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Planning matters

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I recently presented at the RTPI North East Housing Conference, covering the topic of Planning for an Ageing Population. It was encouraging that there was a lot of discussion and engagement with my presentation. One of my key messages was that there is a need for the industry to engage in the plan making process to ensure that land is allocated for the provision of housing for older people. Here I referenced research undertaken by Lichfields which shows that, at a national level, very few local authorities included specific allocations in their Local Plan for housing for older people or included a specific requirement for housing for older people. More (around 70%) had a generic policy relating to the housing needs of older people but very few monitored delivery. It is timely therefore, that this week, the Mayhew Review “Future-proofing retirement living: Easing the care and housing crises” (“the Review”) has been published. This included survey results that “laid the blame for the shortfall [of housing for older people] squarely on the planning system, which drew more criticism than any other issue.” As a planner, I think the above conclusion is harsh. As the Review itself highlights, the shortfall in retirement developments is a complex issue surrounding “institutional inertia, out-of-date images of retirement living, an emotional attachment to the family home, and a belief that the state will step in.” That said, I absolutely believe the planning system has a crucial role in helping to address the housing needs of older people and could do a lot more. This blog therefore seeks to summarise the pertinent points of the review and, specifically, how it considers the role of the planning system in helping to address the care and housing crisis.   Why is this important? It is well documented that the UK has an ageing population. People are living longer, and the number of people aged 65 and over is projected to increase faster than any other age cohort in future years, as shown below: A changing population structure has a range of impacts, both in terms of policy making and fiscal impacts; given that the country’s demographic profile is the foundation upon which public finances are designated and major policy decisions are made. The importance of this issue is considered in national policy and guidance which recognises: “The need to provide housing for older people is critical... [and] is something to be considered from the early stages of plan-making through to decision-taking.” (Emphasis added) Paragraph: 001 Reference ID: 63-001-20190626 Revision date: 26 June 2019 Clearly, the implications of the ageing population are wide-ranging, well beyond housing. However, the focus of this blog is on housing for older people in the context of the planning system. This is in the knowledge that care and housing are intrinsically linked, as reiterated in the ‘People at the Heart of Care’ White Paper which notably states that every decision about care is also a decision about housing.   Key Findings of the Mayhew Review   The Mayhew Review has found that specialist retirement housing helps older people stay healthier for longer, reduces the burden on the NHS, delays transfer into care homes and frees up housing lower down the ladder. Importantly, policy needs to focus as much on last-time buyers as on first-time buyers. A key factor driving investment in this sector, supported by pension funds and other investors, is that around 80% of the 65+ population own their home outright and there is potential to redeploy that wealth. However, specialist retirement housing accounts for only 10% of all older households in the UK, meaning there is considerable scope for the sector to expand rapidly. Additionally, although 60% of UK properties have three bedrooms or more, this applies to only about 2.1% of all apartments. This highlights that the type of stock is as much a consideration as the quantity. The Review highlights that an average of around 7,000 retirement homes are built annually out of a total new-build of around 200,000 and there needs to be an acceleration of building new retirement homes. A scenario whereby 50,000 new retirement units being built a year is considered in the Review. This would imply around 25% of all new homes would be specialist retirement accommodation which is identified as a radical shift from present policy which focuses on first-time buyers. Importantly, the Review highlights that even 50,000 new units a year would not stem the growth in older households and an even greater rate of building would be necessary, but it would at least ease the care crisis and free up homes. As touched on above, the situation is identified as being more complicated than simply numbers. Whilst people may want to downsize, they are put off by the lack of suitable alternatives, especially in areas where they live. There is concern around the cost and complexity of moving, security of tenure if they rent and maintenance costs if they buy. Another problem highlighted is the lack of consistency in planning decisions and the impact of infrastructure levies. It identified that developers can sometimes be skewed towards what is acceptable to a local planning authority rather than best practice in modern retirement living. The Review identifies that split responsibilities within the system is a factor, with housing policy and planning being determined at a district level while social care is a county council function. Additionally, one specific piece of feedback was that local authorities do not want the extra health and social care costs that can be perceived as the result of additional housing for older people in an area. Turning to the planning system more specifically, a key issue identified is that retirement living and care homes are seen as one, whereas they are treated differently within the planning system. There is an acknowledgement that retirement developments that combine care homes and retirement living are hard to classify and this can lead to implications on affordable housing contributions and/or Community Infrastructure Levy payments. However, there are no subsidies such as Help to Buy or the affordable housing programme at this end of the market. Notably, the Review highlights that competition and pressure from standard house builders is crowding out retirement housing. West Oxfordshire District Council was referenced as an example as it formally adopted its Local Plan in 2018, covering a period from 2011 to 2031. However, despite the district having 30% of its population being aged over 65, there was not a single allocation for retirement housing. This reflects the findings of the Lichfields research, referenced earlier in this blog.   