The refusal, in October 2020, to allow Guild Living to build 222 retirement homes in Walton on Thames town centre would suggest, sadly, that some local authorities and communities remain unbalanced and polarised in the provision of housing for older people, and that prejudice remains in society today. The planning application was rejected on the basis that there was no local need for older people’s housing and that the development would damage the vitality of the town centre.
More specifically, Elmbridge Council stated that, ‘The proposed development fails to make efficient use of land by providing the type of accommodation for which there is no short or medium term need,’ and that, ‘The application fails to demonstrate whether any alternative mixed-use would be viable and feasible to support diversity in the town centre…it fails to add to the centre’s competitiveness and would undermine the vitality and viability of the town centre.’
At the time of the decision, the developer accused the Council of ageism, winning support from Age Concern, and in June 2021 Guild Living won an appeal on the basis of the social, economic and environmental benefits that the scheme would bring, along with its significant contribution to the supply of housing and specialist accommodation both locally and nationally.
“The UK’s ageing population and the chronic shortage of suitable housing for older people is well documented.”
This decision is an important one that is very much welcomed by the later living development industry. The UK’s ageing population, primarily driven by increased life expectancy and declining fertility, and the chronic shortage of suitable housing for older people (and the population as a whole) is well documented. Around one fifth of the UK population (19%) was aged 65 or over in 2019. This number increased by 23% between 2009 and 2019, at a time when the whole UK population increased by just 7%. Furthermore, the proportion of the population aged 75 and over is projected to rise from 8% in 2018 to 13% in 2043, while the proportion aged 85 and over is projected to rise from 2% to 4%.
“The benefits of providing this growing demographic with suitable, flexible housing in sustainable locations are multiple, not only for older people themselves but for the families who benefit from the increased supply of larger homes.”
The benefits of providing this growing demographic with suitable, flexible housing in sustainable locations are multiple, not only for older people themselves but for the families who benefit from the increased supply of larger homes. The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government’s English Housing Survey 2018-2019 reveals that households led by an older person are much more likely to be under-occupied than those of other age groups. 55% of households led by a 65+ year old had at least two spare bedrooms, compared with 18% of 16-34 year old households and 34% of 35-64 year old households.
However, there remain many barriers to downsizing and incentives are required. Stamp duty is often cited as the main reason why people are unwilling to downsize. Another is the lack of suitable properties. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government introduced a ‘stamp duty holiday’, but only for a limited timeframe. Les Mayhew, Professor of Statistics at Cass Business School, argues in Too little, Too Late? Housing for an ageing population, that a permanent stamp duty exemption for ‘last time’ buyers would encourage downsizing.
The current lack of supply of retirement housing is also highlighted in Mayhew’s report: ‘At present the sector accounts for just 3% of new builds and is not helped by indifference in local authorities to retirement housing.’
Mayhew goes on to argue that a more joined-up approach between housing and health departments is required, because evidence increasingly indicates that that retirement housing with easy access to amenities and healthcare reduces hospital admissions and delays transfer to residential and nursing care facilities.
“At present the sector accounts for just 3% of new builds and is not helped by indifference in local authorities to retirement housing.”
Many over 65s would like to be closer to bustling city centres, and there are many retirement schemes in town and city centres which help to both enliven and enhance the vitality and viability of town centres. For example, the 2020 Audley retirement village in Clapham, south London, offers accommodation in a highly sustainable location with good access to public transport, cultural, retail and leisure facilities. The Walton on Thames appeal decision also highlights a welcome shift in decision-making. The central locations of both schemes can help to combat isolation and loneliness for older people and play an important role in the shifting balance of town and city centres uses.
To provide adequately for an aging population, to avoid age segregation and to bring about multiple related benefits, greater flexibility in planning, economic incentives, and a greater choice of accommodation are required. The Planning Bill alone will not provide the answer. The root cause is the attitudes of LPAs, local communities and others and the solution is the belief that retirement schemes, far from reducing local vitality, have much to offer
KEY CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS ARTICLE
Neal is head of our Midlands planning team, based in our Birmingham office. He is a specialist in large-scale projects and urban regeneration, and has delivered a number of strategic development projects for a variety of clients. With over 15 years of planning experience including at urban and rural local planning authorities, Neal has extensive and varied knowledge of projects across residential (including BTR and PBSA), infrastructure and commercial sectors
Christopher is a chartered town planner with over nine years of private consultancy experience, advising a diverse range of clients across the private and public sectors on all aspects of planning. Christopher has prepared and managed EIA planning applications and has vast experience in residential, commercial, mixed-use and renewable energy projects.