Better planning for retirement communities

To realise their full potential in the UK, retirement communities need to be better understood and receive clearer support from the planning system

Author: Michael Voges

30 September 2019

A cross-party alliance recently called for the retirement community sector to quadruple in size to house 250,000 older people by 2030, in line with Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO) Vision 2030. With more than 100 members and affiliated organisations, ARCO is the main body representing the sector in the UK, identifying the housing options available for older people.

Vision 2030 supporters want ARCO to help tackle the housing shortage and challenges facing the UK health and social care systems. Even if achieved, the UK would still have roughly half the provision of other countries, at a time when the UK population aged more than 75 is expected to double in the next 30 years.

One of the largest problems is lack of clarity and a fundamental misconception of what comprises housing with care for older people. The differences are clarified in Table 1. Retirement communities promote independent living for as long as possible by providing aspirational homes for older people, giving them access to flexible and tailored care. Residents live in their own flats – either rented, bought or part-owned – and can use on-site health and leisure facilities, so they are able to remain independent while being part of a community. The sector's ethos is about placemaking and inviting the wider community to use the facilities.

A major issue for the ageing population is that healthy living hasn't kept up with increasing life expectancy, and older people are living with conditions that affect their independence and quality of life. But while we await the social care green paper, there's been a quiet revolution among retirement communities. Research has revealed their benefits, confirming that older people who live in housing with care are happier, healthier and less lonely.

In June, ARCO conducted an in-depth study with US senior-living market research firm ProMatura involving 2,799 residents from 81 retirement communities. It backed up earlier research showing the benefits of such schemes for residents. Such communities can also save money for the NHS and social services by keeping older people healthy.

However, the planning system is only just beginning to recognise the retirement community sector. Despite welcome ministerial guidance, there is not enough clarity that local authorities ought to categorise specialist housing with care and support under the C2 land-use type. In addition, the government has not adequately calculated future demand for this form of provision, categorising it with care homes or normal residential development.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1987 remains the cornerstone of planning. This only covers care homes as understood then rather than today's homes, which cater for end-of-life care or high-level needs such as dementia. The average length of stay in a care home is now considerably shorter than two years, but there are increasing numbers of older people who need an alternative form of provision, with flexible care and support of the kind that is in retirement communities.

People are living longer and are more discerning, which is why retirement communities are growing in popularity. But since local authorities confuse retirement communities with care homes, they often do not encourage this class of property, believing it will place further pressure on the social care system. In his Fixing the Care Crisis report for the Centre for Policy Studies, MP Damian Green writes that: 'The current planning system discourages local councils from investing in social care and housing for older people.'

By not building housing with care provision, councils are moving the burden on to other local authorities or already overburdened families, thereby increasing the likelihood that older people in their own areas end up in care homes. If every council pushed ahead with plans for retirement communities, people could stay in a familiar place near their families.

One issue is that some housebuilders have previously promised to provide housing-with-care services to gain preferential treatment for their planning application. Unfortunately, a few developers do not fulfil their promises, which understandably raises suspicions with planners when they subsequently receive applications from genuine retirement community operators.

The current system needs to develop a clear category for housing-with-care schemes for the long term, accompanied by a clear system of monitoring that can punish operators for not providing the promised services.

In Fixing the Care Crisis, Green recommends fundamental changes to social care funding in the form of compulsory insurance to 'transform the incentives [that] currently prevent the construction of enough care homes and retirement housing'. He proposes that a new use class is created, with councils required to meet local need, helping to improve choice and affordability in suitable accommodation for older people and mitigating reliance on social care.

Another potential obstacle is that people increasingly find the word 'downsizing' offensive, with its suggestion that older people are stubbornly refusing to move. 'Rightsizing' is a better choice of word, though ARCO believes the whole argument reveals flawed thinking.

Most current schemes for housing with care are fully occupied, and in many cases long waiting lists demonstrate that people want to move. This isn't about older people refusing to move from their large homes, otherwise we'd see empty retirement communities nationwide; the problem is that there is nowhere for them to go.

The emphasis must be shifted firmly on to supply, not demand, and the definition of housing, care and support services fit for the 21st century.

Michael Voges is the executive director of ARCO

Related competencies include: Housing strategy and provision Planning and development management

Chalfont Dene retirement community

ARCO member the Audley Group recently opened a retirement village on a suburban site in Chalfont St Peter Buckinghamshire. Before it acquired the site in 2013 a different developer had intended to use it for 'normal' residential development under a C3 use; C3(a) covers various arrangements that constitute a single household under the Housing Act 2004 while C3(b) specifically covers up to six people living together as a single household and receiving care. C2 usually has a more beneficial section 106 and community infrastructure levy obligation than those under C3.

In this case village residents formed a pressure group Sensitive Enhancement Not Sensational Exploitation for Chalfont St Peter (SENSE4CSP) and successfully fought the earlier residential development proposal at application and appeal. In contrast when Audley proposed a retirement village with on-site support and care services ARCO approached SENSE4CSP and the parish council before applying to the planning authority. Both bodies supported the application and although the development would be in the green belt ARCO received 48 letters of support following a public exhibition.

The reasons for supporting a retirement village instead of residential development were that: it would have a low impact on traffic it would provide aspirational accommodation for older people it would offer high-quality support services on site the landowner and operator had a long-term interest in the project the design was of high quality the development would release family housing the scheme offered landscape and ecological benefits and renewable energy.

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