Retirement Housing - Lifestyle not last resort

In 2009 HAPPI, the Housing our Ageing Population Panel for Innovation, launched its first report on older people's housing, bringing many new ideas and a very welcome emphasis on design quality to a sector where such things have previously been the exception rather than the rule. In particular the HAPPI report included studies of some excellent schemes in northern Europe which provide a fertile source of new thinking for extra care schemes and care homes in this country.

 Ballyreagh Retirement village

Ballyreagh Retirement village

Recently we had the launch of HAPPI 2 and, in his introductory speech, Lord Best, the panel chair, spoke of the profound importance of older people's housing for the country as a whole. The essence of his argument is that, with the growing shortage of housing across the UK exacerbated by widespread under-occupation of family homes, the construction of a single purpose-built unit for older people will release a much larger unit onto the open market; a particularly effective strategy in terms of land and cost. To quote Lord Best 'If 2% (84,000) of older people presently under-occupying (having more than two free bedrooms) moved into retirement housing then their former homes could serve the needs of 400,000 people as well as meaning that the older people themselves are in housing appropriate for their needs. This could potentially help lift the economy out of recession, provide employment and meet the country's housing needs.'

This is all fine stuff but there is one glaring anomaly; the type of housing needed in response to Lord Best's clarion call is not at all the same as that with which HAPPI is primarily concerned.

To explain this a bit we need to consider first that under-occupation starts to be a factor once children leave home and, even with today's catastrophic graduate unemployment, this means that couples in their late 50s are likely, using Lord Best's definition, to be under-occupying  their houses. Looking though at figures for the biggest single provider of specialist housing, McCarthy and Stone, the average age for moving into their 'Later Living' apartments is 78 and for their 'Assisted Living' schemes that goes up to 83 and this is probably typical for the sector. Fine though the ideas and schemes in HAPPI are, I would suggest strongly that they respond to the needs of those aged 75 or more rather than the desires of the 55-75 year olds who make up the majority of the under-occupiers.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that the HAPPI recommendations should not be pushed very hard but when it comes to saving the economy it is initiatives aimed at persuading the younger age group to downsize which are essential.

This is far from easy, there being many reasons why this group will not want to move:
-  Natural inertia
-  The desire to enjoy the house once you've paid for it
-  The feeling that your capital is probably better invested in a house than anywhere else
-  The wish to retain the family home for Christmas (and possibly for returning children)
-  The need to stay near very elderly parents
-  The need to stay near your employment (most of this group will be working people)
-  The stigma attached to 'sheltered accommodation'

The last of these points deserves some further comment. Historically the only forms of accommodation for older people were almshouses (few in number), workhouses and asylums. Otherwise people, as they got older, continued to live with their younger families as indeed they still do in much of southern Europe. The first major moves to improve things were closely tied in with the post war boom in council housing so 'Sheltered Housing' in bungalows and bedsits was basically a public sector phenomenon and downsizing was not really a matter of choice. It was only much later at the end of the '70s, when English Courtyard and McCarthy and Stone entered the market, that there was any real private sector involvement but even then the move to specialist housing was normally needs-driven rather than a matter of lifestyle choice.
 
In the USA things are rather different with a significant trend towards early downsizing and many very large senior communities particularly in Florida and Arizona. Phoenix for example is now a huge city, made up largely of such communities, each with its golf course (often more than one), pools, tennis courts and a country club. These attractions and the tax advantages of living out of town make it easy to understand why this part of the US housing market is so different from that in the UK. What is also clear though is that these large US schemes thrive in a context where very large greenfield sites are available at low cost. In addition to the land-take of the facilities themselves the high capital and maintenance costs only become affordable when shared by many households. Is it then the case that the difficulties in finding the right large sites are a fundamental barrier to the provision of large scale housing for the 55-75 year old market in the UK?
 
So far Anchor's Denham Garden Village is probably the largest purpose built retirement community in the UK with almost 400 units (US schemes can be ten times this size) on a 30 acre site which had previously provided housing for the Licenced Victuallers Association. The units, a mix of bungalows and flats, are all for private sale and the concept is that most levels of care and support can be provided to individual dwellings so there is no care home on the site. The facilities including a pool, fitness suite and bar are at times shared with the general public which helps to create a lively atmosphere. Generally the scheme has been judged a great success but I would still be surprised if there have been many purchasers aged under 70.
 
Currently McCarthy and Stone are, with the RIBA, sponsoring a competition for the design of 'Baby Boomer' housing in a drive to find new ideas which may appeal to the younger market. For the purposes of the competition the target age range is given as 57-69 so if the winning ideas are strong enough they will not only open up a huge market for McCarthy and Stone but also, following Lord Best's arithmetic, save the UK economy as well. It is an important competition and it will be fascinating to see what comes out of it but still I wonder if the given site at  2.4 acres, is anything like big enough to  provide the facilities which will tempt the target age range, of whom I am one, into trading in the family home.
 
One very important point for a 'Baby Boomer' scheme will be to find the right unit types. There is an immediate assumption that flats or bungalows will be what's needed for older people but even among 80 and 90 year olds there are plenty who want very much to carry on going upstairs to bed  and persuading 60 year olds of the merits of apartment living outside cities may be very problematic. Schemes for this generation are likely to need a lot of two and three bed houses, stylish and highly specified, and although traffic generation will be lower than that for family housing, some working owners will still have two cars so high occupation densities will be difficult to achieve.
Is this then a council of despair? Is there really no UK solution for this major problem of under-occupation?

Certainly it is not an easy road because the need for early funding of the facilities imposes considerable financial risk but the market is potentially huge and the rewards correspondingly large if ways are found to make sites available through changes in the planning position. A few possibilities come to mind.

1. Retirement and Extra Care housing are defined by most authorities as C3 residential uses and they are thus considered to generate an affordable housing requirement whereas a Care Home, as a C2 institutional use, does not. Retirement schemes are always more expensive to build per unit than standard housing and in recognition of the threat this imposes on viability the Retirement housing Group is campaigning for a new intermediate use class which avoids the imposition of affordable housing.

2. Tony Pidgeley of Berkeley goes further, promulgating the idea that retirement housing should stand in lieu of affordable housing.

3. McCarthy and Stone among others can demonstrate that many of their completed schemes would have been unviable with CIL in place. Viability is even more of an issue for older people's housing than it is in general and incoming CIL policies should certainly take this into account.

4. Authorities proposing major urban extensions should be obliged to include a requirement for a major component of retirement housing on the basis of its particular effectiveness in dealing with housing shortages.

5. As a suggestion on rural sites where only short term let holiday housing is currently permitted, retirement housing should be allowed instead, opening up the possibility for retirement villages to be attached, for instance, to new CenterParcs venues.
 
6. Highways guidance should be revised to reflect specifically the very low traffic generation of retirement schemes. Some authorities still fail to recognise the realities of this.
 
Going back to where I started Lord Best is of course correct that  encouragement for all forms of older people's housing is crucially important and this applies across the board; high quality HAPPI housing is needed for those in the 80 plus range, classic retirement housing including fine schemes such as those by English Courtyard and Beechcroft will benefit from planning and funding encouragement and, most importantly of all, planning initiatives are needed to facilitate the bigger more spectacular schemes which will finally persuade UK 60 year olds that downsizing is a real lifestyle choice.

Article published in a shortened form in Building Magazine, 22nd March 2013 under the title "Middle-aged folks homes"