§ 2.45 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has recently commissioned research to evaluate the impact of the changes to Part M of the building regulations, which concerns the accessibility of all new homes and was introduced in 1999. The work is expected to begin before Christmas and to report in about two years’ time.
§ Lord Best
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and for the positive confirmation that a review of the regulations will be taking place. Will he ensure that in the review consideration is given to the problem of some house builders failing to comply with the regulations, which now stipulate, for example, that all new homes must have level front entrances for the benefit of disabled or elderly people? Will he also in that review look to the future and add a few more measures to those regulations in order to make more homes fully accessible to people with any kind of disability, continuing the good work that was done with their earlier revision?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, we will look further. The review is being undertaken in order to see what has happened to Part M. It concerned only the provision for people to visit new dwelling houses and to use the principal storey. That is not the same as designing a building for lifetime experience. It is true that some of the builders are ignoring it. The public end up subsidising the building industry by way of the disabled facilities grant which last year was £175 million. That is the overall effect. If we can install facilities when homes are built in the first place, we will not only save money but improve people's quality of life.
§ Baroness Wilkins
My Lords, is the Minister aware of the enormous hidden costs caused by the scarcity of accessible housing? I have in mind the huge additional burdens on care services and the costs in unemployment and loss of employment. Is he aware that that affects not only people who are permanently disabled, but those who are temporarily so—such as from breaking a leg? I declare an interest on both counts. Have the Government made an assessment of the potential savings of ensuring that lifetime home standards are adhered to in all new housing developments?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, no, not in the way the noble Baroness puts it, but it will be covered by part of 935 our review. The regulations have been in place for four years. There is a cost and there will be others. I am not saying that the £175 million disabled facilities grant will be wiped out completely, but there is a large hidden cost in failing to ensure that our homes are designed properly. Furthermore, there is a good deal of ignorance among house builders about the needs of disabled people.
§ Baroness Maddock
My Lords, will the Minister reassure us on another point? He will know that there is a perception among some builders of a conflict between planning policy guideline 3, which tries to increase density, and Part M of the regulations? Density is also increased in the sustainable communities plan. Will the Minister reassure us that the Government will look seriously at that issue so that many of the homes built under the sustainable communities plan will not ultimately be inaccessible?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I absolutely refute that building to a higher density means building to a lower quality. That includes the facilities for people with disabilities and Part M. It is an excuse made by builders and those who want to continue building at low densities, wasting the valuable asset of our land.
§ Baroness Greengross
My Lords, how can the Government encourage more flexible lifetime housing, which he mentioned; for example, the kind of houses that are being constructed in The Netherlands? In those, only the outer shell of the house is fixed and the inner walls are easy to move around so that as one goes through the life the house will adapt to suit one's needs rather than the other way around.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, yes, I have heard about some of the work that is going on in The Netherlands. As I say, we will seriously review the regulations because there is a good case for designing properties for lifetime use. That means flexibility. That still means that we are dealing only with new buildings while there are 25 million existing dwellings in the country to deal with. We must not ignore the fact that we shall still have a large programme of adaptations.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, although the Government are to be commended on commencing a review of the regulations in relation to residential housing, the fact is that they have just completed a review of non-residential buildings. I may have a peculiar sense of priorities: while access to non-residential buildings for disabled people is very important, access to residential buildings is absolutely essential, fundamental and vital. Can the Minister explain how the Government managed to get their priorities the wrong way round?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, I do not believe that we did get them the wrong way round. Where practical, all buildings, whether old or new, should be available for use by all citizens, particularly if they are public buildings where access is required by the public. It does 936 not matter what they are for. We have already brought in Part M of the building regulations to deal with that matter. I accept that that happened only in 1999 and that therefore they have been in place for only four years. There is a good deal of ignorance about the regulations, even among some builders and, I regret to say, probably among some architects. I pay tribute to the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in that respect—it is very important. However, I do not accept what the noble Lord said about our priorities. We are operating on both fronts—in relation to both domestic dwellings and commercial public buildings.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Best for all that he does with regard to housing for disabled people. I want to say how important that is. Will the Minister encourage greater accessibility to old as well as new buildings? Is he aware that I am going to dinner tonight in Westminster Gardens and that my block of flats, on one side of the building, is accessible because I live there? However, I am going to dinner on the other side, where there is a four-inch step. It is so easy to install ramps in those buildings. Will he encourage the use of such aids?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, of course. That follows on from what I said in answer to the previous questions. We have an overall policy—it is a public policy shared by everyone—to ensure that, where practical, all buildings are accessible by all people.