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30/11/2020

This winter of discontent for Britain’s elderly must change how we view senior living forever

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Housing for elderly

As England prepares to reform its planning system, policymakers and planners must finally find long-term answers to the challenge of providing age-friendly housing for older people, says Phil Bayliss 

England is on the cusp of overhauling its outdated planning system as it looks to unlock the housing market and deliver the homes the nation really needs. Any move to push this long overdue reform over the line, however, must be done so with a view to benefiting all corners of society – first-time buyers, renters and, most crucially, last-time buyers, who continue to be forgotten in the mooted reform, despite over-65s accounting for 25 perc ent of the population.  

Whilst the plight of younger people struggling to get a foot onto the property ladder has continued to form the basis of rhetoric, there remain two million over-55s trapped in housing that is unsuited to their needs and harmful to their health. 

The enduring undersupply of age-friendly homes, however, is severely limiting choice for older people and, in turn, blocking other buyers from accessing homes which could be far better utilised by growing families. Prioritising purpose-built retirement communities, on the other hand, will reap benefits full-circle. With more than half of the 15 million surplus bedrooms in the UK lying within the homes of older people, the potential for levelling the residential property playing field for all generations is enormous if we can encourage downsizing to housing more suitable for older people’s needs. 

"The enduring undersupply of age-friendly homes, however, is severely limiting choice for older people and, in turn, blocking other buyers from accessing homes which could be far better utilised by growing families"

An estimated three million older people want to downsize. So, with such pent-up demand for purpose-built retirement communities – from a demographic group that possesses £1.7 trillion in housing wealth – why are we only managing to build 7,000 such units every year? We must also look to the future, bearing in mind that 180,000 households aged 65 and over are created each year.  

Britain’s later living sector is, quite clearly, failing – and often with tragic consequences, as Covid-19’s devastating impact on care homes in England has highlighted.  

In addition to the fear of becoming sick with coronavirus, Christmas this year is set to be a lonely and isolated affair for people in later life. According to Age UK, Covid-19 restrictions mean many face going without seeing family and friends for up to a year, let alone the holiday season. 

The dangers of old-age isolation, despite being well-known, are not exclusive to those residing in care homes. Thousands of older people across Britain have been shielding for months to protect themselves from the virus and, sadly, face many more to come. Pre-Covid, Age UK projections were that 1.5m over-50s are always or often lonely and that lonely older people are three times more likely to suffer depression and 1.9 times more likely to develop dementia in the following 15 years. 

However, the delivery of age-appropriate housing to meet demand will not only combat old-age isolation, but also ensure older people are living independent, happy and socially active lives and that they are cared for according to their individual needs.

Retirement communities seek to address these needs in different ways. For example, where communities are equipped with on-site medical facilities and professionals that tailor care to the needs of individuals, residents can expect to visit their GP up to 50 per cent less frequently. Some break homes down into mini communities of eight to 12 people, creating 'family; groups that help to combat loneliness. It's also a structure also makes dealing with the potential outbreak of a disease or virus much easier.

"Despite the obvious and urgent need to deliver more homes for older people, the Government’s proposed planning reforms take no account of the needs of older people"

These kinds of developments address needs that must be met as we overhaul our planning system. It should not be left to investors, such as Legal and General, and operators to do this alone. But despite the obvious and urgent need to deliver more homes for older people, the Government’s proposed planning reforms take no account of the needs of older people. A fairer system would allocate a number of homes to be provided in retirement communities, depending on local supply and demand. 

Additionally, government reforms would require all developments – even retirement communities – to deliver a 25 per cent minimum of ‘First Homes’ for first-time-buyers, effectively defeating their ultimate purpose. 

The government must impose the relevant legislative framework for local authorities to implement at the local level and ensure they fully plan to meet the needs of older people in their community. At present, only around 10 per cent of planning authorities have clear policies setting out the number of dwellings or care home beds needed for older people, according to research by the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation. https://www.csfi.org/ 

Sadly, the lessons we learn over the winter about how our elderly are living out what should be their golden years will be hard ones. The hope is, however, that society will emerge from the pandemic having thought long and hard on how we expect our older generation to live, kickstarting a new generation of later living communities and adequately prioritising older people in a new, fit-for-purpose planning system. 

Phil Bayliss is chief executive of later living at Legal and General and chairman of Guild Living. Legal and General is backing two later living developers and operators, Inspired Villages and Guild Living, to develop retirement communities with a commitment of around £2.8bn.

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