Published:

John Tonkiss is the Chief Executive of McCarthy & Stone

In March 2020, just before the country went into Lockdown, Mr and Mrs Learner, aged 83 and 77 respectively, downsized from their four-bedroom family-sized home on the outskirts of Cardiff and moved into a private, independent two-bedroom apartment in our new age-exclusive retirement community in the city, called Llys Isan.

During lockdown, Mr and Mrs Learner were able to benefit from the services we offered that would not have been available if they had lived isolated in their previous home. The team working in our on-site restaurant, while shut during lockdown, brought freshly prepared meals directly to their apartment daily. Our round-the-clock care and support team continued working, cleaning apartments, providing care, and undertaking general maintenance and gardening.

These services were particularly helpful to Mr Learner, who is partially sighted. The friendships formed during this period, between the homeowners themselves, and between them and our on-site teams, kept the sense of community going through challenging times.

Now lockdown has lifted, the community has come back together. The homeowners at the development can enjoy each other’s company again, and all shared areas and gardens are reopened. We are grateful that cases of Covid at Llys Isan in Cardiff were extremely low, and this was reflected across our 475 retirement communities; overall we had infection levels just a quarter of that seen in wider society.

It’s clear that retirement communities like Llys Isan support older people, playing a hugely important role improving their wellbeing and keeping them safe, particularly when aged in their 80s and above. They also provide wider societal benefits, releasing existing housing stock onto the open market for younger people to buy and regenerating town centres and high streets where our developments are typically located and where our customers wish to live.

But our population is ageing rapidly, and national housing supply is not meeting their needs. Just 7,500 new retirement housing units are delivered annually, versus Knight Frank’s estimate of a demand for 30,000.

The current reality is that a growing proportion of people in later life feel unable to move from their existing homes to something better suited to their changing needs because they do not have options like Llys Isan. Older people want choice, but they are limited by a shortage of specialist and affordable homes in today’s market.

The UK has no strategy on housing for older people to provide a strategic vision and ensure housing, health and social care policies are joined up. This is compounded by a failure at local level; 50 per cent of local authorities do not have any policies in their Local Plans for housing for older people.

This leads to some really challenging conversations. We see positive experiences like Mr and Mrs Learner on a daily basis, but when we bring forward new planning applications for retirement communities, they are typically met with a negative response from local authorities.

Just this month we achieved a planning consent in Cheshire for a new 30-apartment retirement community on a brownfield site. We should have had a decision from the council within the statutory 13-week period. Instead, it took us more than two years (105 weeks), officer recommendations for approval, refusals from councillors, and expensive resubmissions and two appeals. All meaning older people in the area continued to suffer from a lack of suitable housing and support.

This experience is all too common for us and other retirement community operators around the country. This sector has billions of pounds of investment waiting to come in to meet demand and increase supply from that 7,500 mark to 30,000 new properties a year, ten per cent of the national housing target. The retirement community sector should be set for growth like that seen in student housing in the 2000s. But this is impossible to achieve without a greater focus on the housing needs of older people in local and national planning policy.

The announcement of a dedicated, cross-government taskforce on older people’s housing in the Levelling Up White Paper is therefore a hugely welcome development. It has the opportunity to change the status quo, and be bold and ambitious in its mission to make specialist homes for older people a priority.

With a reforming Minister at the helm of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, this is an opportunity not to be squandered. We must learn the lessons from the pandemic, and better support older and most vulnerable citizens. Central to this are retirement communities, which can be a ‘third way’ to live between large family homes and traditional care settings.

The taskforce must prioritise planning given the constraints of the current system on our ability to deliver more specialist homes. It should look at requiring local authorities to assess the local housing need for older people and ensure that they make this form of housing integral to their local plans. It should address issues of viability and the increased cost of building these types of schemes.

Homes England, as the Government’s housing delivery body, has an important role to play here too. It could bring our industry together and create the conditions to enable it to expand an affordable shared ownership offering. We would like to see it altering its housing delivery targets, so that te per cent of housing delivered annually in the future is specialized for older people.

Investment in this form of housing would also bring vast benefits to the wider economy, releasing family-sized homes to help younger people join and move up the ladder, employing local people in a wide variety of jobs, and bringing significant revenues to local economies and high streets where our homeowners wish to shop.

How a society treats its most vulnerable – whether young or old – is a measure of its humanity. Bold and decisive steps are needed now to improve later life living in the UK, and the taskforce is the vehicle that can enable our sector to truly realise its potential.