Disabled people are having to wait months just to be assessed for adaptations to their home and over a year for work to be completed - and some of the longest snarl-ups in the system can be found in Greater Manchester.
ManchesterWorld has teamed up with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to look at how difficult it can be for people with disabilities to get changes made to their properties so they can live independently.
The city-region particularly struggles to get occupational therapists (OTs) out to see disabled people, with Salford and Manchester having the longest waits in England.
A property not being suitably adapted for a disabled person can result in terrible hardship as they cannot even do simple everyday tasks like cooking or showering.
Manchester City Council has admitted it has been struggling to recruit OTs and has also been battling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as increasing numbers of people being referred.
What does the data show for Greater Manchester?
The data looked at how long disabled people have to wait for an initial assessment to be done, for an application to be processed and for work to then be done on their homes.
The most striking figures for the city-region were around how long people have to wait to see an occupational therapist (OT).
In Salford, the average wait was eight months as of 30 September 2021, and it was seven months in Manchester.
These were the two longest periods disabled people have to wait to see an OT in England among those local authorities who answered this question when asked by the Bureau.
Getting an appointment with an OT is particularly important as they must carry out an assessment before an application can be made for adaptation work to be funded through the means-tested Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG).
The data also shows that over the past couple of years the amount of waiting people have to do to be assessed by councils has gone up significantly.
In Manchester, initial assessment waits were 156 working days in 2021-22 and 181 in 2020-21 compared to 66 in 2018-19.
In the latest year, the initial assessment process as a whole in Manchester was taking 10.4 months and it was more than a year (14.8 months) to get through the entire DFG process which ends with the adaptations needed being completed.
In Stockport, the entire DFG process was taking an average of 10.3 months in 2021-22.
In Bury, it was 10 months and it was 8.2 months in Oldham.
Why is this important?
There are more than 14 million disabled people in the UK, with 8% of children having some form of disability alongside 19% of working-age adults and 46% of pension-age adults, according to the charity Scope.
In June 2016, a Foundations report claimed Disabled Facilities Grants had helped more than 40,000 people a year to live in more accessible housing since its inception in 1989, and is now the only grant available for home adaptations in England.
Disabled people who have their accessible housing needs met are four times more likely to be in employment than disabled people without accessible homes, according to a report by Habinteg and Papworth Trust.
Despite this, only 9% of homes in England have basic accessibility features, such as a toilet downstairs and level access.
Home adaptations are now being looked at by the Bureau as it is feared Covid-19 is likely to have adversely affected the length of the adaptation process as well as the increasing cost of building materials and contractors to carry out construction work.
‘I had to shower in swimming pools for years’
One Salford resident described how she has struggled for years to be given accommodation suitable for her needs.
JoAnn Taylor, who is a wheelchair user who suffers from a chronic condition and also has chronic arthritic pain and osteoarthritis, says she has moved more than a dozen times.
She said an occupational therapist told her she should have a fully-adapted house as far back as 2004 but claims she was put in numerous properties without wet rooms, faced difficulties getting properties without adaptations altered for her, and even extra care accommodation had issues with poor build quality and staff shortages.
She said that for years she had to visit local swimming pools just to be able to use a disabled shower.
She also claimed that at one point when living in a three-bed house and waiting for adaptations to be done work was done on a neighbouring property but not hers.
JoAnn, 53, said: “It has just been horrendous, a nightmare.
“It just makes me want to go and live in another country. I’ve got dual nationality and was born in Canada and came here to Salford when I was 16, but I just want to go somewhere else, it has been so awful.
“One place I was moved to wasn’t for a wheelchair user at all and I only stayed there five nights.
“Especially as a woman not having a wet room is a big thing.
“I’m currently in extra care but they’re short staffed and most of my belongings are still packed up because there’s no-one to help me unpack.”
JoAnn says she is hoping to eventually get a bungalow in the Cadishead or Irlam areas of Salford to be closer to her carer.
