Transcript by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Life Matters

Program: Radio National with Jane Cargo

The Federal Government today will launch Universal Housing Design Standards for new homes which will improve housing availability for young families, the aged and people with disabilities.

Interviewees: Bill Shorten, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services; Kristin Tomkins, Housing Industry Association.


JANE CARO:  Houses of the future. Imagine a house with no steps. Imagine every new house with no steps because that’s what a proposal being announced today is all about. The idea is that in 10 years time all new houses, including those on sprawling housing estates, will have some noticeable differences. Well, they won’t have front steps for starters. They’ll also have wide hallways and a big bathroom downstairs with a wide door.

This is because houses will be designed to accommodate wheelchairs for both disabled and older people, and the concept will become the norm rather than the exception.

That’s what Bill Shorten, the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, wants to see. He’s been leading a dialogue between housing industry heavyweights and disability advocates. And today in Sydney they launch an agreement about universal housing design.

I spoke earlier to Bill Shorten and also to Kirstin Tomkins from the Housing Industry Association. She’s their senior executive director for building, development and environment.

I began by asking Bill Shorten whether this concept will be binding.

BILL SHORTEN: What we’ve been talking about is in a dialogue involving all of the property industry, all the key players, all of the people who are interested in issues to deal with seniors, to do with people with disabilities, is are we building homes which suit a person’s life cycle? Are we building liveable homes?

What has been the debate for the last two, three, four decades is a debate between on the one hand people who want to regulate and say this is what your home has got to look like, and other people who say, no, we’re not going to be regulated.

We’ve managed to bypass that debate by involving in a very collaborative and cooperative fashion people who build houses, people who pay for houses, people who live in houses. And what we’re trying to do is create a liveable housing design which makes it easier for people to sell the houses that they build, to make it easier for the new houses to suit upwards of three, four million potential customers who have mobility impairments as they grow older in particular, to make sure they’ve got those houses there that they can live in.

JANE CARO: And you’ve said it was collaborative and cooperative, but tell us about the dialogue before we get into more detail about what the proposal is. I mean, I would like to have been a fly on the wall at some of your meetings.

BILL SHORTEN: Well, the meetings – there were representatives there, not the least the Housing Industry Association and Kirstin Tomkins, and the Property Council, the Master Builders, the architects, the Real Estate Institute of Australia, the seniors, the Human Rights Commissioner, disability rights people who are interested in houses, government departments.

And there was a recognition that it’s taken 10 years to create a premises standards for public buildings – 10 years – longer than the Trojan War.

JANE CARO: [Laughs]

BILL SHORTEN: And I think a lot of us though, isn’t – surely there’s got to be better way whereby we can build new buildings for people to live in where, basically, they’re designed and not just for some people but for all people.

JANE CARO: Right. Kristin, do you agree? Has this really been a consensus project or do your members have no choice other than to come on board with these kinds of moves?

KRISTIN TOMKINS: I think it’s been a very useful dialogue. And, as Bill mentioned, these things can take a long time.

What’s been important here is that everyone has come to the table to look at a different way to approach the issue. It’s really important for the housing industry and the property construction sector to look at ways they can offer information to homebuyers and also ways that we can educate the building industry to be able to respond accordingly. And the dialogue’s work has certainly opened up those channels of communication.

JANE CARO: So back to you, Bill, for a minute. What will these houses actually look like?

BILL SHORTEN: I think houses in the future are going to be pretty smart looking houses. I think they’re going to be houses – design and taste is an individual feature and I think we’ll still ha… we’ll still be building great houses in 10 years time, as many houses are now.

What they will include though is the recognition that there will be certain common features which will mean that everyone who wants to buy and sell a house can identify common features, such as having slightly wider doorways, such as having level entry for a person to come and visit, or for a person who is living there to be able to go through without having to negotiate steps, such as having showers without a lip.

What this is, is understanding that Australians come in all shapes and sizes and that liveable design is something which can be aesthetically pleasing, it can be valuable upon resale, and it can reflect that some people have trouble with their mobility.

JANE CARO: Yes, and as we get older, that will be more and more of us. So it’s a lot more than wheelchairs, isn’t it, Bill? It’s really thinking about the different needs of everyone.

