Housing an ageing population

Originally published on February 24 on my blog for Inside Housing.

There is arguably no more important housing issue facing the UK than how we accommodate our ageing population but are we ready to face up to it?

The question is prompted by a combination of recent events including publication of the Housing White Paper, the crisis in social care and the NHS and the consultation on funding for supported housing.

Lurking further in the background than it should be is the mismatch between the stock of homes and likely future demand for them. We will need homes that we don’t currently have for people who are living longer and will need more manageable accommodation with access to more care. Because we don’t have those homes, older people will continue to live in homes that are too big and inflexible for them but would be perfect for young families.

A recent report for the Welsh Government sums up the situation very well and its diagnosis and recommendations are applicable across the UK. As Professor Judith Phillips puts it in her introduction to the report of the Expert Group on Housing an Ageing Population in Wales:

‘Taking steps to stimulate the housing market for older people will not only increase the supply and choice of new housing, but will also help facilitate the circulation of existing housing stock and in turn increase housing choice and availability for other groups of the population.’

But this is about far more than just housing:

‘Poor quality and inaccessible housing are often the root cause of falls and trips in the home; can contribute towards feelings of loneliness and isolation and can cause delayed transfers of care. All these come at an enormous cost to the NHS, social services and other public services. At a time when social care budgets for people over the age of 65 are under pressure, there is a strong case for continued and innovative investment in services which support people to live fulfilled lives in their home and in providing a broader range of housing options.’

To quote some facts and figures (these are for Wales but will not be very different for other parts of the UK): the population aged over 65 is forecast to increase by 39% by 2039; in 2011, 52% of people aged over 65 and living alone were living in three- or four-bed properties; and two-thirds of recently built homes had three or more bedrooms. Various estimates for the UK as a whole suggest that older people currently have 7.7 million spare rooms and that there is a requirement for 725,000 housing with care units by 2025.

The report has analysis and recommendations across a range of policy. In terms of new homes, for example, it highlights the fact that retirement home builders are not operating on a level playing field in the land market. The requirement for communal, non-saleable areas in commercial retirement schemes squeezes viability. Homes for older people are often put in the same Use Class C3 as other dwellings and within the scope of affordable housing schemes. But extra care schemes are often counted as C2, meaning that they do not count towards a local authority’s five-year land supply. Issues like this could be tackled with improved guidance to planning authorities.

In terms of helping people to downsize, the report recommends a national scheme of incentives for downsizing with a dedicated budget and consideration of stamp duty relief and council tax exemptions for ‘last time buyers’. It also makes the fundamental point that action has to be taken across all tenures.

The English Housing White Paper makes some similar points about planning guidance on how to meet the needs of older people and having ‘a conversation’ with a wide range of stakeholders about how to deliver the best outcomes. However, talking about it seems to stop some way short of the radical measures to encourage downsizing floated in some of the advance press coverage. Rereading this a couple of weeks on, it’s enough to make you wonder whether more radical ideas in the draft that went to No 10 did not make it into the final version.

The White Paper adds that the new ideas and innovations ‘will sit alongside the Government commitments to fund and develop supported housing, including sheltered, step down and extra care housing, ensuring that the new supported housing funding model continues to provide the means for older people to live independently for longer while relieving pressure on the adult social care system’.

But will it? As nobody will need reminding, the LHA cap could have a dire potential impact on sheltered housing. The effects could be the precise opposite of what the Welsh report and White Paper are aiming to achieve, with less scope for downsizing and fewer new homes specifically designed for older people.

As Philippa Jones of Bromford sums it up in her response:

‘It’s great to think about incentivising older homeowners to downsize – but please let’s not at the same time create disincentives for older tenants to move out of council and housing association homes that are so desperately needed for homeless and over-crowded families.’

At Tuesday’s hearing at Westminster of the Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry on supported housing, there was a real sense of momentum behind the idea of a sheltered housing allowance. As David Orr put it, ‘we need to do something specifically for sheltered housing’ to protect 400,000 existing homes and create an environment for future investment.

Providers have little confidence in the proposed ringfenced fund for extra costs above LHA levels given what happened after the removal of the ringfence on Supporting People funding in England.

In a joint submission to the government consultation on the proposed funding model for supported housing, Anchor, Hanover and Housing & Care 21 argue that it should not apply to sheltered housing. The three biggest providers in the sector estimate that the gap between LHA levels and housing costs across their 39,000 homes is £64 million. Average weekly rent and service charges on their schemes is £112 a week and 70 per cent of residents get housing benefit.

They also argue that the new system could make older people postpone moving with impacts on health and social care budgets, reduce viability of schemes and reduced downsizing leading to less efficient use of the housing stock as a whole.

Howard Nankivell of Anchor explains more about the ‘devastating’ impact of the cap in IH this week.

Look to the longer term and we will have far more retired renters in future thanks to the decline of home ownership. The impact of the LHA cap is just one part of the much bigger issue of how we house our ageing population but it represents a big step backwards.

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2 Comments on “Housing an ageing population”

  1. Luke says:

    Is it ‘under-occupancy’ itself you have a problem with (regardless of age), or ‘under-occupancy’ amongst older adults themselves? When you look at the data, for example, older people are more likely to be ‘under-occupying’, but they only comprise 50% of those who ‘under-occupy’. There’s also evidence to suggest that whilst some older adults do want to downsize (often due to change in family/personal circumstances or an inability to maintain their home), plenty actually don’t want to, and that having (‘extra’) space in your home is very important for wellbeing.

    I appreciate and agree with your point about there not being enough suitable housing stock for older adults to move into, but I think framing it in terms of getting older people out of big homes so younger families can move in (many of whom often under-occupy, too) is not particularly helpful – even if your broader point about ensuring we have appropriate housing stock is the right answer!

    • julesbirch says:

      Thanks for the comment, Luke. I thought I was quite careful not to suggest any form of compulsion though obviously not careful enough. Perhaps the problems are that the term ‘under-occupation’ implies some sort of judgment by the state (as indeed it does in the case of the bedroom tax) and that it can mean different things in terms of the number of ‘spare’ rooms and the definition of ‘spare’. I think we have to think in terms of creating the right sort of incentives and support and that has to include thinking carefully about what we build in future to enable that and how that links with social care etc. One of the reasons the LHA cap is such a bad policy is that it creates exactly the opposite effect.


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