Investing for later years.

Last week saw the launch of a report I wrote last year: “Are Housing Associations Ready for an Ageing Population?” Thank you Genesis Housing for sponsoring a piece of work which, I hope, will help the sector and government work towards the medium term plan we need to meet the housing needs of the growing older population.

When I started the project last summer, I didn’t see a particular connection with SHOUT’s campaign, but, as I carried out my research and began to work out what it is telling is, it became clearer and clearer that a very big part of the SHOUT argument needs to be about the need for more social housing to meet the needs of a growing older population.

One of SHOUT’s main arguments, of course, is that since the late 1970s, when this country stopped building social housing at scale, total building has remained below the rate of household growth, and, in fact, the trend is downward. But where is that household growth coming from? Well over half of it, around 120,000 a year out of 220,000 a year, is over-65 households. So every year we build barely half the homes we need to keep up with household growth, much of that unmet need is older households.

It follows that, if we were to start building social homes at the scale needed, a very high proportion of them would need to be suitable for older households. My report shows that is not just about housing for older people who need support and care, though undoubtedly we will need more of that, because, sadly, there will be more people living with physical and cognitive disability. Over half of people in their 70s, and 40% even of those over 80 are not disabled.

What the evidence tells us is that older people, including those who are fit and well, often want to move somewhere smaller (but not too small), in a convenient format, and located close to amenities. If we built more of that type of housing, as well as housing designed for the most frail older people, we would both be improving the quality of older people’s lives and, often, enabling them to trade down from larger homes, which would then be available for families with children.

The social housing sector has a much stronger track record of meeting older people’s needs than the private sector. Over three quarters of specialist older people’s housing is in the social sector. Such private housing as is available tends to be expensive to buy and with high service charges. The problem is that, as the growth in older households has accelerated, fewer and fewer new homes are being built. In the late 1980s, we were building around 30,000 a year (in all tenures).

The current HCA specialist care and support programme looks like it will deliver less than 2,000 new units a year, equivalent to less than one sixth of the growth in households in the age groups most likely to need that type of housing. A survey of housing association landlords carried out for the project found that over half have no plans to increase development for older people; and when we asked what was getting in the way, half said it was lack of government grant. There is no sign of the private sector getting remotely near filling the gap.

Our case for building more social housing generally is that it would improve people’s lives and generate an enormous payback to society. This is, if anything, even more true of housing for older people. Homes which are easy to keep warm and to look after, which are free from hazards, which have kitchens and bathrooms which can be used unaided by older people with disabilities, are likely to pay back many times over in fewer calls on GPs, fewer of the A&E admissions under which the NHS is reeling, and less need for home carers. It is not just that the NHS and council adult services are facing unmanageable pressures, older people would (obviously) much rather they were less likely to become ill or need to ask for help with personal care.

So my report ends up calling for the same things as SHOUT: more public investment (which I suggest should be planned through local processes in which the NHS, councils and housing landlords think how best to use public investment and land to give the best results, for the public purse and for older people’s wellbeing and quality of life); and for the sector itself to be a lot clearer and more articulate in demonstrating what is needed, and how best it can be provided.

We need more social housing for all age groups, but a central part of our argument needs to be about the potential of the social sector to enable people to live well in their later years.

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  • Anne Ludlow
    Sheltered Housing UK, Reg. Charity 1137806, ( fully endorses the content of this post. We believe that the policy of downgrading Sheltered Housing, pursued by the Government under all political parties over the past ten years, has had a very serious knock-on effect on the NHS, the Emergency Services, the delivery of care, and the housing market as a whole (not to mention, of course, the residents themselves).

    Sheltered Housing was originally intended to provide an ideal down-sizing option for elderly people: there was a warden on-site to ensure their security and to encourage inclusion in a vital round of age-appropriate social activities. Approximately 500,000 elderly people trustingly gave up their own homes to downsize into the manageable flats or bungalows on offer, freeing up an equivalent number of larger homes for young families to move into.

    The elderly residents found all they were looking for in Sheltered Housing and did not regret their decision to downsize – until 1994, when the systematic withdrawal funding for warden cover began. Some enlightened housing providers did their best to ensure that their residents continued to enjoy the security and sense of community which they had been promised, but sadly many others callously ignored the needs of the elderly residents and left them simply to fend for themselves.

    Formerly “Sheltered” properties were now downgraded to “Supported Housing” (meaning that all client groups of the Supporting People programme could move in – including alcoholics and drug addicts, ex-convicts, unwed mothers, and people with mental health problems). No one could possibly deny that these groups do need support, but surely anyone could see that their needs are diametrically opposed to those of the vulnerable elderly people who used to enjoy the security and social life offered by Sheltered Housing.

    The result is entirely predictable: thousands of vulnerable elderly people are now locked into schemes where they live in terror of their neighbours, and there is no warden available to ensure that they are safe. Social life and community involvement disappear as they lock themselves away in their flats and sink into the misery and despair of isolation, abandonment, and betrayal of trust (precisely the conditions that lead to the onset and exacerbation of the symptoms of dementia – with severe knock-on costs to the NHS).

    Now that Sheltered Housing no longer offers any incentive to downsize, there is a mounting logjam in the housing market, as elderly people feel safer staying in their own homes, even if they are too big to manage. Punishing the elderly with the bedroom tax would never have been necessary if there were still an attractive alternative on offer in Sheltered Housing.

    Now, instead of having most of their clients clustered into Sheltered Housing schemes, carers must drive hundreds of extra miles every week to visit isolated elderly people in their homes. And rather than the fuel efficiency of heating a self-contained block of flats for the elderly, each individual oversized home must now be kept warm for the elderly person or couple who lives there. And individual disability-adaptations to these homes cost many hundreds of pounds, only to be ripped out later when the occupant dies or is transferred to a nursing home.

    Sheltered Housing UK fully agrees with the author of this post – a massive re-investment of resources into providing attractive social housing for the elderly (as Sheltered Housing used to do) is the key to a dynamic, forward-moving system which frees up houses for young families on a regular basis. We believe that Sheltered Housing should be enhanced, not downgraded – it should provide a genuine “Home for Life” where elderly people can advance naturally from full independence to the greater needs of “Extra Care” and even into full-time care, without being traumatically shunted about from one location to another. The integrated provision of adequate staffing at all levels of need within Sheltered Housing would have the end result of saving the NHS billions of pounds and also providing the market with a much-needed boost in available housing.

    Anne Ludlow
    Secretary, Sheltered Housing UK
    UPDATED October 2016 Capital Economics report: Building Social Rent homes
    SHOUT Supports ending the Housing Crisis in a Generation