BILL SHORTEN: One of the things which Australians do when they buy a house is they contemplate selling it again.

JANE CARO: [Laughs] Indeed.

BILL SHORTEN: And there’s a massive consumer benefit, individual benefit, if you can have a market of in 2020 2.8 million people over the age of 65. If you can have a market which includes people with mobility impairment. What we’re going to see is the creation of houses which more people will be able to buy when someone wishes to sell them, and I think that’s fantastic. It’s – like all good ideas, it’s a combination of commonsense and goodwill.

JANE CARO: Kristin, will all your members be happy about universal design? I mean, are individual builders going to be enthusiastic about Bill’s kind of vision for this?

KRISTIN TOMKINS: Look, I think what’s important to recognise here is that builders already offer these features to consumers who choose to ask for them. And a really important part of the message is we need to get consumers to ask for them.

Builders have been retrofitting houses to assist people who have had an accident or an injury or who a disability. Wider doorways, wider corridors, they’re not particularly difficult construction solutions for the industry to offer up. But what’s important is for a builder to be able to explain to a consumer the options that are available for them. And the guidelines that the dialogue has gone on to develop put together in a nice neat package what some of those options are.

JANE CARO: And what about people who want to build on very steep land, you know, a very steep block of land. Can they still do that under these plans or do some sites just become completely unsuitable for housing from now on?

KRISTIN TOMKINS: Look, I don’t think it’s about taking land supply out of the game. Obviously we’ve got a housing shortage and it’s quite fundamental that this sort of initiative doesn’t work against other programs that the Government is working on. But maybe we need to recognise that the internal design of a home is appropriate to be adapted in the future, and that actually getting a steep driveway may be an impediment but somebody chooses to buy that home knowing that that home is on a steep block.

So you’ve still go the choice. You look at the Queenslander style of housing. That’s a really well accepted construction in Queensland and they’ll need to look at other ways that they can make their homes more accessible in states like that.

JANE CARO: And you talk about choice. So would you like to see Bill Shorten’s Government legislation on this?

KRISTIN TOMKINS: No. Look, regulation we don’t think is the answer. It’s just – Bill said earlier, people come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes and so do disabilities. There is no one size fits all solution here, and I think that’s why it’s very important that we don’t use the sledgehammer to crack the walnut.

We need to be quite pragmatic, provide solutions, educate the industry to be able to deliver those solutions, but not just say there is one size and every house in Australia should be that one size.

JANE CARO: Well, Bill Shorten, I bet you wish you could get this sort of consensus all the time.

BILL SHORTEN: Yes, I think it’s important to emphasise that this is about making more housing more liveable for more people. Individual taste is still the main game, choice, access to land; all these things aren’t compromised.

As we said earlier, this has seen the fairly unprecedented involvement of all of the people who have a view about how you best develop the housing stock of the future. And we’ve managed to get everyone to agree. We haven’t done it by regulation; that’s not what this is about. That would be the – not the message. It’s about recognising that there’s a consumer market and it’s growing. And it’s about collaboratively anticipating the growth in demand for housing which is liveable for people, no matter what their age or need. And it’s also about doing it in a way which does away with some of the debates about do you regulate or do you not; beyond that.

JANE CARO: Beyond that. Well, Bill, on that optimistic and positive note, before we let you go, election speculation is hotting up. Can you give us any idea of when we’ll be voting?

BILL SHORTEN: No, it will be on a Saturday but…


JANE CARO: And I’ll be in my local public school, yeah.

BILL SHORTEN: And it would seem that people said it will be this year. But I think what’s important to recognise here is that there’s a clear choice between Julia Gillard, who is interested in how we move forward, and Tony Abbott who, I feel, would [indistinct] cuts to services and his interest in something that looks like WorkChoices, is a backward step.

JANE CARO: Well, thanks to both of you for your time today, and good luck with the universal housing launch. We wish you the very best with it.

BILL SHORTEN: Thank you very much.

JANE CARO: Thank you very much Kristen too.

KRISTIN TOMKINS: Thank you Jane.

JANE CARO: Kristin Tomkins is the senior executive director for building development and environment, with the Housing Industry Association. And you also heard there from Bill Shorten, the Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities. Both are in Sydney today for the launch of that agreement on universal housing design.

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