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.