Why PRS cannot ignore need for accessible homes

Too often accessibility is overlooked – or even worse, devalued – in the private rented sector. But one initiative is seeking to redress this, as the first in a series of articles explains


  • Guy Harris

20 February 2023

Young wheelchair user with a smartphone in a home setting

The UK's accessible housing crisis is deepening. Of the 1.8m disabled people in the UK with an accessible housing need, 700,000 have incomes within the top 50% of the income distribution. While this dispels the myth that disability automatically necessitates financial support, it also shows that private money alone doesn't solve the accessible housing crisis.

The lack of accessible social housing has pushed desperate property searchers – who reasonably require security of tenure and affordability – into the private rented sector (PRS). However, the PRS is already challenging from an accessibility standpoint, with some landlords selling up and serving section 21 notices to tenants with disabilities.

Approved Document M sets out standards for accessibility for new builds in England, where it is required. However, there is a disconnect between the potential to build new accessible housing that meets M4(3) standards and its availability to those with specific needs in the PRS and social housing sector.

In London, for example, 10% of new builds must be M4(3) wheelchair 'accessible or adaptable homes' and meet certain space standards. However, in practice, The London Plan isn't translating to wheelchair accessible homes in the PRS, as accessible fit-outs are delivered only when requested at the point of purchase.

Of the 1.2m wheelchair users in the UK, more than 400,000 live in unsuitable housing. Yet the total number of people affected is greater than this figure suggests. In my household, for example, four people have accessible housing needs: me as the wheelchair user, and also my wife and two children. 

To tackle these issues, consultancy AccessiblePRS is working with property companies, letting and sales agencies, local authorities and housing associations, investors, designers and developers to improve accessibility and inclusivity in mainstream housing.

'The lack of accessible social housing has pushed desperate property searchers – who reasonably require security of tenure and affordability – into the private rented sector'

Tenant experiences show inclusion is neglected

The experiences shared by our registered tenants expose the extent of diversity-related challenges facing the sector, which include the following examples.

  • A 45-year-old man with a spinal injury spent three years being shuffled around four different hospitals. Two years ago, the local authority placed him in a rural, end-of-life care facility because of his injury-related care and housing requirements. However, he requires only two hours of care per day, which could be provided at home. He has no accessible bathroom or means of leaving the facility to seek work or socialise. This was at an eye-watering cost to the taxpayer of £1,100 per week. 
  • A qualified psychologist who is a powerchair user with a live-in carer was served a section 21 notice, and it was not until two weeks before the eviction date that the local authority told her that they might be able to find her a non-accessible bedsit or hostel room. 
  • A young stroke victim was living, sleeping, eating, washing and toileting in their front room, with their partner and young family living around them.
  • A 50-year-old who has battled poor mental health and substance abuse for decades was told they had to live 240km from their support network because there was no suitable accommodation available more locally.

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Making accessibility integral to surveying

But suppose that surveyors were better informed about the implicit costs and risks relating to the provision of accessible features in housing, and included insight on all properties' suitability in their survey reports along with details such as leaks, cracks and subsidence?

Dr Dominic Aitken, a research associate at Newcastle University, has written about the insurance risk theory relating to accessibility in homes. Put simply, housing is already complex enough, and we don't include accessibility in our decision-making criteria assuming that it will be dealt with if and when the need arises. This is deeply flawed because, by then, it's already too late – and too expensive.

Suppose, too, that valuers didn't mark down homes adapted or rented for supported living, having considered the investment value and realities of government-backed tenancy agreements with full repair-and-insure clauses and the rising number of investors wanting to enter the sector?

Finally, suppose that RICS members were required to take CPD on enabling improved accessibility and inclusion in housing? Bearing in mind that, by 2040 there will be more people aged 65 or above than people of working age – which asks the questions: who's going to look after our ageing citizens, and wouldn't it be easier if they stayed in their homes longer and didn't need (so much) care? 

Surveyors can also ask questions of their clients and the government, particularly about their housing strategies and provision of wheelchair-accessible homes.

RICS and disability

Now, more than ever, there is a moral and an economic imperative to embrace and embed equity in society and in the workplace. Upon a framework of commitment, value and governance, RICS can and will help to shape an accessible and inclusive profession where everyone can thrive, realise their potential and deliver positive social impact.

Learn more on the importance of accessibility and inclusion in planning with the RICS Podcast.

Taking the opportunity of a changing agenda

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased appetite for accessibility, as homes are valued in a different way and environmental, social and governance factors sit higher on corporate agendas.

However, in project terms, KPIs for move-on accommodation have meant a resistance to build in wheelchair accessibility, as managers would be unable to move wheelchair users on – there are no accessible homes for them to move on to.

I'm excited about the life-transforming opportunities that this appetite will inevitably bring when policy reflects demand, not only for improving professional and personal relationships and development, but also positive mental wellbeing and familiarisation of people with disabilities – in line with other protected characteristics – and accessible housing.

I want to ensure that we're having the right conversations and that decision-makers identify and solve accessibility challenges in informed ways, without reinforcing outdated stereotypes.

These challenges include the processes for finding suitable homes, the significant potential in the nascent build-to-rent sector, and the role of the surveying profession in promoting accessibility in the PRS and social housing sector. How we can address them will be the subject of future articles in this series.

Guy Harris is founder and director of AccessiblePRS
Contact Guy: Email

Related competencies include: Diversity, inclusion and teamworking, Housing strategy and provision, Inclusive environments

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