Recommendations of the Review The review sets out six recommendations with a seventh overarching recommendation that the Government’s Older People’s Housing Task Force should be mandated to implement recommendations and report on the outcomes. The six recommendations are summarised below: An accelerated programme of up to 50,000 new retirement units a year.  Expand the number of integrated retirement communities built each year across all regions providing care services, communal facilities, management and staff on site.  Increase integrated retirement living in town centres as part of the levelling up process and local regeneration programmes.  Closer working between planning and social care departments to ensure the need for retirement housing with access to care is factored into local authority plans and planning departments put retirement housing on a level playing field with other building developments.  Further research to be conducted on financial incentives to increase downsizing amongst older households with Stamp Duty for last-time buyers put on an equal footing with first-time buyers.  Make available financial advice for last-time buyers who want to move into retirement housing, or similar. With a focus on recommendation d) the Review identifies that housing policy needs to focus as much on retirement housing as it does on first-time buyers and that there is a need for larger retirement developments in urban as well as greenfield sites, including repurposing existing buildings. The Review sets out a possible solution to include a planning policy presumption in favour of older housing with care, recognising that it is a hybrid form of retirement living. It advises that work needs to be done to educate all local authorities about the advantages of new models of retirement living. It also sets out that authorities need to accept that their planning guidance must include a requirement to address the need for older people’s housing based on more modern models of later-life provision, working closely with health and social care services. However, it falls short of specifically requiring allocating land for housing for older people where supported by evidence.   Concluding thoughts It is encouraging to see housing for older people being considered as part of the national housing agenda and a recognition that the planning system plays a crucial part in helping to deliver the much needed housing for older people. The Review highlights that housing for older people is a complex and multi-faceted sector, needing a joined-up approach and solutions. It therefore feels somewhat unjust that such “blame” is placed on the planning system in regard to the existing shortfall of housing for older people. That said, the planning system is absolutely a crucial part of the solution. However, with such a weight being placed on problems in the planning system, it feels remiss that more focus is not attributed to the role of the industry in engaging in the plan making process. Such engagement would assist in ensuring that the right sites in the right locations are identified for housing for older people and to ensure that identified housing needs are met. This would help put developers on a more even playing field with other housebuilders; recognising there remains an absolute need to continue to deliver standard housing.  


Time to re-purpose first generation student accommodation?
Student accommodation has become an important part of the country’s property sector, with a boom in delivery in recent years. In 2018/19, the proportion of bed spaces provided by the commercial sector has reached half of total stock, up from 39 per cent in 2012/13[1]. In 2018/19[2] over 2.35m people attended university in the UK, including nearly half a million international students and over 1.25m UK students living away from home during term time. Whilst the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the student accommodation market are as yet unknown, more recently, the immediate implications have resulted in soaring vacancy rates and a potential drop-off in student intake for the new academic year, including from overseas students. This was cited in a letter from the British Property Federation to the Government on 8 April 2020[3] which stated: “In light of universities closing and students being unable to work, many accommodation providers are in a difficult position but are choosing to waive rents for the remainder of tenancies, at substantial financial cost. There is also considerable uncertainty as to how the crisis will affect the number of students attending UK universities in September. As a result of the global recession, uncertainty around term dates and application procedures, and the possibility of continued travel disruption there could be markedly fewer students arriving for the new term, from both the UK and particularly abroad.” Whilst there are differing views on if and when university towns and cities may reach saturation point in relation to student accommodation, and the long term implications of COVID-19, what is clear is that there is a continuing shift in terms of what students expect from their accommodation. It