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Greater thought should go into adaptable homes

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I work in housing development for Braintree District Council.

My role includes the compilation of the district's housing strategy, covering all tenures and reflecting priorities the council sets for meeting the housing needs it identifies. Each year we spend nearly £1 million on adapting housing to meet the needs of people with disabilities.

Conversions range from a few ramps to ground-floor extensions, providing extra bedrooms and downstairs bathrooms.

Although new building regulations have made a difference in the specification of new housing, I was staggered to discover how little thought goes into making all housing adaptable.What have architects been thinking of during the past century? Is it really too much to ask that the needs of a household can be met regardless of their age?

Bungalows built for older people throughout the past 50 years routinely feature passageways too narrow for a wheelchair, turnings into bathrooms that are too tight for anyone to assist comfortably. Why have we been so incapable of thinking ahead?

The maximum grant we can give for adaptations to a property is £20,000. Last week I was asked to find an alternative solution for a family because the work required to make their property accessible for their disabled son would cost £57,000.

Features that we are looking for in new housing include knock-out walls between bedrooms (particularly in three-bed houses) so that a through-floor lift can be easily fitted at a later date. Downstairs WCs must be big enough to permit a shower to be fitted later and the bath is fitted over graded floors, ready to take a shower if it becomes necessary.

We are trying to create a market for adapted properties with a couple of local estate agents.

Houses that have been adapted and come onto the market tend to be regarded as liabilities from the point of view of resale. We are experimenting with helping the agents to become known for specialising in adapted property, and will join with social services in offering people the choice of moving if their home is not suitable to meet their needs.

Because of the way housing is funded, we rarely have the discretion to spend extra on new houses to ensure they have sensible, well-thought-out features that would help long-term needs.

Thank God for improving building regulations: I dare say developers and architects curse them. For the rest of us, they save us from the lack of forethought and responsibility taken by a generation involved in house building.

Tim Lucas, Braintree District Council

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