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Lifetime homes hit home
Housebuilder – April 2008

At a time when developers are struggling to gte to grips with the latest sustainability standards and challenging market conditions, government decided to drop a new regulatory requirement onto their laps - lifetime homes standards for all new homes. Mark Smulian seeks the views of an increasingly disaffected industry

When the latest government initiative lands on housebuilders there is usually someone somewhere who thinks it a good idea and a business opportunity, which makes the chorus of anger and derision poured upon lifetime homes slightly unusual. No-one outside the charity sector appears to have a good word for it.

Government ministers' motives appear laudable. Lifetime homes would, they argue, enable elderly people to live independently in their own home for longer, as these would have the space and fittings that they need.

The problem is that the government plans not simply to promote lifetime homes as an option, but to impose the concept on all new homes regardless of whether the likely purchaser needs the facilities involved. Ministers have also launched their initiative without any obvious regard to their policy of encouraging the supply of affordable homes for younger people - since the amenities of a lifetime home add to the cost of any new home. Indeed, younger people who plan perhaps only a few years in their first or second home are unlikely to be pleased to pay extra for smaller rooms because space has been shaved off them to accommodate extra circulation space for wheelchairs and stairlifts of which they have no foreseeable need.

This puts builders in the bizarre position of having to charge customers extra for something they do not want to buy. Although the government sees lifetime homes as popular and virtuous (see box) the industry reaction has been quite the reverse. John Slaughter, the Home Builders Federation's external affairs director, was unamused to find the concept sprung on the industry without warning and plans to keep up pressure on ministers. He says: "There are already large elements of this enforced through the Building Regulations in Scotland and it leads to an average extra 1,500 - 2,000 on the cost of a home.

"But that is only an average, and it falls disproportionately on smaller homes, such as starter homes and small homes for young families, which are bought by the people least likely to need lifetime home facilities. Is that the right way to go? "It is not likely to help demand for new homes against secondhand ones if people have to pay for things they do not need; a family may not want a shower room downstairs if they have no bedrooms there for example." Carl Turpin, chief executive of Surrey-based developer Oakdene, calls lifetime homes "an ill-begotten concept, because people buy their first homes in their 20s or 30s, move when they start a family and then move again when their children grow up.

"The whole concept is flawed. It looks good on paper but no-one wants cradle to grave housing. I cannot see developers embracing it with enthusiasm."

Chris Coates, md of Galliford Try Homes, says the government is seeking to impose a one-size-fits-all policy that "is simply not realistic given the wide ranging homebuyer demographic and the differing requirements from people across the whole cycle of home ownership". He fears that first time buyers "will be squeezed further out of the market if they are forced to shoulder additional costs that would result from enforcing extra space and facilities on all new homes."

Builders of specialist retirement housing are, perhaps predictably, hostile to a concept that would encourage elderly people not to move into such accommodation. Spencer McCarthy, chairman and md of Churchill Retirement Living says elderly people buy a retirement home usually because it is in convenient walking distance of shops, has maintenance provided by a management company, is nearer than their original home to family members or because communal rooms foster companionship. "Our typical customer is a 78-year old widow moving to be nearer children or other family members," says McCarthy. "Many do not want to stay in their original home even if they could because it, or its location no longer suits them."

Bill Gair, chief executive of Urban Renaissance Villages, which builds villages for retired people adjacent to towns, asks: "Would you want to live in the same place regardless of whether it still fitted your circumstances?

"Why would people want to buy somewhere that is designed to suit them only in the third age of their life?" Similar concerns come from James Puckeirng, land manager at Aspen Retirement Living. The concept dates originally from the late 1980s and he thinks the 16 standards proposed by the government have taken little account of how house types have since changed. "It may be straightforward to include these standards in a two storey house but you will struggle elsewhere," he says. Puckering also wonders whether the demand is there: "I'm not sure people want to stay in a home where they may have become isolated or is in a village and they can no longer drive."

Opposition from retirement homebuilders might be brushed off by ministers as self-interest. Less easy to ignore are criticisms from architects. David Birkbeck, chief executive of Design for Homes, says bluntly: "I'm not a fan of lifetime homes because it put the emphasis on circulation space not on habitable rooms. "It will not appeal to people that their rooms are smaller to take account of a wheelchair that they and their family may never need to use. "Homes are an average of 85sq metres, and every metre that has to go into circulation space will come off somewhere else."

Andy von Bradsky, chairman of PRP Architects, who has worked with the government on its lifetime neighbourhoods strategy, says housebuilders have "a very valid objection" to the proposed standards. "They have given very fixed dimensions about the circulation area, large bathrooms and so on which come lifetime homes standards housebuilder april 2008 41 Wider hallways and stairways built to potentially accommodate stairlifts are key elements of the standards from a good intention but are too formulaic," he says. "You need more flexibility and adaptability to allow change, rather than specify that there must be features that are of no benefit to the occupant."

Charities for the elderly have, though, backed the idea enthusiastically, with Age Concern housing policy adviser Gillian Connor saying: "Arguments from housebuilders that these are unnecessary 'blanket measures' are missing the point and demonstrate why government intervention is needed.

"It's about choice. The main reason that Age Concern is so keen on lifetime homes is that it means there will be a wider range of housing on offer to older people. "Retirement housing isn't for everyone. Only one in ten older people live in specialist provision after all."

A somewhat different view comes from Susan Simmonds, former chief executive of the National Benevolent Fund for the Aged and now chief executive at Southwark Habitat for Humanity. "In general the people we found to be the most isolated were those who had stayed in their own homes, while those with a higher quality of life had moved out into some specialist form of housing at an appropriate time."

But Help the Aged has strongly supported lifetime homes, with policy director Paul Cann saying: "Older people often tell us that they want to live in their own homes for as long as possible. This strategy will hopefully be a springboard to this becoming a reality."

No-one in the industry objects to lifetime homes being available as an option for those interested, but the blanket nature of the policies has angered builders. They have only until 2010 to do something about it.