However, housing association ForHousing strongly disputed some of JoAnn’s claims about the difficulties she has faced and said it believes it has done everything possible to accommodate her needs.
Nigel Sedman, executive director of homes at ForHousing, said: “We understand Ms Taylor’s frustrations in trying to find a suitable home that meets her needs in an area where she wishes to live. The team at ForHousing has worked very closely with Ms Taylor for a number of years to try and identify and adapt the right home.
“In 2014 we spoke to Ms Taylor to raise our concerns that the home she had selected as part of her rehousing application with Salford Council’s Home Search was not adapted and that the works needed to ensure it met her needs could not feasibly be carried out on this particular property. Consequently, we strongly advised against Ms Taylor moving into the property.
“Since then, ForHousing carried out as many adaptations that were possible at the home and worked with Ms Taylor to offer more suitable homes where the adaptations needed to help her live independently could be completed.
“Working in partnership with Salford Council and Ms Taylor we identified the right home and all adaptations have been carried out. We’ll continue to support Ms Taylor going forwards.”
What help is available to disabled people looking to adapt their properties?
In England, the upper limit that can be awarded through a DFG is £30,000.
However, councils can then add top-up amounts of money to this to fund adaptations.
The amount available varies widely among the 10 town halls in Greater Manchester.
Manchester City Council allows top-ups of £70,000, having increased the maximum grant limit to £50,000 in 2017 and then to £100,000 last year.
The Bureau highlighted this as a significant figure and said that of the councils who answered questions about top-ups 33 offered an additional £30,000 or more and another 18 had no set or upper limit.
One of those 18 is Stockport.
In other parts of the city-region, though, councils give out far less in top-up amounts.
In Salford and Rochdale the top-up is £10,000 and in Oldham it is £11,817,39.
Bury and Wigan told the Bureau that they look at amounts on a case-by-case basis, with Bury suggesting this only happens in exceptional circumstances.
Has anything been said by local authorities about the Bureau’s findings?
A Manchester City Council spokesperson said: “We are aware that the waiting times on home adaptations are challenging and have increased substantially since the pandemic started two years ago.
“A combination of factors since Covid-19 has impacted the assessment and delivery of adaptations process including delays in assessing people due to the first lockdown, and subsequently when that lockdown was lifted many residents postponed assessments or works going ahead.
“Covid -19 also had a big impact on staff absence and on our ability to recruit staff to vacant posts during this time.
“To reduce our waiting lists in the short term we have outsourced a number of assessments to a private occupational therapy company and expect the waiting list and time to be substantially reduced by the end of the summer.
“We are also looking at the wider issues around assessments and we have set up a working group to help with the recruitment of occupational therapists (there is a national shortage of occupational therapists across the country and not something specific to Manchester).
“We are also embarking on a review of the delivery model for home adaptations in Manchester to streamline the process.”
Manchester City Council said it had topped up its DFG grants so much to allow major works to be done after a ruling went against Islington Council.
Previously people needing that much work done would be recommended for another property if one became available, the town hall said.
The spokesperson added: “Another reason for the increase in the DFG was in response to a significant increase in both the cost of raw materials and building supplies and very complex cases involving multiple major adaptations, particularly for children.”
Salford City Council has been approached for comment.
What else has been said about waiting for adaptations?
There have been concerns that in England and Wales between 10% and 30% of DFG applicants drop out each year for various reasons, stated in reports such as this one.
There are also concerns that some councils do not go out of their way to publicise the DFG scheme for fear of triggering a rapid rise in demand.
Raising the upper limit is one of the main proposals in Westminster’s Social Care White Paper as well as boosting funding for DFGs to the tune of £570m per year between 2022-23 and 2024-25 and investing at least £300m to integrate housing into local health and care strategies.
The White Paper promises a public consultation this year to look at several recommendations from the 2018 Government-commissioned DFG review.
However, the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) told the Bureau in late January it has not confirmed a date yet for the consultation.
More promises about housing for disabled people are also outlined in the National Disability Strategy.