Town Centre Later Living
At a time when already struggling high streets are seeing reduced footfall and increased commercial unit vacancy, could specialist residential accommodation help revitalise town centres?
Earlier in the year Boyer attended the Later Living Conference 2021 organised by Property Week which hosted a range of speakers highlighting the key issues reshaping retirement properties in the wake of Covid-19.
One theme throughout the day was the shift in location of later living developments toward urban areas within city, town and village centres, and how such developments can be designed to include community facilities which engage with local residents, avoiding stereotyping and reducing isolation for residents, whilst also helping reanimate the local area for the young and old alike.
The UK’s ageing population has been well publicised. Over the next 20 years the UK’s population aged 65 and over will increase by almost 5 million (40%) from 12.2 million currently. There has been a trend for the last thirty years for older people’s accommodation to be provided in rural areas and on the margins of towns and cities. In cities like London, with high land values, this causes a distancing from urban and family life which some residents can find socially isolating. At the same time, the UK’s high streets have been in decline over the last decade, and many now see that the older population should have a central role to play in urban life. According to the Centre for Retail Research there are around 50,000 fewer shops on our High Streets than just over a decade ago, whilst studies show that the number of people visiting high streets has dropped by 20.5% during the same period.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, high street footfall has dried up further, and prominent retailers have begun announcing jobs cuts and store closures. The British Retail Consortium recently confirmed that £2.8bn of rent arrears has built up from retailers unable to trade from physical premises during the coronavirus pandemic. Inevitably, commercial landlords will see an increase in the number of vacant properties and may consider changing the use of their assets as a result. Whilst the market will always provide a range of options to meet demand from the elderly population, there are opportunities for the creation of city and town centre accommodation for those who wish to live there.
Earlier this year, Robert Jenrick MP, the then Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced further measures, in the form of the Class MA permitted development right, which has now come into force to allow for the conversion of commercial buildings to residential use. Whilst not without its critics, the new permitted development right is seen by the government as a way to reboot Britain’s pandemic-stricken high streets. Rather than simply converting vacant commercial buildings into, often poorer quality, standard residential accommodation, there is a real opportunity to turn city and town centre spaces into quality housing for those wanting to move into bespoke retirement accommodation. The Government’s High Street Task Force, set up in 2019, and which is focussed on supporting local leaders to revitalise high streets and town centres, sees the older population and retirement accommodation playing a key role in this. A recent report for Homes for Later Living titled “Silver saviours for the high street” confirmed that new retirement properties create more local economic value and more local jobs than any other type of residential housing. Whilst, it is of course up to each individual to decide where they wish to live, providing a range of homes including specifically for older people in or close to town centres where they have easy access to a range of amenities and are less dependent on public or private transport, can help avoid feelings of social isolation.
The older consumer market is set to grow rapidly over the next 30 years and as surveys have shown, older shoppers prefer to shop on weekdays and earlier in the day, and so they can play an important role in animating otherwise quiet high streets. According to Silver Cities: Planning for an Ageing Population, a report by the Grosvenor property group, many older Londoners are living alone in the family homes that they raised their children in, but which may not be suitable for an older person. Elderly residents having the opportunity to move into more suitable, smaller accommodation has been shown to free up larger family size homes, which are often under-occupied by older residents.
At the same time, in the UK there has been a lack of accommodation for those who are ageing well, and are not currently heavily reliant on care. Older people who could be supported to continue to live independent lives, can often find they face few options between remaining in their long-term family home or moving to accommodation with full-time care which they do not currently require. A new form of retirement living, often located within town centres, and built around the idea that prevention is more effective than the cure, is bringing older generations back into the heart of communities allowing residents to remain social and active whilst injecting much needed life into town centres. At the Later Living Conference, Will Bax, chief executive of Retirement Villages Group spoke about their development of an urban retirement community in the centre of West Byfleet. Here a vacant seven storey office building and retail parade which has been empty for five years will be transformed to create urban, inclusive and design-led 220 home retirement scheme will integrate communities by offering shared amenities including cafés, libraries, nurseries, gyms and a new public square. However, town centre development have not been universally welcomed. Last year Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey refused plans put forward by Guild Living for a 222-unit elderly care scheme in Walton-on-Thames. Amongst the reasons for refusal was the suggestion that development undermine the vitality and viability of the town centre, and that there was a lack of need for and existing overprovision of this type of accommodation. The applicants appealed the decision, which was allowed in June 2021. On the vitality and viability point, the Inspector was clear that the development would “"provide a future resident population conveniently located to contribute to the viability of the town centre through their spending power". During the appeal the Council had suggested that the scheme’s restaurant and facilities which would be open to visiting members of the public would be designed to appeal to those of the age of future residents rather that the wider public. Positively, the Inspector considered this to be an “absurd suggestion”, stating that “people over 65 years of age are also members of the public and no doubt enjoy frequenting local restaurants which will have a range of décor from smart, chic to themed and minimalist. It would be a wrong assumption that their style and decorative tastes widely differ in fashion from those of a younger age." Hopefully, this important decision is a step in the right direction, correcting the perception that older people’s accommodation can be a drain on resources, when in fact older people can have a key role to play in reanimating our town centres. It is clear that the elderly population has a distinct role to play in life. Good access to local amenities, and transport accessibility allow elderly people to remain active members of the community whilst retaining their independence. At a time when already struggling high streets are seeing reduced footfall and increased commercial unit vacancy, could specialist residential accommodation help revitalise town centres?