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Why retirement communities should be classified

Housing with care /iStock-1043564886

David Williams argues for the classification of retirement communities to deliver preventative-focused care in England

Mention the phrase ‘retirement community’ to someone and chances are they will not be able to explain precisely what one is.

Whilst they may sound utopic for those who have finished their working life, these little-known developments could hold some of the answers to some of the biggest societal challenges facing this government in how we deliver care for those in old age.

Retirement communities are developments that contain purpose-built apartments for over 65s with communal facilities and importantly, on-site care support. These invert the old residential/nursing home model by promoting the independence of individuals for as long as possible, whilst giving them the option to receive flexible care support on-site as needed.

Crucially, this helps to limit the risks too often seen when people stay put in accommodation that becomes more unsuitable the more infirm they become. In too many cases this can lead to a ‘cliff edge’ where health declines to a point where a very sharp move into hospital and then to a care home becomes necessary – which is both traumatic and costly.

Retirement communities though can better support people planning for their ‘final move’ into a home which they can own, but one which allows them to grow older independently whilst knowing support, company and services are available on site, freeing up their now-unsuitable large homes back onto the housing market. This is a win-win for both individuals and the state.

Indeed, a study carried out by Aston and Lancaster Universities found that those living in a retirement community in Buckinghamshire spent 12 days less on average in hospital due to unplanned accidents compared to those still living in regular housing.

Whilst all of this sounds appealing, retirement communities are still something of a niche in England – just 75,000 over 65s live in them, some 0.6 per cent of that population. 

The onset of coronavirus has delayed reforms to adult social care, but also exposed the fragility of the system and the case for change. The health secretary had confirmed that the social care white paper will include a strong preventative focus: the need to keep our elderly population out of hospital and living independent lives for as long as possible.

Here, retirement communities tick both boxes.

The County Councils Network (CCN) and the Association of Retirement Community Operators’ (ARCO) new report outlines some bold yet easily achievable recommendations to help expand the concept from a niche part of the retirement housing sector in this country, towards fulfilling its potential to change the perspective of what constitutes a happy retirement in future. 

One of the biggest areas to usher in a step-change is within the planning system. Retirement communities have bridged the gap between retirement housing and care homes, but this leads to confusion and the same planning system still encourages viewing such developments in binary terms – either C2 ‘residential institutions’ or C3 ‘dwelling houses’.

As well as making it more laborious for providers of retirement communities, these unclear definitions can also encourage developers to game the system by making their housing development appear to offer ‘extra care’ to avoid paying some developer contributions which would benefit the residents of the development and community alike.

Our report suggests that a new planning classification – ‘C2R’ - should be introduced which would outline strict criteria on what (and what does not) constitute a retirement community. 

This would allow councils to factor these developments into their Local Plans; outlining future need for older people’s care in the blueprint for their areas over the coming decades.

It would also ensure quality: prospective C2R developers would need to demonstrate they are able to meet clear conditions and requirements as to what should be provided in such facilities.

A bona-fide planning classification for retirement communities would make it crystal clear to planning officers and councillors and ensure a high quality of these types of facility, alongside making them more identifiable to the public.

Secondly, the government should seek to set up a framework to encourage more collaborative arrangements between county councils and district councils in ‘two-tier’ shire areas where the former is responsible for health and the latter for housing. 

Councils want to build and create the best communities for their residents, but there are trade-offs for an increased emphasis on retirement communities, not least the costs – and particularly the loss of funding for infrastructure that is payable by commercial developers. Therefore, the report argues for a bespoke pot of money to incentivise these types of developments alongside a framework to encourage councils to work closely together. 

All of these proposals will not require an earthquake to make them happen – they are both bold and easily achievable. If retirement communities can progress to be a positive lifestyle choice and an integral requirement of the local housing need for planning authorities, then they can play a major role in how we deliver preventative-focused care in England over the next decade and beyond.

Councillor David Williams is the chairman of the County Councils Network

Read more:

Planning classification required for retirement communities

CCN and ARCO report - Planning for Retirement: How Retirement Communities Can Help Meet the Needs of Our Ageing Population 

Image credit | iStock


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