New Clause 12 - Development Plan documents: accessible design

Infrastructure Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 15th January 2015.

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“In section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 (preparation of local documents) after subsection (1) insert—

“(1B) Development Plan documents must (taken as a whole) include policies designed to secure inclusive design and accessibility for the maximum number of people including disabled people”.—(Roberta Blackman-Woods.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I fear that we are unlikely to have the literary appeal or historical justifications for this new clause that we had in the previous debate, but I thought it might help our deliberations if I briefly gave some background to why new clause 12 is necessary.

The built environment and our housing stock fail to meet the needs of a large number of people. The UK ageing demographic structure and the 5 million British people with mobility problems mean that we have a growing need for accessible housing, but that need is not being met. As a result of the low availability of accessible housing, we know from Government statistics that one in five people requiring adaptations to their home believe that their accommodation is simply not suitable.

Similarly, Habinteg research published in 2010 found that 78,300 wheelchair-user households in England had unmet housing needs. Of the 5 million people in the UK with mobility problems, 72% say that they do not have an accessible door into their building; 52% that they do not have doors and hallways wide enough for a wheelchair; and 50% that they do not have stairs big enough for a stair lift to be fitted.

Part M of the building regulations that were introduced in 1998 sets out guidance requiring new buildings to be safe and convenient for disabled people to access and to move around in internally. As the statistics show, however, much more needs to be done.

The lifetime homes standard is a set of 16 design criteria to ensure that all homes that are built are accessible and more easily adapted to meet people’s changing needs at different stages in their lives. However, building to that standard is only optional.

Going back to the discussion that we had a few days ago, had the Government continued to insist that from 2016 homes were built to code level 6, that would have included homes being built with a lifetime promise guarantee included, because it is part of the code level 6 requirements. However, as we know, the Government are not continuing with a commitment to introducing that lifetime homes standard from 2016. The Greater London Authority has required all new homes to meet the lifetime homes standard since 2004, but estimates from the Government show that a mere 5% of homes outside London meet that standard.

New clause 12 creates a duty to ensure that accessibility is at the front of decision makers’ minds when preparing local plans in England. There is a clear precedent for such statutory duties to be included in plan making—for example, in 2008, legislation was amended to add a specific duty on local development documents to consider  climate change. Similarly, new clause 12 would insert a specific duty to consider the objective of achieving accessibility into section 19 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

There is huge support for the new clause, including from the Town and Country Planning Association and Habinteg housing association. They state that

“it is essential that local authorities are supported in all ways possible to ensure that the whole built environment is accessible, inclusive and can be used and enjoyed by everyone. As part of this we need authorities to be aware of the new standards, understand their importance, integrate them into policy and apply them to the needs of local populations. A statutory duty on plan making to consider accessibility would send a clear signal about the priority to be afforded to this agenda.”

That is backed by Age UK, Aspire, the Building Research Establishment, the Centre for Accessible Environments, Care & Repair England, Disability Rights UK, Golden Lane Housing, the International Longevity Centre, Leonard Cheshire Disability, Mencap, the National Housing Federation, and Papworth Trust—and I could go on. There is huge body of opinion saying that we need to do more to improve accessibility.

I expect that the Minister will say, “We have looked at this matter and we have dealt with it via the housing standards review.” We know that the Government have created a menu of national housing standards that local authorities may choose to implement via their local plan policy. However, the new standards are set to be purely optional for local authorities and subject to narrow viability testing. The viability test is highly prescriptive and, as the Minister will know, is set out in the national planning policy framework. Because the test is concerned only with the competitive returns to willing landowners and willing developers, it does not include any economic assessment of the long-term benefits to the economy of, for example, the delivery of lifetime homes. That means that a number of organisations will need to continue to make the case for a lifetime homes standard to be the default for all new homes.

Mandatory accessible design standards would speed up the delivery of accessible housing to an appropriate rate, as they have done in London since 2004. In the meantime, it is essential that local authorities are supported in all ways possible to ensure that the whole built environment is accessible, inclusive and, as I said, can be used and enjoyed by everyone. I suggest to the Minister that it is made mandatory for all local authorities to consider accessibility when making their plans. If he wants to go a little further and change his mind on the desirability of code 6 homes from 2016, that is another option available to him to achieve the same end.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Good afternoon, Sir Roger. The shadow Minister said that she anticipated what I was going to say; of course, we always try to anticipate what she is going to say to ensure that we are well prepared for the sort of issues that might arise. The new clause refers to planning legislation, but she largely spoke about building regulations, which stem not from planning legislation but, as we know from our long and detailed consideration of clause 32, from the Building Act 1984.