is well cited that the days of students living in dingy accommodation with small, sometimes shared rooms and facilities are gone. There is also a lot of discussion about whether purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) will free up family homes if students are choosing PBSA over existing Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs)[4]. However, there is less discussion on how the demands of students continues to shape the PBSA market and what that means for the first generation PBSA; and it is this point that is explored within this blog. Between 2016/17 and 2018/19 across the UK there has been a 4% growth in student numbers living in PBSA, with the PBSA sector having a 22% share of the UK student accommodation market in 2018/19[5]. Newer PBSA stock is often located centrally within a town or city, often close to university campuses. The National Student Accommodation Survey 2019 found students live on average 20 minutes from their university[6]. This represents a clear benefit for students, compared to accommodation located on the periphery, in terms of convenience for both academic and social activity. This is often due to affordable values and availability of sites as developers tested the immature market. Indeed, planning policies such as Newcastle City Council’s Core Strategy and Urban Core Plan Policy CS11 supports this trend, setting out that: “Promoting lifetime neighbourhoods with a good range and choice of accommodation, services and facilities to meet varied and changing needs, will be achieved by…Focusing the provision of purpose built student accommodation within the Urban Core.” (Emphasis added). This means that any new PBSA schemes will be better located compared to those that have been built outside of the defined Urban Core. Newcastle Council’s ‘Maintaining Sustainable Communities SPD’ (2017) sets out a number of planning benefits of focussing the growth of PBSA in the Urban Core including: making the Universities more attractive to prospective students by offering a range of high quality, affordable accommodation in accessible locations; providing increased vitality to the city centre through the increase in student residents with the associated benefits arising from increased footfall and spending in shops and local services; reducing demand for existing HMOs in Article 4 areas and thereby encouraging their return to family dwellings; securing development on often vacant or under-utilised sites and bringing previous vacant upper floors of historic premises back into use; delivering a series of often striking architectural buildings that enliven the centre of the city; generates little day to day vehicular traffic, except at the beginning and end of term; limited amenity impacts on existing residential areas; the Council receives New Homes Bonus payments and planning obligation contributions provided by the PBSH sector…to be used on infrastructure projects related to the developments... (Para 3.18) The SPD further recognises that markets fluctuate and seeks to safeguard the Urban Core with Policy SC2 requiring that the design of PBSA schemes must ensure that it can be adaptable to alternative future uses. Newer PBSA typically boasts facilities such as 5G, en-suites, double beds and well-designed communal areas. As this becomes the norm in response to competition in the market, it means that significant changes are needed to bring older accommodation up to the standards expected by students today. Even if existing older stock is brought up to similar standards, their peripheral location remains. Therefore, if price points do not reflect this difference in location, maintaining high levels of occupancy is likely to become challenging and there is a risk that more peripheral schemes become obsolete. However, with these challenges comes opportunity. It is well documented that we are in the midst of a housing crisis; with a national ambition to deliver 300,000 new homes each year for families, first time buyers, renters, young professionals and older people. With strong demand across such a broad demographic comes a similarly broad housing requirement; meaning there is a need to deliver a range of house types, sizes and tenures in a variety of locations. Whilst the first generation PBSA may not be as centrally located to university campuses as newer PBSA, they are generally on the periphery of towns and cities, with good public transport links, existing infrastructure and some with car parking provided. So what does increased supply and the growing demands of a mature market and planning policy context mean for the first generation accommodation? There is a clear opportunity to repurpose older PBSA stock to better balance demand and supply whilst helping to meet the housing needs of a different, non-student, sector of society. This could include apartments for older people or young professionals alike; both of who typically seek well located and connected accommodation. Indeed, re-purposing an existing PBSA block would not have to be focussed on solely the young professional or solely a retirement scheme; there is clear merit in integrating the two to help form a balanced and mixed community. Lichfields has developed the Bedspace Model and Carepacity Toolkit to assist developers, operators, universities and local planning authorities in identifying opportunities for PBSA and housing for older people across the UK; being able to find sites as well as demonstrate the need and capacity for such development within a local area. We are also able to find sites or appraise existing sites that could benefit from being re-purposed to bring them into a more viable and attractive use. If you would like further information on our planning services, please do get in touch.   [1] NUS responds to accommodation cost survey 2018[2] HESA data[3] Supporting the student accommodation sector through COVID-19[4] Planning matters, Student accommodation[5] Lichfields analysis of HESA data[6] National student survey 2019