Grey areas: planning for an ageing population

A recent warning by the chief planner has shone a spotlight on the need to house the UK's ageing population. Susie Sell investigates

Retirement homes: dedicated apartments are just one of a range of possible options in fulfilling the accommodation needs of the country’s increasingly elderly population (pic ALAMY)
Retirement homes: dedicated apartments are just one of a range of possible options in fulfilling the accommodation needs of the country’s increasingly elderly population (pic ALAMY)

The average age of UK residents is only going one way – up. The Office for National Statistics predicts that by 2035, the number of people aged 85 and over will be almost 2.5 times larger than in 2010, at a total of 3.5 million. The shifting demographic profile not only adds pressure to an already squeezed housing market, it also demands that the right type of accommodation is built – homes that meet the unique needs of our increasingly elderly population.

But Steve Quartermain, chief planner at the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), recently warned that some local authorities are failing to plan for an ageing population, "an issue we need to address". Earlier this year, the department awarded a tender for a research project that it said would "inform a wider project on the development of housing policy specific to older people".

Councils’ duties to meet housing demands for elderly people are enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which says the housing mix should be determined by demographic trends and the needs of different groups, including older people. DCLG Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) adds that plan-makers should consider the size, location and quality of dwellings older people need.

John Slaughter, director of external affairs at the Home Builders Federation, says the NPPF and PPG represent a "clear improvement", but adds that it is now a question of ensuring implementation. "We would probably have to say a majority of councils are failing to plan for elderly populations at this stage," he says. "It’s a question of not focusing proactively on the issues and not providing for them in local plans in a way that is necessary."

However, Richard Blyth, head of policy at the Royal Town Planning Institute, queries the potential impact of the NPPF and "the drive for a five-year supply at any cost" on urban sprawl. "The last thing you want to do as the population ages is have more and more people living in car-dependent locations," he says. "We are concerned that national policy may be leading to problems that we won’t necessarily notice until today’s 50-year-olds are in their 70s."

Planning for an increasingly ageing population requires more than building rows of retirement homes, because this constituency’s demands vary. There is a wide spectrum of appropriate housing, including sheltered and assisted living accommodation, as well as smaller flats for elderly downsizers. However, the 2013 report The Top of the Ladder by Demos highlighted that just two per cent of the UK housing stock currently meets older people’s needs.

Claudia Wood, Demos chief executive and author of the report, says local plans often fail to provide the full mix of tenures suitable for elderly populations. "It does make life hard for developers," she says. Wood finds that councils fail to prepare for elderly people’s housing needs due to competing pressures, such as dealing with a general housing shortage or tackling lengthy waiting lists. "When you are trying to balance all this, it’s understandable that older people who already have their own home are probably not as big a priority as young people priced out of local rental markets and dealing with temporary homelessness," she says.

Where authorities do have a handle on the issue, Wood says it is because their approach is underpinned by a thorough assessment of local demographics. "It’s about properly understanding who you’ve got in your area and what these areas will look like in ten to 15 years’ time," she says. "If that assessment is done properly, local authorities will recognise what mix of development they will need."

In March, a House of Lords select committee called on central and local government to review how the NPPF might be tightened to ensure sufficient housing provision for older people. But Andrew Burgess, planning director at Churchill Retirement Living, says what is needed is to ensure that guidance already in place is embraced by councils.

Burgess adds that one way local authorities could encourage the delivery of housing for elderly populations is to make retirement housing schemes exempt from affordable housing or Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) contributions. "More schemes could come forward because they could be made more viable," he maintains. Another option outside the planning system would be to obviate the need for elderly downsizers to pay stamp duty, he says.

Guy Flintoft, director of public policy and planning at retirement housing developer PegasusLife, argues that local authorities should "work much harder" to ensure that CIL does not make specialist housing with care unviable. He adds that councils could also consider adopting supportive policies and allocating sites specifically for housing with care, although he stresses that this should only be done in appropriate cases, with developers’ involvement. "There is quite a lot of very speculative work by landowners and developers that does not result in allocations or consents that are attractive and viable for specialist operators," he says.

Councils can currently enforce Lifetime Homes standards to ensure that new-builds can be adapted to meet elderly occupants’ changing needs over time. The DCLG is now proposing to allow councils to pursue more stringent accessibility criteria via the building regulations, "with particular reference to meeting the current and future housing needs of a wide range of people, including older people".

But David Evans, president of the Planning Officers Society, raises concerns over the "opt-in" nature of the government’s plans. "If we have a national issue, as we do with the ageing population, then the government should be bold enough to say this is actually a requirement, and that it should be mandatory," he says.

Huw Edwards, a partner at consultancy Barton Willmore, adds that the local plan examination process could be used to ensure that councils properly prepare for elderly people’s housing needs. This could involve adding another question to the list sent out by inspectors ahead of an examination asking what the authority has done to provide for an ageing population, he suggests. "Once it is on the agenda, it will get dealt with at the examination," he says. "It could be something as simple as that."

Case Study: Planning for an Increasingly Elderly Population

Mike Dunphy, strategic planning manager at Bromsgrove District Council, explains the authority’s approach to the forecast rise in the area’s proportion of older-person households from 21 to 33 per cent by 2030.

What pressures will local demographics have on your future housing needs?

We are going to have a big range of needs in terms of elderly housing provision. There will be people in four or five-bed houses who won’t need somewhere so big, but they won’t need to go into care, so they will need smaller units. There will also be a specific need for people to move into more intensive residencies where their needs can be met.

What steps have planners taken to address this challenge?

We have said for the past few years that we want a higher percentage of smaller houses on new sites, and we also want some of those to have Lifetime Homes standards, so people buying those houses don’t necessarily have to move out when their care needs increase.

We have also identified specific sites for nursing and extra care villages. And we have been successful in terms of getting bungalows within schemes as well.

How has this been achieved?

It’s partly down to the evidence. We have done a lot of work on housing need over the years. We’ve spent money on working out what the needs are, so we can actually write policy to solve problems. Once we had the evidence, we used it. We have been engaging with developers over the past four or five years, and saying to them that this is the need. It’s just a case of keeping banging the drum. We acknowledged early on that it’s such a significant issue that it needs its own policy, and it needs to be given weight in the plan so we can actually deliver it. We didn’t want just one line somewhere hidden away. We wanted to try to make sure it was upfront and something that people would actually notice.


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