I did not anticipate that the hon. Lady would go down the route of looking at part M of the building regulations and how it was affected by the housing  standards review. Nevertheless, I can assure her that, having looked at that review and part M, we have made sure both that we strengthened part M as a baseline and that there are optional standards that are tougher for building homes that are age-friendly and wheelchair accessible. We have that optional upper tier standard because the demographics vary. I would guess that the demographics of Christchurch—to pluck a district council from the air—are quite different from those of Greenwich, in terms of the age profile of the population. It is a matter for the London borough of Greenwich to decide whether it wishes to apply a higher standard for accessibility over and above the baseline of part M. An authority somewhere like Christchurch may indeed find the higher standard attractive, and it is now designed, written and out there to be adopted. Although we did not anticipate that the hon. Lady would go down that route, I am reasonably familiar with that issue so hope that I have addressed her point.

The hon. Lady was correct to suggest that I would say that we are doing a lot of work on these matters and try to persuade her that the new clause is not needed. I certainly appreciate its intention. There is a complete meeting of minds on the idea that we must ensure that new homes and the built environment in general are constructed to a standard that previous legislators on this subject would not have considered necessary. Our whole viewpoint on the built environment is that it is not people who are disabled; they are disabled by their surroundings, which are designed for them by others who are usually not disabled. The mindset has switched, and I think that there is complete consensus in the House on that.

I hope that the hon. Lady will not interpret anything that I am about to say as denying her good intentions or feel that we do not also have good intentions. However, the new clause is unnecessary because it replicates requirements on local planning authorities that are already in place. The Government have been clear throughout their reforms that new requirements should be put on authorities only where strictly necessary, and that the planning system should be as streamlined as possible. In preparing a local plan, an authority must have regard to national policies and guidance issued by the Secretary of State. Before a plan can be adopted, it must be found to be sound, which includes being tested for consistency with the policies set out in the national planning policy framework.

Paragraph 50 of the national planning policy framework sets out that local authorities should plan for “inclusive” communities. Paragraph 57 makes it clear that it is

“important to plan positively for the achievement of high quality and inclusive design for all development”.

Paragraph 58 of the framework similarly sets out that local plans should establish

“robust and comprehensive policies that set out the quality of development that will be expected for the area.”

It goes on to say that policies and decisions should aim to ensure that developments

“create safe and accessible environments”.

We reiterated the importance of promoting accessibility and inclusion in planning and guidance that was published on 6 March 2014. Moreover, local authorities are required by the Equality Act 2010 to have

“due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity”.

That includes the need to “remove or minimise disadvantages” experienced by people with disabilities and “take steps” to meet their needs. That public sector equality duty means that public bodies have to consider people with disabilities throughout their work, including in shaping policy and delivering services. Throughout the housing standards review that the hon. Lady mentioned, the Government are strengthening the building regulations, as I described.

Work is going on which the hon. Lady and, indeed, other members of the Committee may not be aware of. The Government are working with professional bodies in the sector to strengthen good practice and professional expertise and support inclusive design. We have given support to the Design Council and the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment in order to mainstream best practice in inclusive design. We have had direct engagement with key construction professionals, including architects, engineers, surveyors and builders. In particular, we funded the Design Council to deliver a web-based one-stop shop for construction sector professionals to share knowledge, relevant research and best practice in inclusive design. That hub was launched on 17 July last year and received 12,000 hits in its first month.

We did not stop there. Back in October, I chaired a meeting at the Design Council of all the professional bodies, including some of the ones that the shadow Minister mentioned. We looked at what we could do together to ensure that the need for inclusive design is built into the initial professional training of people studying for a qualification—whether it is architects, surveyors or people working in building regulations and planning—so that it is as up to date as possible. Of course, as most of the people practising in those areas will already be qualified and in work, we also looked at how that can be built into their continuing professional development.

