A truly accessible housing stock ensures that everyone can live comfortably and independently. It also extends housing options to a broader range of potential buyers or renters, with a correspondingly positive impact on the property market.
Yet changing demographics and chronic housing supply shortages across the UK are accelerating an accessibility crisis – particularly among people with disabilities and the elderly.
However, a visitable home does not make it liveable as a wheelchair user, nor does it guarantee true accessibility and adaptability to occupants over their lifetime.
Census 2021 data indicates that around one in five people in England and Wales has a disability – a statistic that covers a broad spectrum of conditions, including hearing and sight impairments, restricted mobility, learning difficulties and autism spectrum disorders.
With disability more prevalent among older people and accessible housing already scarce, the ONS forecast that more people in the UK will be aged 65 or above than of working age by 2045 is cause for concern.
There are signs that the UK is waking up to its accessibility crisis, with government announcements on improving hospital discharge pathways and the challenges of housing an ageing population. Habinteg research also highlights the plight of those with accessible housing needs unable to find suitable homes.
Considerable effort is nonetheless still needed, to raise awareness of and address the challenges around accessible homes. The surveying profession has an important role to play in this effort, with residential surveys, material information for property listings and estate agency among the key areas for improvement.
Producing informed and useful information on accessibility requires knowledge of both property and disability. The accessibility section of residential surveys should be structured and standardised by accessibility experts who have a clear understanding of how each part of the housing sector interconnects.
However, there is currently no requirement to provide accessibility information, and consumers lack guidance on how accessibility may affect them in the future – whether directly through ageing, injury or trauma, or indirectly through the additional needs of a family member.
In Scotland, for example, the Home Report provides homebuyers with detailed information about the property they intend to purchase. Part of this report, the single survey, includes information on accessibility in the form of a questionnaire, from which the following questions are taken.
Single survey reports follow the inspection and reporting requirements set out in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 and the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 (Prescribed Document) Regulations 2008.
Although the single survey enhances the visibility and relevance of accessibility when making a property choice – not unlike energy performance certificates (EPCs) which inform potential buyers or tenants about a building's energy costs and efficiency – my experience supporting agents through the Accessible Letting Scheme suggests that these questions by themselves aren't particularly helpful.
People should also understand why the answers are useful – for example, knowing that steps between a bedroom and bathroom may pose a fall risk to some occupants, particularly during the night, or how parking rights based on distance overlook the diverse needs of vehicle users and the suitability of parking bays.
Ideally, accessibility information in a residential survey could also explain the following:
The point is not to make surveyors take responsibility for homeowners' needs, but for them to highlight where property features may affect those changing needs.
Among reforms underway in the UK private rented sector, the National Trading Standards Estate and Lettings Agency Team (NTSELAT) recently updated its guidance on material information.
Such information includes the key details about a property and its surroundings that allow homebuyers and renters to make an informed decision about whether to proceed with a transaction.
Accessibility was one of the areas that NTSELAT consulted on in revising the guidance, with input from AccessiblePRS. We would like to see the updated guidance make the property search process easier for older and disabled renters, without leading to unintended consequences.
At the same time, the guidance must be practical enough that letting agents need not become experts in disability to implement it. Guidance that is overcomplicated risks being rejected or poorly implemented, and would make no improvement to those in search of accessible homes.
What has helped steer the conversation is that, as founder and director of AccessiblePRS, I have already launched the Accessible Lettings Scheme to support letting agents and standardise inclusion across the search process.
Agents have been blamed for lacking suitable systems to record and list accessible homes. Yet filtering property listings using the single characteristic 'wheelchair accessible' would be impractical, not least because only new homes built to M4(3) wheelchair accessible standard can be properly assessed and defined as such.
The Accessible Letting Scheme aims for pragmatism and functionality: in a housing market dominated by inaccessible homes, what are the characteristics that make searching for a suitable property and filtering results more manageable?
The scheme requires letting agents to address two aspects of their professional practice. First, they must update their existing customer relationship management (CRM) and IT systems to include the following three property characteristics as filter options:
This information feeds directly into relevant search criteria on the property portals. It's imperative that agents and portals provide clear guidance to those with accessible housing needs on how to find their new home.
Second, letting agents and related staff would do well to undertake a one-hour training course, either in person or online, to help them easily identify accessibility features in properties and communicate these to prospective tenants. This training would also benefit sales agents.
'It's imperative that agents and portals provide clear guidance to those with accessible housing needs on how to find their new home'
The rise in remote working since the COVID-19 pandemic has made identifying potential home-working spots in listings second nature to agents. Accessibility features should be likewise standard in listings.
Beyond this, the more agents lean into inclusion, the better their market performance. Knight Frank, for example, has established accessibility champions following Accessible Letting Scheme training.
As well as fostering inclusion at Knight Frank by matching the right homes to the right people – many of whom previously struggled to find somewhere suitable – their analytics shows social media engagement on accessibility related posts to be significantly higher than average, and enhanced organic search engine results for accessible property listings with specific search terms.
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.
The conversation around accessibility in the built and natural environment continues to grow, with disability rightly becoming a priority when designing spaces.
In May 2023, Mike Adams, CEO of Purple, joined RICS' Sybil Taunton alongside accessibility and inclusive environments specialist Jean Hewitt on an episode of The RICS Podcast.
The episode covers the wide-spanning accessibility needs beyond our typical perceptions, why it's key for organisations to prioritise inclusion, and how professionals can further improve the built environment for those with disabilities.
Click the play button below to listen.