Thousands of people will be denied choice in where they live as half of Australia’s States choose to opt out of a building code which would impose minimum standards of accessibility on all new house builds.
The silver standard design guidelines from Liveable Housing Australia (LHA) were incorporated into the National Construction Code (NCC) earlier this year to come into effect in September 2022.
The guidelines require a step-free path from the street to the door, wider doorways, hobless showers, reinforced walls in bathrooms to support future installation of rails, and a toilet at entry level.
However, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia have all opted out of the new requirements, meaning the standards will not be enforced in those States.
The silver standard was added to the NCC following advocacy through the Building Better Homes Campaign, involving more than 80 peak bodies, including representatives of people with disability.
Director of the Building Better Homes Campaign, Alistair Webster, says the decision of these States to not follow the Code undermines the entire purpose of it.
“[It] means fragmented regulation in different States and Territories. It also means some Australians will be worse off than others, depending on where they live,” Mr Webster says.
“Right now, nearly three quarters of people with mobility limitations cannot get access to appropriate housing.
“This is a shameful and short-sighted decision by NSW, SA and WA. Unfortunately, they have caved to the demands of developers instead of listening to seniors and people with disability. We urge them to reverse their decision immediately.”
A spokesperson from the NSW Department of Fair Trading says the Government “recognises the need for an increased supply of accessible housing for those in need”.
However, they add, “The NSW Government does not support the inclusion of minimum accessibility standards in the NCC as currently proposed. The changes would have negative impacts on housing affordability and the construction sector and will also come at a significant cost to the community.”
Instead of supporting the NCC, the spokesperson explains that the Government has “advocated for a balanced approach” by developing its own standards for gold and silver accessibility which “could be adopted by industry and social housing providers” over time and applied through State housing policies.
The SA Government had similar reasons for its decision, with a spokesperson saying the Government is “in favour” of regulations which balance the need to build accessible homes while promoting affordability and choice for future home builders.
“During April's Building Minister's Meeting, the previous South Australian Building Minister, [Vickie Chapman] along with counterparts from Western Australia and New South Wales, voiced concerns that the proposed minimum accessibility provisions do not achieve this balance, particularly given the current pressures on housing affordability,” says the SA Government spokesperson.
“The previous Minister felt that while the provisions do provide some additional accessibility benefits, the silver standard does not go far enough in truly assisting those who require accessible homes, and places an unjustified burden on the construction industry to mandate them across all future builds.”
The WA Government was contacted for comment but did not respond before publication.
States and Territories were given a deadline of December 17, tomorrow, to confirm their position on the silver standards.
Non-Government disability service providers industry body, National Disability Services (NDS), part of the Building Better Homes Campaign, says the decision by the three States is “disappointing”.
“Relying on voluntary take up of accessibility standards has not proven to be effective in creating more accessible housing in the past with reports noting that only five percent of new homes built in the past 10 years comply with voluntary Liveable Housing guidelines,” a NDS spokesperson says.
“An inconsistent approach across States and Territories creates an operating environment that is confusing for the construction industry, disability service providers and, importantly, people with disability.
“NDS strongly urges the NSW, WA and SA governments to ensure that members of their communities have the same housing opportunities as those in other States and Territories.”
The Housing Industry Association (HIA), Australia’s residential building industry peak body, says it consulted a residential builder, who offers a selection of liveable housing designs, over the costs of implementing silver standards for new homes.
The builder said without accruing any extra earthworks costs the silver standard would add $15,000 onto the design and construction costs of a new house.
Rather than using the NCC, the HIA recommends State and Territory Governments provide ongoing subsidies for specialist disability accommodation and home modifications, support voluntary approaches to accessibility, provide incentives for universal housing design features in new homes and renovations, and fund an education campaign.
But in the States and Territories which have chosen to follow the silver standard in the NCC - the Northern Territory, Queensland, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and Tasmania - Mr Webster says the rules will change the lives of “literally millions” of Australians.
“This includes people with disability but also seniors, people recovering from injury or illness as well as families with young children,” says Mr Webster.
“With access to appropriate housing these Australians will have more opportunity for employment and social engagement.
“The point is: accessible housing will benefit everyone at some point in their life.”
While the silver standards are being viewed as a positive step by the members of the Building Better Homes Campaign, the gold standard design of Liveable Housing Australia is something they would like to strive for in the next round of housing planning consultation.
The gold standard would require additional accessibility in kitchens, bedrooms and laundries, as well as switches and powerpoints being located at accessible heights.