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Why building age-friendly houses isn’t an “option”


The latest Government proposals on housebuilding are a wasted opportunity that will cost succeeding generations dearly, says Tony Watts OBE, Chair of South West Forum on Ageing and SW Regional Housing Champion for Older People.



The Government has just (12 September) announced measures that, it says, “will save housebuilders and councils £114 million per year by cutting red tape and ensuring homes are built to demanding standards”.


Great news all round, it would appear.


After all, we all want our homes built to demanding standards.


We’d all like to see councils saving money – our money.


And housebuilders – well they are obviously a good cause too. A few months ago, the Guardian reported that: “Redrow's profits in the six months to December more than doubled to £47.5m while Barratt's profits over the same period soared 162% to £120.4m. Earlier this week rival Persimmon reported a 49% rise in annual profits to £330m while Bovis Homes posted a 48% increase to £79m and Taylor Wimpey saw operating profits rise 39% to £313m in 2013.”


They obviously need all the help they can get. And, no doubt, those savings announced by the Government will be passed on to housebuyers… although it may be a tad difficult to track that, what with the way house prices are dictated by market forces.


But that aside, building homes to “demanding standards” seems to imply a raising in standards. That has to be good news. How this will be achieved at the same time as reducing costs would be quite an impressive feat, and I’m sure we all look forward to seeing how that is going to be achieved.


Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Maybe “demanding” means nothing of the sort – simply meeting the minimum standards laid down.


So what about those “demanding standards”? Well here’s where it gets very exciting for those of us who have been pushing for “lifetime homes”. The document heralds the fact that we’ll now be building homes which are “age friendly”. So, recognition at last of the urgent need to make sure that we build all our homes in the future so that we can “age in place”, without having to move home and leave our community, so losing our social and support network just at the point when our mobility starts to wane.


Great news, yes? Err, no. Because this is where we introduce a “but”. And it’s such a big “but” that it requires capital letter, BUT, the Government has not had the cajones or foresight to make “age friendly” anything more than an optional planning consideration.


Indeed, to quote verbatim: “The Government takes the view that optional requirements should be applied on a “need to have” rather than a “nice to have” basis, so that they are only imposed where necessary.


Planning housing for succeeding generations, when we know that the 65 plus population will grow by nearly 50% (48.7%) in the next 20 years to over 16 million, isn’t a “nice to have”. It really, really is a “need to have”. Indeed, a “must have”.


And I am frankly flabbergasted that the Government still hasn’t got this message – despite the mauling it received from Lord Filkin when he declared it to be not just “woefully” but “willfully unprepared for ageing”.


We are still only building a pitifully low number of houses in this country – we have been for years and despite the better 2014 we’re having, we are still playing catch up with the continuing rise in population, let alone the loss of existing housing stock.


Even if every new home built in the UK was actually built specifically for the 65+ population, it would still not meet their needs, because that population is set to grow by some 270,000 every year for years to come.


So doesn’t it make sense to ensure that – at the very least – every new home we build in this country is “futureproofed” – that good design makes them suitable for everybody whose mobility is limited (not just older people)… wider doorways, plugs at reachable heights, and so on…  and that further adaptations can easily be made without huge expenditure.


A relatively small amount of thinking and expenditure at this stage could save far, far more money and disruption in the future – for homeowners who have to move, for local authorities who have to foot the bill for adaptations and for society as a whole because the homes being lived in aren’t safe and secure for their residents and lead to falls and hospitalisation.


The £114 million saving that is being trumpeted will be a drop in the ocean to the money being spent by future generations putting right the ill-thought through content of these housing proposals.


Yes, there really is a huge business case for investing a modest amount now to save potentially huge amounts later on. And surely this, of all Governments, should welcome a well-made business case.


And just who made that busienss case? Well, actually it was the Government itself. The DCLG’s own Report 'The Health Benefits of Lifetime Homes Standards' (2012) calculated that the fiscal benefits to society of building new homes to Code for Sustainable Homes Standards was in excess of £60,000 over a 60 year lifespan.


In the same way, the consultation document describes “water efficiencies” are deemed to be a “nice to have” rather than a need to have.


Really? Did no one from DEFRA tell DCLG that many regions are facing potential water shortages in the future?


Making every home more water efficient will reduce the need in the future for finding new water resources, as well as the annual expenditure on treating and pumping this water, or running the very real risk that a dry winter followed by a hot summer could seriously threaten water supplies in some parts of the UK.


