By 2020 nearly one in five people will be over 65. Not only do we have a duty to build homes that meet their needs, it makes good business sense too, argues housing minister
In the new film The Bucket List, Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two cancer patients who live out their last months in a spirit of adventure. They try everything from racing cars to climbing mountains, and fit in a spot of sky-diving along the way.
While not all older people take it quite so far, they are undoubtedly living more independent lives than ever before. As the baby-boom generation nears retirement, we have to make sure we are prepared to support more elderly people who want to lead an active life.
By 2020, nearly one in five people will be over 65. Many are looking forward to retirement as a time to continue learning and having fun. They want their later years to be as fulfilling as the rest of their lives were and have high expectations that public services will help them realise these ambitions.
Good for them. I believe we need to ditch our outdated assumptions about dependency and start planning positively for the over-65s. This is especially important in housing, as research shows that most of us would like to live independently in our own homes for as long as possible.
As we embark on the largest housebuilding programme for a generation, we’ve got a chance to get it right. That’s why we’re promoting the Lifetime Homes standard, to design buildings that include age-friendly features from the start. Many of these new standards are just simple good practice, such as a downstairs toilet, a larger entrance hall and windows at the right height for wheelchair users. These can be easily accommodated with better planning at the drawing stage.
The average cost of these improvements is just £550, 0.25% of the average house price. Meanwhile, surveys show most people would be willing to pay up to £1,000 more for a house they can keep living in. With an ageing generation which has £932bn of equity tied up in their homes, Lifetime Homes is not just common sense, it’s also a sound investment.
Some have questioned whether it’s appropriate to apply the standards to all homes, instead of just to those aimed at older people. In fact, wider doors and bigger parking spaces are as important to young families struggling with unwieldy prams as they are for people in wheelchairs. It’s far less sensible to continue to build homes that are difficult to adapt to changing needs.
Surveys show most people would be willing to pay up to £1,000 more for a house they can keep living in
The Lifetime Homes standard is being introduced through the Code for Sustainable Homes. From May, builders will get points for building to this level, but this will not be an overnight change – there will be time for builders to adjust when it works best for them. This means that although in 2008 only code level six homes need to demonstrate that they have met the Lifetime Homes standard, by 2011, this will be an element of code level four. By 2013, our ambition is that all housing will meet these standards.
I see proper collaboration between the industry and the government as essential to making this work. Through the Building Regulations Advisory Committee, industry representatives will work with us to review these standards to make sure that they are robust, affordable and deliverable. In 2010, we’ll look at the progress that has been made and what more needs to be done.
We aren’t just focusing on new build homes. We’re also planning a major expansion of handyman services, to help older people avoid the risks of cowboy builders, a national housing advice and information service to help older people make choices about their housing needs, and increased funding to help people adapt their own homes by installing walk-in showers or ramps to the front door, for instance.
Simultaneously, we are improving streets and community facilities with better lighting and more bus shelters and benches, so older people do not have to be prisoners in their own homes.
Like climate change, our ageing society is changing the way homes need to be designed. The industry needs to respond – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it makes business sense.
Too often, we think of older people as vulnerable, when, actually, the limitations and ageist stereotypes they face are what create vulnerability and dependence. Better housing design is a simple and effective way to help people live independent and fulfilling lives for longer, and will allow us all to grow older with the confidence that we can have the ability to enjoy our own bucket list.