Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year, and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.

There has recently been a lot of speculation on what a post COVID-19 world will look like, with an extra light being shone on care homes. Clearly things cannot continue as they are. The Government needs to grasp the social care nettle – preferably with a cross-party consensus that ensures it stands the test of time.

The current system of older people mainly staying in the family home until they reach crisis point, and then moving into a care home is not working. Part of the reason this happens is because there are not enough retirement housing options available. We must also remember, as we take part in this debate, that it is widened to include care for disabled children and working-age adults. We must move away from the current ‘solution’ of housing working-age wheelchair users in retirement complexes because the home is accessible – only focussing on physical needs. Just as the planning system provides for affordable homes – it must provide for all housing need. There must be enough housing solutions, for, if not everyone, then for most people.

In the same way people plan for their retirement by choosing a pension scheme, people must start thinking about right-sizing at an earlier stage. This also requires housing options for them to choose from. Councils need comprehensive housing strategies that feed into their local plans that provide for their housing need, that includes housing for key workers (all types of care workers including cleaners) in areas where housing costs are high, accessible homes for disabled people, those with learning difficulties, starter homes, affordable homes etc

Sevenoaks District Council surveyed all their residents with a return rate of one in five – so they were able to devise a housing strategy that meets their local housing needs. With a section on older peoples’ housing that feeds into the Local Plan, it encourages retirement villages across all housing tenures: from home ownership, shared ownership, to social rented. Many housing associations such as West Kent Housing have expertise in building retirement villages, as well as linking their retirement accommodation into support hubs for their residents and other local people. These include various forms of entertainment from Bingo to film nights; to hairdressers, chiropodists, and massage, to restaurants, cafes and gyms.

The best retirement villages are flexible and can be adapted to support peoples’ needs. If they are able to live fully independently they are free to do so, but various extra care support packages are available if people need it – often up to a care home on the site. It is also helpful if there is a couple and one needs care and the other doesn’t. Both can have their needs met and continue living together. There needs to be a range of different kinds of retirement villages so people have as much choice as possible. When older people have choice they are more likely to right-size.

We also have to recognise that not all older people want to live in retirement villages and prefer to live in mixed-aged communities. In Sevenoaks, the survey revealed that such people were prepared to right-size if there was somewhere local, close to their friends and families to move to. The strategy included life-time standards for all new builds. All flats are required to include a lift and to be fully wheelchair accessible, enabling working age disabled people to live there, but also older people to live there too. It also means people are not forced to leave their homes in the future if they need a wheelchair.

Sevenoaks District Council identified many of the barriers preventing people from right-sizing in both the social-rented sector and private housing – as purpose built homes are better for older people. They are less likely to fall in them, they are cheaper to heat and easier to manage all round. Older people often need help to sort through the attic or garage, go through their possessions and decide what needs to be disposed of. The thought of moving can be so overwhelming, that many simply put it off. Yet there are charities and others that can help with these practical tasks and can make the whole idea of moving more appealing – and the council helps to sign-post people to charities such as these.

For every older person or couple that moves from a family-sized home – it frees up a housing chain. This in turn helps house families and first-time home occupiers to buy or rent a home. It also helps to take the pressure off building on the countryside. It is a far more effective strategy to home people and make best use of current housing stock, than the constant focus on starter and executive homes.

Once we finally emerge from lockdown, we will be much more aware of social care and what the future can hold. We must not return social care solutions to the back-burner. We must finally grasp the nettle, join planning, housing, social care, and health policy development together to give our older people the dignity and choices in retirement that they truly deserve.