A panel of housing experts that goes by the name of HAPPI has come up with a radical rethink of this country’s approach to providing homes for older people. Martin Spring takes a look at its findings
Housing elderly people is an issue that can only get bigger. Like most Western nations, the UK has a large population of people over 60. At present the figure is 11.2 million, but this is predicted to soar by a further 4.9 million over the next 20 years as people live longer. What is less well known is that the number of homes built specifically for older people has dropped over the past 25 years – of the 170,000 homes built last year, only about 5,000 were planned for older people.
A report published yesterday by the Homes and Communities Agency, the communities department and Department of Health, says that providing decent housing for older people should be a national priority. The report, put together by a group of independent experts called the Housing Our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation (HAPPI), it sets out what is wrong with the current provisions and proposes radical solutions. These include overhauling the Lifetime Homes standard, forcing local authorities to build homes for elderly people as part of their section 106 agreements and a new funding model that pulls together housebuilding, healthcare, social care and pensions.
The basic problem is that many homes for older people have little kerb appeal. Lord Best, who is a recognised authority on elderly housing and chair of the HAPPI panel, says: “We are still offering them tiny bedsits, and some sheltered housing has even become unlettable.” According to Best, the result is that most older people “stay put in homes that may gradually become harder to manage, maintain and keep warm, increasingly inaccessible and, sometimes, insecure and lonely places”. Then, as they grow older and more infirm, they are often uprooted by some sudden crisis to an institutional care home.
A straightforward solution to this predicament has been devised by HAPPI’s impressively cross-disciplinary panel of 13 experts, which includes former RIBA president Sir Richard MacCormac, housebuilder Tony Pidgley of the Berkeley Group, and Anne Power, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics. Their solution is to design dwellings that are attractive, spacious, manageable, and have what the report calls “an appealing lifestyle vision”, so that the “younger old” empty nesters aspire and plan ahead to move into them. This downsizing shift would then release their large family homes, often with big gardens, for more suitable occupation by families with children. Some 37% of all UK homes are underoccupied, the report reveals, with half of these – 3.3 million in total – held by those between 50 and 69.
To explain their vision, the panel tracked down and visited various well-designed retirement dwellings in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. “In continental Europe, they never lost the knack of building attractive homes for older people,” says Lord Best. “It’s a natural part of housebuilding in both the private and public sectors.”
But transposing these attractive continental housing models to the UK would require a radical reinvention of the way we think about homes for the elderly. An integrated package of proposals put forward by the panel covers not just architectural design, but also location, mix of ages and tenures, procurement and funding. Several of these go against the grain of British hand-me-down preconceptions about housing for the elderly.
The panel observed that:
- Flats with balconies are more manageable than houses with stairs and big gardens
- Town centre locations offer easier access than edge-of-town sites to facilities and transport
- A common room, focal point and other shared facilities offer residents the opportunity to mix with others, which fosters interdependent living and a sense of belonging
- Common facilities such as a swimming pool and meeting rooms could also serve the wider social community
- Mixed tenure, combining homes for rent and sale, enables cross-subsidies between private and public funding and brings together a wider social grouping
- Continuing care communities that bring together a range of ages and care needs dispel any taint of old-age ghettoes
- Lifetime Homes and Lifetime Neighbourhoods provide safe accessibility for people who grow more infirm and visually impaired with age
- Designs that respond to their particular settings and occupants’ interests should help avoid the stigma of standardised, institutional old people’s homes
- Design features should be incorporated that give special added value for older people (see box on 10 design components)
Such well equipped, attractively designed homes do not come cheap. But some three-quarters of homeowners over the age of 65 have paid off their mortgages, and according to Prudential Assurance, they are sitting on a staggering £611bn of capital locked into their homes. For private developers, these are the dream clients as they have access to cash that could kickstart new development.
How to pay for it
As well as tapping the capital of the homeowning younger old, HAPPI argues that the development of well designed, properly equipped homes for older people could be funded by savings and contributions gleaned elsewhere. For example, these residents would need less expensive health and social care services. In addition, they wouldn’t need to move into high-cost residential care homes. PPPs could be set up to pool resources from both sectors. And private developers could even be persuaded to build housing for older people instead of affordable family housing as part of section 106 planning agreements.
Pooling funding and savings from such diverse sources would require serious joined-up thinking from top government level down, admits HAPPI. Accordingly, it has come up with a long list of recommendations aimed at the entire spectrum of government departments, local authorities, housing associations, private housebuilders and professional institutes.
Even so, the panel puts a brave face on its campaign. “Overall, and over time, we believe that these [cost implications] are likely to be cost-neutral, or better,” it concludes blithely. For older people, the benefits of homes that are both more practical and more attractive are plain to see. But this hasn’t a hope of being achieved without upgrading the issue of housing our ageing population to a national priority. And for central and local government, housing associations and housebuilders – all of them preoccupied with other pressing priorities – that would be a very big shift indeed.
10 design components recommended for older people’s housing
- HM Treasury should integrate funding between departments concerned with planning, housing, healthcare, social care and pensions
- Communities department should reformat Lifetime Homes and Lifetime Neighbourhood standards to make it more practical to provide accessible homes and neighbourhoods
- Communities department should create a hybrid planning use class between standard general needs housing (C2) and residential care homes and nursing homes (C3)
- Local authorities should accept housing for older people instead of affordable family housing as part of section 106 planning gain agreements
- The Homes and Communities Agency should encourage inclusion of housing for older people in all major developments it funds
- Housing associations should develop mixed-tenure housing for older people
- Housebuilders and developers should develop new higher-density types of housing for older people
- Financial institutions should invest more in housing for older people, perhaps through REITs
- Cabe, RIBA and RICS should promote innovation in the design and procurement of these projects.