Chris Walker is a former government economist and author of Healthier and Happier, a new report for Homes for Later Living
When politicians talk about housing policy, the focus is frequently on helping young people to get on the housing ladder. The current prime minister is no exception; in his first speech in the job, Boris Johnson spoke of “giving millions of young people the chance to own their own home”.
The focus on how the lack of supply is hitting young people is entirely understandable. Homes are now unaffordable for most millennials and nearly a million more 20-34-year-olds live at home than 20 years ago. The sense of the housing market not working for young people who quite naturally aspire to have a family-sized home of their own one day might explain the recent study by Onward which found the new ‘tipping point’ age at which voters are more likely to vote Conservative has risen to 51.
However, there is a danger in focusing solely on first-time buyers. If the Tories fail to develop a strong offer for the many older people who want to carry on living independently but need housing which enables them to do so safely and enjoyably, they will miss the opportunity to both release older family-sized homes and realise significant health and social care savings as our population ages.
The scale of the problem is underlined in my new report for Homes for Later Living, which highlights that more older people are living alone in unsuitable housing where they are likely to suffer from falls, loneliness and dementia. It is envisaged that by 2032, the NHS could be overwhelmed by nearly a million extra older people suffering from falls-related injuries.
Supporting the case for more specialist retirement housing, my analysis shows that building 30,000 homes for later living every year for the next ten years could generate fiscal savings to the NHS and local authorities of at least £1.4 billion a year. This comes on top of the fiscal savings already being delivered by the existing homes for later living market, thought to be at least £750 million a year.
Just as importantly the report states that an average person aged 80 feels as good as someone 10 years younger in wellbeing terms after moving from mainstream housing to retirement housing. These benefits stem from the specialist design of retirement housing, be it apartments, bungalows or ‘extra care housing’, along with high levels of social interaction, varying levels of support and care, and large communal spaces.
With a General Election around the corner, Conservative strategists would do well to take note. Ever since the last election efforts have been under way to get older people back on side and rightly so. The Prime Minister has pledged that his plans to tackle the social care crisis will satisfy two criteria – namely that “nobody should be forced to sell their home and everybody should have dignity and security in old age”. One of the ways that people can be helped to stay in their own home in later life is if we see a sustained focus on the delivery of more housing specifically designed for people’s changing needs as they get older.
According to the latest government forecasts, the number of people aged over 80 is set to rise from about 3.2 million today to five million in 2032. Building more homes for later living would help many older people to lead happier and healthier lives. It would also help to ease the social care crisis and boost the coffers of the NHS. The question is: can the Conservatives really afford not to act?