In February, we will reconvene that group of professional bodies to see what they have done in the intermediate months. The Minister for Disabled People will, I hope, join me at that meeting. We look forward to hearing what all the professional bodies are doing to change professional practice and ensure that when people working in this area are designing a new building or an alteration to an existing one, they have accessibility at the forefront of their minds.

I hope that the hon. Member for City of Durham is reassured by what I have said. In the housing standards review, we thought through carefully what we should do on accessible design and building regulations. We came up with the baseline part M and the enhanced standard, so that local authorities can choose to go further if their local demographics suggest that they should. We have strong guidance in several paragraphs of the NPPF that local authorities have to follow in preparing their local plans.

Although we will be revealing it in February, we have been working behind the scenes with all the relevant professional bodies in this area to ensure that this good practice cascades right through the work force, from a graduate trainee to the most senior person in a planning authority or architectural practice. Inclusivity in design should be at the heart of all their work. With those reassurances, I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that there is good intention on both sides and will withdraw her new clause.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 3:00 pm, 15th January 2015

I will try to explain carefully to the Minister why I am not reassured by what he had to say. Our view is that launching hubs for discussion, chairing meetings, getting professional bodies together and looking at training are all worthwhile things, but they will not deliver what we want unless there is a requirement for local authorities to take account of accessibility in developing their local plans and to think clearly about how that is going to be implemented in practice.

Just for the record, I would be grateful if the Minister told us where he thinks there will not be a demographic need to have more accessibility. Where exactly in the country do we not have an ageing population and people with mobility problems? I have not come across that area, so if he has, perhaps he can enlighten us.

I want to respond to some of the points that the Minister made, particularly about the NPPF. I clearly said that there was an accessibility requirement, but that it was undercut by the viability requirements. I do not think that the Minister dealt with that point at all. In reality, the viability argument trumps the accessibility one. That whole issue needs to be looked at. If it was a level playing field and all local authorities had to accept these new housing standards, which have been operating, as far as I can see, effectively in London for more than a decade, then we would not be in that situation.

I am really surprised that the Minister went down the rather odd route of just asking what part M of the building regulations had to do with it. The point I made about part M of the building regulations was that it had existed since 1998 and it needed looking at again. It is not enough and it is not delivering what we need in terms of building accessible homes or—which would be much more desirable—homes to the lifetime homes standard. That is where the whole debate is, and he will know that if he chairs meetings of professional organisations working in the area.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

To ask the hon. Lady a direct question, is it her suggestion that all new homes should be built to the lifetime homes standard that Habinteg owns at the moment?

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The new clause asks that local authorities be required to consider accessibility in drawing up their local plans. The point I made about code 6 was that if the Government had not watered down the requirement for new homes to be built to code level 6 by 2016, then we would have had the lifetime homes standard by another route. As that route is not currently available because of the changes that the Government are making through the legislation, perhaps the Minister would consider another route, which is a requirement to put this standard into local plan policy. That was, I thought, the very clear point I made in my comments to the new clause.

At the moment, the Government do not seem to support either of the routes that would help us deliver more accessible homes. What we have is a talking shop and, for people who have serious mobility issues, that is not good enough. It is not good enough that we are not building homes to the lifetime homes standard when we clearly could.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way a second time. I did not give the full list of the people who were at the meeting at the Design Council in October—in fact, we will be re-inviting the presidents of all these professional bodies to the Design Council in February—but they included people who are advocates for the various disability groups and who are involved in the work. I do not think it is fair to describe it as a talking shop. It is already altering professional practice, and the intention is that that change of mindset will be embedded throughout the profession. It has already had tangible results and the intention is for it to have representation on all the key professional bodies from February.

Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I will take the Minister’s word that some progress might be made in some areas as a result of the work that is going on. The important thing about the new clause—I have not really heard from him why he disagrees with it—is that it would require all local authorities to consider accessibility in their plan making. In the context of what he has just said about the discussions, I cannot see why the new clause is not acceptable. I wish to press it to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided: Ayes 6, Noes 9.

Division number 15 Decision Time — New Clause 12 - Development Plan documents: accessible design

Aye: 6 MPs

No: 9 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.