It is no secret that the UK’s population is ageing. Between 2016 and 2030, the population of over 60s in the UK is estimated to rise from 15 million to 20 million, and currently (for the first time ever), there are more people aged 65+ than there are children aged 15 or under. Older population growth leads to household growth, and inevitably the housing needs of the UK will change alongside this shifting demographic. Lichfields’ Insight Focus explores this issue within the context of South West England.
So, what is the planning system doing to address the changing demographic?
I first turn to England’s ‘planning bible’, the National Planning Policy Framework (2019), which amongst other things aims to significantly boost the supply of homes. Within this context it requires the size, type and tenure of housing needed for specific groups in the community to be assessed and reflected in planning policies, including housing for older people (para. 61). While there is clear policy support for certain types of housing, such as Starter Homes and Build to Rent, there is no specific policy support or Government initiative to promote the delivery of housing for older people. The undersupply of adequate retirement housing has all too often been overlooked at national planning level.
In London, the London Plan (2016) has adopted ‘Lifetime Homes’ as a requirement in new housing developments. Although this is a positive step towards creating inclusive and adaptable homes, it mainly focuses on physical accessibility of older people, and doesn’t address the need to provide accommodation with an element of care to support those with physical or mental needs, often affecting the older population.
The draft London Plan, which is currently undergoing Examination in Public, has a specific policy relating to specialist older persons housing. Draft Policy H15 requires Boroughs to ‘work positively and collaboratively with providers’ to identify sites appropriate for such homes. The draft policy is a step in the right direction and in response to local need sets targets for the number of specialist accommodation units to be delivered annually in each London borough (until 2029).
Draft London Plan Policy H15 should help to ensure that a quantum of housing for older people is delivered across all London Boroughs. However, we are aware that providers of housing for older people struggle to compete with more standard housing providers when acquiring sites, which makes delivery of housing for older people more difficult.
There are several potential planning mechanisms that could assist delivery for this housing type, such as introducing policies that explicitly support provision of specialist accommodation in boroughs where there is an identified unmet need. Planning conditions attached to permissions can also secure occupancy for older people in perpetuity. There is increasing interest in senior co-housing schemes to help address the needs of our ageing population which is considered below.
Co-housing: a potential solution to a growing problem
Co-housing schemes are usually arranged as a cluster of private homes around a shared communal space (including a ‘common house’, guest room for visitors, garden(s) and laundry rooms), which is designed and managed by its residents. Community groups comprising retirees only are creating their own senior co-housing schemes which aim to encourage independent living with shared facilities while helping to reduce loneliness. Other pull factors include the sociable nature (limiting isolation), increased security (with more ‘eyes on the street’), and the sense of community it creates. Furthermore, senior co-housing developments enable older people to downsize, thus freeing up larger family homes.
Co-housing is an established concept in Scandinavia and the Netherlands, while the UK plays catch up. There are currently over 60 groups in the UK in the process of developing their own co-housing projects, and the Government is making £163m available across England for such projects (up to 2021), through the Community Housing Fund. Sadiq Khan also launched the Homes for Londoners Community Housing Hub in 2017 to support community groups (not specifically for older co-housing communities) and individuals wanting to build their own homes by offering advice - including how to access funding and unlock land, and providing technical support for projects.
Below is an exemplary senior co-housing scheme in Barnet, London:
New Ground, Barnet - Older Women’s Co-housing (OWCH):
This senior development comprising 25 homes was built in 2016 for a group of women over 50. Eight are let for social rent through the housing association Housing for Women; the others are leaseholds. OWCH faced local opposition, but eventually managed to obtain planning permission in early 2013 with help from the Director of Adult Social Care who agreed that senior co-housing communities can reduce pressure on health and social care services.
Sourced imagery: OWCH
It is not fair to suggest that there is only one housing solution for such a diverse demographic group, but senior co-housing schemes could be a positive option for older people to live independently, while also having a community close-by. Increasing the number of these communities can reduce pressures on health and care services, and allow older people to be independent within a close network that helps in reducing loneliness and isolation.
It is of course important to note that senior co-housing communities would only be appropriate for older people without specialist mental and physical health care needs. Additionally, community-led housing projects such as senior co-housing schemes come with a lengthy process of finding an appropriate site, securing funding, and successfully negotiating with a registered provider/developer partner. For OWCH, the whole process took around 16 years!
To assist the delivery of senior co-housing schemes, local authorities could remove some of the planning barriers by offering free pre-application advice or implementing a nil CIL rate for such schemes. Local authorities could also impose planning conditions to ensure these developments can only be occupied by older people in the long term. Furthermore, planning authorities should ensure community-led development policies are included in their Local Plans, and produce SPDs on community-led housing to set a clear approach for delivery. They could also allocate Council-owned sites for such developments or obtain outline planning permission for senior co-housing development to speed up the process for co-housing groups.
The bottom line is that more attractive options need to be available for retirees (particularly the ‘young-old’ generation) to enable them to take a leap from their family homes and start afresh. This would free up larger homes for other people that need them. With the post-war baby-boomers reaching retirement age, built environment professionals must seek ways to provide high quality housing for them…and pronto!
 UK Census 2011, ONS