I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity today to present to it.
The Irish Wheelchair Association is basically calling on the Government to conduct a review of Part M (section 3, Access and Use) of the Building Regulations 2010, insofar as it refers to dwellings, ensuring that the minimum accessibility standard for new houses in Ireland is much higher and provides for people who require wheelchair liveable housing. Believe it or not, and it is a surprise to many people, Part M of the building regulations only requires housing to be visitable for a wheelchair user but not liveable, that is, where you must provide access to a habitable room and a toilet at entry level, and all you have to do is consider a three-bedroom semi-detached house with a small toilet under the stairs and the bedrooms upstairs - visitable but not liveable. A consequence of Part M is the lack of availability of wheelchair liveable social housing and private housing in the community, resulting in wheelchair users being homeless, involuntarily living with family and friends, in nursing homes as the Ombudsman referred to, and not having control over their lives as well as not having choices equal to others in society.
This review of Part M that we are calling for should take the form of a public consultation process so that disabled people in the first instance, together with disability organisations and sectoral partners, and all people impacted by the lack of suitable wheelchair liveable housing, can have their voices heard.
The Irish Wheelchar Association is a community of people with physical disabilities across Ireland in every community founded on the belief that everyone should be able to live a life of choice and equality. The services we provide support people with physical disabilities to live independently, and our campaigns demand equal rights and opportunities for people with physical disabilities. The work of the association is underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which was ratified by Ireland in 2018. Article 19, in particular, recognises the right of disabled people to live in the community and to have the opportunity to choose their place of residence - not have it forced on them. Furthermore, Article 28 includes the right of disabled people to access public housing programmes.
People who have a mobility impairment and who are, or who may become, full-time wheelchair users require appropriately designed and future-proofed housing that is located within mixed tenure sustainable housing developments not set apart; housing that is perceived to be safe and in a location of people's choosing; and, housing situated in close proximity to services, transport, and family and friends. Unfortunately, new dwellings are merely designed to be visitable under Ireland's building regulations.
For example, earlier this year, following a campaign which we ran called Think Ahead, Think Housing, we were contacted by a developer inquiring about our interest in purchasing 16 new apartments proposed to be built in an existing development in Dublin because we are an approved housing body as well. The existing impressive development had six blocks of apartments with more than 100 apartments in total, all of which were compliant with the Part M of the building regulations and all of them one bedroom apartments. There was also a primary care centre on site and plans for a nursing home, which was about to start, and retail units. It was a lovely development. Planning permission was granted for a further 16 apartments, the ones in this case which the developer was offering the Irish Wheelchar Association, all of which also were one bedroom Part M apartments. Effectively, the whole development excluded wheelchair users, other than if they wanted to visit, of course. They brought us to another site, which also was a lovely site and strategically located, and the planning application was for the same - more than 100 one bedroom Part M apartments also. These also were totally exclusive.
According to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission report, "Discrimination and Inequality in Housing in Ireland, June 2018", people with disabilities are more than twice as likely to report discrimination relating to housing; over 1.6 times more likely to live in poor conditions such as damp housing, lacking central heating or in neighbourhoods where there are issues; and, more than one in four homeless people has a disability.
Technical guidance documents were first introduced in 1991 to provide guidance, in this case, with respect to Part M of the building regulations. Originally the guidance had an emphasis on disability but did not include dwellings. There was a review in 2000, and it was expanded to include dwellings making them visitable but did not provide information on designing homes for people using wheelchairs or lifetime adaptable housing.
Part M was further expanded in 2010 - which is the current one we have - to include some sensory impairments and catered for age, size, and disability with reference only to universal design, but there were many areas of accessibility, including universal design, which were not addressed in this review at the time.
Visitable dwellings are the mandatory baseline for developers. That is what they must adhere to when constructing housing units in Ireland under the building regulations - only visitable.
In the UK, which Ms Smith referred to earlier, there are three standards, namely, visitable dwellings, accessible and adaptable dwellings, and wheelchair user dwellings. We fall well short of the UK. The aim of the new Government housing policy Housing for All is that, "Everyone in the State should have access to a home to purchase or rent at an affordable price, built to a high standard and in the right place, offering a high quality of life." If social and private houses continue to be built to the current building regulations standards of Part M, there will be no provision made for wheelchair-liveable homes and local government will have to continue to retrofit the existing stock, including new houses, and will also have to increase the budget for the disabled persons housing grant. I think we would all agree that this is a foolish and false economy. The Government must review Part M of the building regulations to ensure wheelchair-liveable homes are included in the 9,500 new homes that are planned annually for the next five years. What an opportunity that is. Money does not seem to be an issue but Part M is very clearly a barrier to wheelchair-liveable houses across Ireland. The cost of building homes to a higher accessibility standard is lower at design stage than having to retrofit at a later stage.