On top of that, every gallon of water we don’t use is a gallon less to treat at the sewage works – so double bubble.


In my own locality, a £125 million new reservoir is being planned – on the basis that we will be using more and more water in the future, and to counter the threat of climate change. And that is just one (fairly wet) corner of the country…


I had hoped when the “Ready for Ageing” report came out that it would provide a wake up call for every Government department. That we’d stop thinking short term, and start thinking about future generations as well as ourselves.


It seems, sadly, that I was wrong.

Tony Watts OBE


Why we need someone to “join the dots” of an ageing society


The recent South West Seniors Assembly called for a Commissioner or Minister for Older People to be appointed – to ensure we really are geared up for an ageing society. By Tony Watts OBE, Chair of the South West Forum on Ageing and SW Housing Champion for Older People.


Earlier this month, just shy of 150 representatives from groups and forums met in Weston-super-Mare’s Winter Gardens. Not just to talk about the challenges facing an ageing society, but to offer practical solutions.


We looked at the health impacts of pensioner poverty which still affect an unacceptably high proportion of older people, and the blight of isolation and loneliness. The cuts to health and social care, now affecting so many elderly, were discussed with passion and common sense. The need for housing providers to take the long-term view and build “lifetime housing” was another major thread…


In fact, over just a few hours, most of the bases were covered: the big issues that need tackling urgently. And what came over loud and clear is that huge improvements could be made to our public services, and to the quality of life of millions of older people, if only our public services were “joined up”.


Indeed, the need for more money wasn’t discussed. Everyone accepts that there IS no more money. And bearing in mind that the requirement for care and support is going to rocket in the next few decades as the number of people aged 65 and over increases by almost 50%, doing that on the same budget patently presents quite a challenge.


After all, many local authorities and health trusts are already buckling under the strain. How will they cope?


The short answer is that waiting until we get to the point where our public services collapse under the strain is not the sensible option. These issues need to be addressed immediately.


And the one big thing we could do right now is to stop government departments and public services working in silos.


Here is a classic example, right here in the West. In South Gloucestershire, the local authority is considering cutting – at a stroke – all of its support to make adaptations and improvements to older people’s housing. They need to find £160,000 of savings, and that’s what they’re spending through Care & Repair at the moment on – effectively - keeping hundreds of people living independently in their own homes.


Stop that spending, and many of these people will no longer be able to remain in their own homes because they won’t be able to afford the adaptations needed. Many may well have falls because they won’t be able to do simple things like replace light bulbs, get out of the bath or use their cooker safely. Many more will have to remain in hospital because their homes aren’t safe for them to return to.


Does this make sense? Of course it doesn’t. But it won’t be THAT department that will pick up the tab. It’s someone else’s problem. It’s pass the parcel – with the vulnerable elderly being the rather badly wrapped parcel.


All around the West, local authorities are “salami slicing” funding for community transport schemes. Yes, they’ll save money, but this will prevent many elderly people getting to hospital or doctor’s appointments. That will lead to treatable conditions developing into far more serious ones – requiring hospitalisation, a move into care or possibly worse.


Move up a notch to the Government itself. DCLG has just issued proposals on new house building. It describes making every new home “age friendly” as a “nice to have” option – not a requirement. Yet every think tank over the last few years has pointed out the huge cost savings achievable by “futureproofing” new housing, so we and coming generations can age in place, in our own communities.


This would reduce isolation and loneliness, prevent people from having to move home or go into care, reduce accidents and falls in the home as well as enable people to be discharged from hospital earlier.


Ironically, even the Government itself has recognised the benefits – in 2012, they issued a report estimating that a lifetime home would contribute £60,000 of health savings over a 60 year lifetime. Yet it cannot bring itself to tell developers and planners to make this happen. It leaves it to market forces. And we know what that means.


It makes me despair, it really does.


In 2012, I gave evidence on behalf of older people nationally to the House of Lords Select Committee which generated the “Ready for Ageing” report. I (and others) argued strenuously for “joined up” government. For the silos that divide health, social care, housing and transport to be demolished. The report concurred, lambasting the Government’s lack of preparation, and endorsing this joined up approach as THE way to make our society “ready for ageing”.


But it patently is not happening, which is why the SW Assembly voted almost unanimously to press the main political parties, going into the next election, to agree to appoint either a Commissioner or Minister for Older People.


Tony Watts OBE

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