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No place like home

by Laurence Clark

22nd May 2006

My wife and I are currently engaged in the nightmare that is moving home. We're looking for a bungalow with more bedrooms, since eighteen months of sharing with our son is really starting to cramp our style!
We're going to remain in north-west England, where property prices are still just about affordable. But the real difficulty is finding somewhere that is relatively wheelchair accessible.

Recent research estimates that there is a shortfall of 300,000 wheelchair accessible homes in the UK. The demand for accessible housing, and this shortfall, is likely to increase over time due to our ageing population and more of us leaving residential homes to live in the community. However, the building trade has yet to wake up to this gap in the market, continuing to build places aimed exclusively at able-bodied people.

Every couple of days I scour the Rightmove website for new additions, trying to decipher estate agent-speak to deduce whether we stand a cat-in-hell's chance of making the property in question accessible. Would it really kill them to mention whether there are steps leading into the property? Or to include a diagram of the layout? Instead I'm left to guess whether phrases like "individually designed" and "deceptively spacious" mean I can get through the front door!

I haven't had a lot of luck in the past when it comes to moving house. A few years ago, I put a deposit down on a newly-renovated apartment in Liverpool's city centre. I shook hands with the builder after agreeing that changes would be made during the construction to make the place accessible. However, they continued to work to the original spec, eventually telling me that I would have to buy it and then pay someone else to undo all their work.

I backed out of the deal but the firm refused to return my deposit, apparently seeing no problem with building me a home that I couldn't physically enter! I eventually went to the small claims court and got my money back. The firm were so embarrassed at being caught swindling a bloke in a wheelchair that they refused to comment on the situation to the local press.

Because of this, nowadays I love to visit the showrooms for new developments to see what reaction I get from the sales agents. Initially it's a look of horror, as their minds race to work out the quickest possible way of getting rid of me without causing a commotion.

The best showrooms to visit are the ones that haven't been made accessible, as then the agent has the additional embarrassment of having to deal with me on the doorstep, in full view of any passing potential customers. In these situations I can hear the panic in their voices as they desperately inform me, in the nicest possible way, that none of their properties are, or ever will be, accessible!

Recently, my wife and I have met with similar reactions whilst viewing various bungalows. When we turned up to one woman's home at 8 o'clock at night in the pouring rain, she left us sitting on her doorstep whilst peering through the letterbox, demanding to know why we were there. Presumably she was trying to work out which charity we were collecting for! I half expected her to shout "release the hounds" in true Mr. Burns-style!

When you eventually find somewhere to live, the bizarre attitudes don't end there.

After moving into my last flat, I applied for a reduction to my Council Tax bill. Since Council Tax goes towards paying for a load of services that I can't access, I figure that a discount is only fair. However, eligibility for this reduction is ludicrously based on whether you've made physical alterations to your property to make it more accessible.

So if you can't afford to adapt your home, then not only will you be disadvantaged by living somewhere that you can't get around, but you may also have to pay your full Council Tax bill! Similarly, if you live somewhere that was built to be accessible from scratch, you may not qualify since your home will not have been altered to make it accessible!

When the chap from the council came round to assess whether I qualified, I showed him where I'd had my internal doorways widened. This didn't count.

I showed him the grab rail in my bathroom. This didn't count.

I showed him the ramp up to my front door. This didn't count.

Eventually he spotted some tiny marks on the wall in my hallway, where I'd had a storage heater taken out when I'd initially moved in. Bizarrely, this did count, and I got my reduction.

The irony of the situation is that, at the time, the council didn't have an Access Officer. They were quite happy to employ someone - a wheelchair user - to come round to my home to check whether it was accessible; but they wouldn't employ someone to do the same for all the public buildings in the city.

Logically though, the current housing situation cannot continue indefinitely. As the demand grows for housing that is more adaptable to people's different requirements, surely one day we'll reach a point when the building trade sits up and takes notice?
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