Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals ‘devastating delays’ in disability assessments

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals for the first time the full waits involved in applying for and completing work via a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG)
A person in a wheelchair

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reveals for the first time the full waits involved in applying for and completing work via a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG), the major grant scheme to help fund adaptations to disabled people’s homes, improve accessibility and aid independent living.

Government rules mandate that adaptations are approved and completed within a maximum of 18 months in England and Wales once a council has received a completed application form, but this already long statutory time limit does not include the time it takes to be assessed as eligible to apply or any of the steps taken before the application goes in.

Our data, which shows how long the entire process takes, starting from someone’s first contact with their local authority, indicates disabled people could easily be waiting two to three years for the changes that make their property a liveable home – such as accessible cooking and showering facilities. Councils are only required to record the average waiting times, so many are likely waiting longer.

Data gathered from Freedom of Information requests sent to all UK local authorities and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has helped us uncover the extent to which access to a DFG, and the wait involved to complete adaptations, are a postcode lottery.

Bureau Local, the Bureau’s UK local investigations team, can reveal:

  • In 10 council areas in England and Wales, disabled people wait, on average, more than a year before they can even submit their formal application for the grant. Much of this time, according to our figures, is waiting to be assessed by an occupational therapist or similar person.
  • In several council areas the average time to finish an adaptation — from an applicant’s first contact with the council to the work being completed — is almost two years.
  • Some areas of Northern Ireland, where grant rules are different, had wait times of more than three years, according to the NIHE’s figures.

The investigation also revealed particularly long waits for children and adults to be assessed, which is when their eligibility for the grant is decided on. The difference in response times across England and Wales was stark.

  • In some places in Wales, the average wait for an assessment was just a few days, but in Newport it could be up to a year — the area with the longest assessment waits in Wales since 2020/21.
  • Applicants under Salford Council faced, on average, an eight-month wait to see an occupational therapist or similar person. This was the longest average wait in England out of the 89 councils that responded to this question, followed by Manchester City Council at seven months and Solihull Council at six-and-a-half months.

Fazilet Hadi, head of policy at Disability Rights UK, told the bureau: “The current delays in the system are having a devastating impact on the lives of Disabled people and their families. Most people take bathing, cooking, and other everyday activities for granted, yet we are making disabled people wait months and years for basic changes to our homes, which would enable us to live independently and safely.”

A range of people can be eligible for a DFG, this includes “autistic people, those with a mental health condition, physical disabilities, learning disabilities, cognitive impairments such as dementia, and progressive conditions such as motor neurone disease. It includes those suffering from age-related disabilities and can also include those with terminal illness”, as explained in updated guidance for local authorities in England published in March.

The bureau spoke to several disabled individuals, and relatives of disabled people, who have been forced to crowdfund the money required to make their homes liveable because the grant will not cover the cost of the work. There are also those who cannot afford the contribution they are expected to make after undergoing a means test.

Councils and the NIHE can use their discretionary powers to top up the DFG amount per applicant. The statutory maximum amount an applicant can receive as a DFG is £30,000 in England, £36,000 in Wales, and £25,000 in Northern Ireland.

The Westminster government is considering raising the upper limit and had promised a public consultation in their Social Care White Paper published last year. The investigation found:

  • Nearly 80% of local authorities in England are using discretionary powers to top up the maximum DFG amount, but the extra money a person can get varies wildly by council. Some offer another £30,000, but Manchester Council can offer up to £70,000, citing the rise in the cost of building materials as one reason for the significant increase to its grant award.
  • In Wales, the majority of councils told us they have a discretionary scheme in place, but four do not.In some areas, the top-up is a grant; in many, it is a loan.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “It is vital disabled people are fully supported with adaptations and improvements, so they are comfortable and secure in their homes. Since 2010, we have provided councils with more than £4bn to deliver around half a million home adaptations and an expert body is on hand to help any council reduce backlogs, so older and disabled people can live independently and safely.

“We appreciate the challenges councils have faced to deliver these grants during the pandemic, but it is now crucial that adaptations are delivered at pace and the backlog on waiting lists reduced.”

The Welsh government said it had given an extra £1m to local authorities for adaptations in the 2021/22  financial year and plans to increase it again. Several councils told the bureau they were struggling to recruit and train enough occupational therapists to provide quick assessments. They also pointed to the pandemic as a reason for delays in accessing homes for assessments and building work.

At the heart of the housing crisis for disabled people is a historic lack of accessible properties across the UK. The 2021 National Disability Strategy acknowledges that “less than half of the local plans in England for new homes include requirements for a proportion of new homes to meet higher accessibility standards”.

Christina McGill, interim director of strategy and external affairs at Habinteg, a housing association that has prioritised accessible homes, said: “Just 9% of homes in England provide even the most basic accessibility features. That’s why Habinteg is calling for changes to building regulations to lift up the minimum requirement to the ‘accessible and adaptable’ standard and for all local plans to require a percentage of new homes to be designed to meet the daily living needs of wheelchair users.”

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