches and power sockets, are part of standard building regulations. In the long run, they can save money as a home will not have to be altered at a later date and adaptations can be carried out relatively cheaply.
Since 2004, the proportion of homes built with grants from the Housing Corporation that meet the standard has risen from 18% to 23%. This will increase to 36% for the first schemes just approved under the 2008/11 National Affordable Housing Programme.
But Donnelly remains concerned that not all social landlords seem in favour. 'A lot of housing associations see the sense of it but some are still reluctant,' he says. 'There are still going to be thousands of houses built that are not going to suit the population as it grows older.'
By pushing for more lifetime homes, England appears to be catching up with the rest of the UK. Social housing in Wales and Northern Ireland has been built to the standard for much of this decade, while Scotland has a policy of building 'housing for varying needs', which replaced its earlier 'barrier free' housing standard in 2004.
Lifetime homes is part of the Welsh Assembly's design quality requirement for all homes built with social housing grant. According to Community Housing Cymru, the umbrella body for housing associations in Wales, many RSLs try to achieve the standard for all homes.
'Housing associations look at lifetime homes very positively,' says Richard Mann, chair of CHC's technical services forum. 'The private sector look at it in the context of other initiatives which add to building costs and have an impact on land values.'
Before the abolition five years ago of local authority social housing grant, English councils used to push for lifetime homes when they distributed grant to RSLs. Nowadays they see the standard as part of a wider policy of promoting independent living and reducing the long-term cost of adult care.
Ruth Lucas, a policy consultant at the Local Government Association, says: 'If you have a home that people can remain in [as they grow older], it saves them the disruption of moving and the need for the local authority to find suitable accommodation.'
With local authorities seeking to provide more affordable housing, they will be keen that the lifetime homes standard, on top of new environmental standards in the Code for Sustainable Homes, are not seen as a deterrent to house building.
Clive Clowes, the Housing Corporation's head of procurement, says schemes that meet the lifetime homes standard already stand more chance of being selected. He adds that private firms bidding for grant have an opportunity to prepare for 2013, when all homes may be built to the standard.
Not that he expects developers that see lifetime, or sustainable, homes as an imposition, to undergo an overnight conversion. 'I think they will take it to the wire,' says Clowes. 'They tend to respond to building regulations.'
According to the Home Builders' Federation, which represents private developers, experience in Scotland shows that lifetime homes criteria add between £1,500 and £2,000 to the cost of a home. John Slaughter, its external affairs director, questions whether there is a demand from buyers and wants the government to think again before extending the standard to all homes. 'We're not convinced this is the right approach to all housing in tackling the requirements of an ageing society,' he says.
But Habinteg's Mike Donnelly urges private and public sector bodies to consider the bigger picture and look beyond a home's first buyer, or occupant.
'It's not just about older people. It's about parents with young kids that need downstairs toilets or older people coming to live with their family for a few months after they've been in hospital,' he says. 'You've got to think of the lifetime of the house, not the lifetime of the household.' l