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Building for the future

We are all living longer. According to the ONS, it is projected that by 2066, 26% of the total population will be aged 65 and over, with life expectancy for UK females increasing by 7% to 88.9 years and 9% to 86.4 years for UK males. To support this transition, we need to enhance our later living sector and ensure the UK has a solid residential plan for our ageing population.

Following the national lockdown, an increasing number of us have embraced the appeal of living closer to family, friends, and our support network, rather than retiring to the countryside. With this in mind, local planning authorities (LPAs) across the UK must consider this approach in planning for the future through their local development plans.

Putting the needs of residents first

As determined by national planning policy on guidance on Housing for Older and Disabled People, new developments for older people must be designed with the ‘needs of people who will be approaching or reaching retirement over the plan period’. Put simply, residents’ requirements must run through every decision.

Demand for specialist accommodation directly correlates with living longer, and medical advancements mean we can live in our own homes for longer. This knowledge should enable operators to respond to their residents’ lifestyle choices to deliver specialist housing such as retirement living or care villages that offer a range of on-site amenities providing a range of readily accessible facilities.

With increased pressure on budgets, some authorities are particularly nervous about the potential cost burdens of offering more care accommodation. However, care in the community is not suitable for everyone, and there are significant social benefits that can be delivered through housing with care and retirement accommodation. Subsequently, local plans need to increase the number and range of specialist housing choices for older people that are approved annually.

The importance of local authority action

The planning system, meanwhile, needs to respond to the challenge and provide better support for the sector. The National Planning Policy Framework currently requires LPAs to assess older people’s housing needs and reflect this in planning policy. However, the LPA response to the challenge is very mixed, which is particularly unhelpful to the sector – including an imbalance in the way LPAs treat sites for residential use compared to later living, where government-led requirements are lacking.

Once housing needs have been established, residential land can be promoted for allocation through the development plan process, usually starting with a call for sites. In terms of later living accommodation, very few authorities give the option for submitting sites specifically for later living and in any event, they are less likely to result in local plan allocations, where more generic policy wording is favoured or allocations are made as part of large strategic sites, regardless of whether future residents want to move into them. This suggests that for some LPAs, the sector is not a priority in comparison to overall housing targets. This attitude is reflective of the comparatively weak wording in the government’s Planning Practice Guidance relating to the sector, which ultimately needs to be strengthened.

There are big issues facing the later living sector, yet all developers are competing for the same land. Still, for the later living sector, where there is usually a greater provision of communal facilities, specialist facilities with the associated costs, the playing field is simply not level. This leads to extra care developments and care villages, in particular, taking longer and costing more to get through the planning process, with a significantly higher likelihood of ending up at appeal.

When making development plan site allocations, LPAs need to be specific after engaging with the sector and consider what provisions are made and where, to avoid situations in which care or retirement designations can ultimately be deleted, especially from strategic sites as schemes are found to be unviable due to scale or simply not attractive to the market on terms offered, compared to the default of residential.

Country life isn’t for everyone

Spending most of our time at home for the past year has made everyone re-evaluate what is important to them and where they want to live. For those in later life, connections to loved ones and local communities they may have lived in for decades are important. In a poll by SunLife, 85% of grandparents provide some support to their family, with 25% providing childcare. Older people understandably don’t want to be forced to move miles away from a comfortable life simply due to a lack of adequate housing in our towns and villages.

One measure that could see a potential boost to this preference for staying local is new government legislation that will allow commercial buildings in Use Class E to be converted to residential housing. The rule, which will now come into effect from August 2021, will allow premises in ‘commercial, business and service’ to switch uses without planning permission – a move that could see a boom to residential accommodation and allow people to stay closer to their town centres. Indeed, we are already seeing the later living sector responding to this demand and specifically focusing on town centre sites.

The role and prominence of our high streets were shifting even before the pandemic, with shuttered shops becoming an increasingly familiar sight. This decline has only increased over the past year and the Government’s aim is that these proposals and repurposing of buildings will bring a much-needed boost for UK high streets.

A positive boost for the local area

A recent report from the Homes for Later Living campaign found that if the UK were to build 30,000 retirement properties every year – the quantity needed to keep pace with our ageing population – it would result in around two billion pounds of additional economic activity every year in town centres across the country. However, just 8,000 were built in 2019 pre-COVID.

The pandemic has highlighted how specialist housing schemes have been able to ensure residents can be kept safe in their own homes while ensuring their everyday needs, such as meals and medical care can be met – much to the relief of family members unable to visit. There are also indirect effects, such as local economic benefits, job creation, and releasing large family houses.

The needs of an ageing population are not going to disappear, nor will they improve without decisive action. Unless local authorities take the demand seriously in their policy formation, we will see those in later life with nowhere to go. It is time to change how we deliver care for an ageing population, and we must make 2021 the time to start.

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