1. Built environment
February 8, 2016

“Last time buyers”: Britain needs more retirement housing, too

By Kate Bermingham

Restrictive planning laws, ever increasing demand for housing: managing population growth in Britain’s urban areas is no easy task.

Managing the housing needs of an ageing population – many of whom have chronic health conditions and require support from care workers – is even trickier. We need to come up with some ideas quickly, though: the Office for National Statistics estimates that, by 2039, nearly one in three of the UK population will be over 60; one in 12 people will be over 80.

So Britain doesn’t just need more housing – it needs more specialised retirement housing, designed for older people who might have impaired mobility.

Michael Ball, a research professor in real estate and planning at Henley Business School, argues that increasing the supply of owner-occupied retirement housing (OORH) would bring benefits not just for older people, but for society as a whole. More than 90 per cent of OORH residents report being happy with their accommodation. More appropriate accommodation should reduce stays in hospitals, and relieve pressure on the NHS, too.

But despite the clear advantages of specialist retirement housing, Ball is not optimistic about the future of urban planning for older people: “A clear plan for meeting the housing needs of the older population does not feature in local planning policy,” he says gloomily.

Why are we so bad at providing decent retirement housing in the UK? Part of the problem is lack of joined up thinking. The housing problem spills over into health and social care for older people with chronic health conditions who struggle to live independently. “There are limited options for this group and too much division between the NHS, social care and housing,” says Ball. “The result is older people needlessly taking up space in hospital.”

But the planning restrictions and the shortage of available land, affecting every segment of the population, is a huge issue too. Ball points to examples of better retirement options in the American states of Florida and Arizona, and parts of Australia, where a greater supply of both land and property are available.

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Michael Voges, the executive director of the Association of Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), agrees that the other English speaking nations a offer better retirement housing options than the UK. “In the UK around 0.5 per cent of over-65s live in specialist retirement communities,” he notes. “We’d like to see this increase to around 5 per cent, which is roughly the level you’ll see in Australia, New Zealand and parts of the US.”

ARCO is currently leading the Help to Move campaign, which calls for three key policy changes. One is the suspension of Stamp Duty Land Tax on purchases of retirement community properties, to encourage people to move to them. Another is extra public funding for the construction of specialist retirement homes in the social housing sector. The last is a more consistent approach from local authorities when it comes to planning and approving retirement housing schemes.

A proactive approach from local authorities is crucial here, and Voges echoes Michael Ball’s concern that this area of policy is being neglected: “Local authorities know that they need to do more – but when they set out their plans, housing for older people often isn’t mentioned at all.”

Without some state intervention, however, the stock of specialist retirement housing is unlikely to increase. The building industry is driven by profit – and retirement properties are less profitable than general housing building. A development of 80 specialist retirement units, say, will also need communal buildings – a shop, fitness centre, GP surgery. Much easier just to build 100 houses on the same land.

The Local Government Association acknowledges that more needs to be done to meet the housing needs of older people – but suggests that local authorities are beginning to take this issue more seriously. A spokesperson told me: “Councils know there is a pressing demand for housing for people with particular needs… and recognise the impact good quality housing can have in reducing demand on other services and on people’s quality of life.”

But as ever, there are two barriers: money and power. “By removing restrictions on council investment and centrally-imposed affordable housing exemptions, local authorities will be able to invest more money in delivering affordable and accessible homes,” the spokesperson continued. “Councils understand the needs of their communities and their local housing markets and are best placed to strike the balance to make sure schemes will suit their areas and provide much-needed homes.”

There are other problems facing Britain’s ageing population: not least, in the care workforce. Independent Age and the International Longevity Centre-UK predict a shortfall of 1m care workers by 2037. The shortage of care workers is likely to be particularly severe in cities where high housing costs make it difficult for minimum wage workers to make ends meet.

To date, much of the housing crisis debate has focused on the very real problems faced by first time buyers. But “last time buyers” exist in the same property market and compete for the same land. Many older people hang on to family homes, with empty spare bedrooms, creating a bottleneck in the property ladder. Better housing options for older people could help everyone.

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