Is expecting older people to downsize really such a good move?

The lack of a suitable housing supply in the right locations, writes Tony Watts OBE, means that significant opportunities to improve the health and wellbeing of older people and reduce public expenditure on health and care are being missed.

One in five of us is now aged 65 and over. In some parts of the UK it is one in three. Those figures are set to grow still further in the years ahead. The implications – economically, socially and politically – are huge. And one of the biggest of these is where (and how) we house our ever-ageing population, many of whom will have restricted mobility or specific care or support needs.

Alongside that we have a housing crisis, with younger people (even before the current economic debacle) unable to get onto the ladder. The answer? According to some commentators, for selfish older people to downsize and release their homes.

Now it’s not unusual in our society for older people to be portrayed either as an economic and social burden and a roadblock to progress, and/or as the owners of a disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth and assets.. But blaming older people for the country’s housing crisis is not only discriminatory but also demonstrably untrue: the problem is far more deep-rooted and borne of decades of undersupply against a background of a rising population.

In fact, research by WPI Economics and Homes for Later Living estimates that

three million older people would like to downsize, yet only about 7,000 new retirement properties are built each year. For those seeking smaller, more manageable and accessible homes, bungalows could easily form an important part of this equation… if enough were being built. But in 2020, just 1,942 came out of the ground: around 2% of total housing supply, against a figure of 26,000 in 1987. Further research in 2021 by McCarthy Stone found that 70% of over-65s would consider moving to a bungalow. But older people can’t be asked to move to housing that isn’t there.

Moreover, two million homes occupied by older people are currently deemed “not decent”, invariably because they cannot afford to adapt or improve them; reducing that figure by enabling older singles and couples to move into housing that was in good repair, warm and accessible would also be very welcome.

Further, if a proportion of those new retirement units were to be located on our currently decaying High Streets, they could play a big role in revitalising our town and city centres, as well as enable the occupants to live close to the shops and other services they need in their daily lives.

And, yes, dedicated retirement developments are being built, but nowhere near enough (or in the right places) to meaningfully move any dial, or for the calls for more older people to downsize to represent a realistic possibility. Only 2.5% of the UK’s 29 million dwellings are technically defined as “retirement housing” while the number of purpose-built homes also offering care services is far less, at around 0.7% of UK housing stock.

Neither are the statistics likely to significantly improve any time soon. According to Laing & Buisson in their 2021 review of the senior housing sector, “We expect the number of specialist seniors housing units in the UK will grow by 9% over the next five years to just short of 820,000 units. Yet, even with this forecast expansion, the rate of delivery will still be dwarfed by the UK’s ageing population, deepening the existing imbalance between supply and demand.”

They go on to say: “The benefits of a larger seniors housing sector to society are substantial. Yet, just 20% of local authorities in England have supportive planning policies or sites allocated to seniors housing.”

Critics of retirement housing proposals during planning applications regularly point to existing schemes not being fully occupied. But this can be down to a series of factors, not least location: many prospective older home buyers will resist moving away from their immediate neighbourhood – with its ready-made network of support and social contact. To square that particular circle, we need more choice local to where people currently live, and with so few units being built each year, that level of choice currently doesn’t exist.

But, critically, neither are most of the houses we ARE building fit for purpose… once you take into account the age of the people who are, or will, be living in them. By 2066, a further 8.6 million UK residents will be aged 65 years and over, and the fastest increase will be among those aged 85 years and over. A baby born in 2020 has a 54.3% chance of reaching the age of 90. You would think it would make sense to ensure that every new home being built would be suitable for everyone to age in place. However, by the time today’s young generation reach retirement age, say, or start to live with a disability that makes a mainstream house difficult, there will be even fewer suitable homes available than now.

From its analysis of 324 local housing plans, Habinteg Housing has found that there will just be one new accessible home erected in the next 10 years for every 77 people in the population – down from one for every 67 two years ago.

Better housing, better health

So how can meeting the housing needs of our ageing population be turned from a challenge into an opportunity?

The pressure now on individuals, local authorities and health services is to keep people in their own homes for as long as possible rather than enter the care system… but inadequate suitable housing militates against that. If these individuals can’t be supported to live safely in their own homes, they will have to go into care. And while some may be able to pay for themselves, a large number will not… placing the burden on our already-overstretched local authorities.

I view social care, health and housing as three legs of a stool, each of which needs to be in place (and equal in length) for the stool to remain upright. The solution is a coordinated, dual approach: more specialist housing with care and support plugged in, together with making our mainstream housing fit for purpose for the needs of an ageing population. It will require time, commitment and a relatively modest investment, but it won’t just be this generation that will benefit, but every generation to follow.

According to The Strategic Society, aggregated savings to the State for each new specialist retirement housing unit built amounted to £83,100 over a period of 10 years – once you take into account reduced health and care needs, a reduction in local authority entitlements and the benefit of first-time buyers not having to rent and so receiving housing benefits.

What are campaigners like myself arguing for? Well not that much really. Category 2 requires a home to be accessible to most people and fit for purpose for older people, those with reduced mobility and some wheelchair users. The estimated additional cost to developers would be an extra £1,400 per home. However, not making them readily accessible will incur a cost we will all pay… this and future generations.

Alongside more resources being dedicated to adapt and repair the mainstream housing that many older people currently occupy, the end goal should be a greater choice of more dedicated and/or suitable housing enabling people to age in place – not just in larger developments but in much smaller ones too, that allow more of them to be pepper-potted into our towns, cities and villages and encourage the occupiers to engage with their local communities… a mix of generations living together and supporting each other.

Instead of homogenous developments squeezed into parcels of land aimed at just one part of the market, why not go for a far more mixed approach, and engage with local people to co-design new self-sustaining communities? This also overcomes the “either-or” decision we so often see at planning. These would be integrated and intergenerational developments, with each generation looking out for other, and with the potential for people to transition to larger/smaller/differently designed houses as their needs changed.

It wouldn’t cost any more to build, but should cut the cost of care for individuals and the community… and enable people to age in place close to an informal support network. Sound familiar? It’s how we all used to live once…

Tony Watts OBE is Director of EngAgeNet and Older People’s Housing Champion. You can read a fuller version of this blog in a future chapter of “Future Housing” by clicking here:

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