Feature: The South West’s other housing problem

By Duncan Powell, group planning director at Acorn Property Group

The shortage of homes suitable for older people is a national problem, but it is even more critical in the South West.

Over 65s make up 20% of the UK population and is expected to reach 25% by 2039. A report by the House of Lords’ Built Environment Committee warned that “little progress” has been made nationally in meeting the need for housing an ageing populous.

This isn’t good news for Cornwall, where over 65s already account for 25% of the population, a figure that is expected to rise further in the next few years according to the ONS. Cornwall Council has identified a ‘supply gap’ of 3,500 later-living housing units by 2025.

Given the demographic data and the fact that many older buyers are cash-rich, the market for homes for older buyers should be booming. Instead, the lack of age-appropriate stock means many older people cannot find suitable accommodation and are stuck living in large, unsuitable family homes.

When suitable homes are available, older people are happy to buy. According to UK Finance the number of over 55s taking out mortgages last year was at a record high at £28bn, more than a fifth higher than the previous year. And Rightmove has reported that bungalow prices, most commonly associated with older buyers, have risen by over a quarter in the last five years2.

But why is this a particular problem for the South West?

The region is an especially desirable place to retire, which adds to the ageing demographic and demand for property. But these same attributes also make it attractive as a holiday destination, with demand for tourist accommodation further increasing prices.

Homes for older people range from single storey, modern flats to smaller and more manageable houses. Or there is a wide range of supported living, such as care and nursing homes. All generally need easy access to local amenities and are mainly on flat land.

In the South West there is a significant shortage of flat, suitable, brownfield land. Much of the region’s landscape is made up of scenic rolling hills and valleys, which creates accessibility issues for those who are less mobile. This puts further pressure on the limited land suitable for development.

Homes suitable for older people or designed to be easily adaptable are also more expensive because of the extra features they require. Later living bungalows are by nature an inefficient use of land, so even with the additional value they generate, it is often not enough to offset the extra developable area required.

Retirement and care home schemes also have very slow sales rates. Why is unclear, given the level of demand. It could be that older people are usually in a chain and can be reluctant to buy off-plan, or because they have the time and financial means not to rush or prefer to see the finished product. This creates cash flow challenges for developers compared to housing or holiday homes, most of which are usually sold off plan or very quickly once complete.

None of the issues raised are insurmountable with careful planning and design. Could the answer lie in less homogenous planning classes which allow and encourage developments that meet this need?

Communities are made up of people at all stages of life, but we aren’t set up to deliver ‘cradle to grave’ development in the UK in the same way that countries in Europe are. Housebuilders, BTR developers, retirement living, and care home operators all work in silos. No one is looking at the whole mix. Mixed developments and planning use classes and tenure would help create genuine communities while also helping to de-risk development, accommodating some low-rise homes.

Perhaps the most effective solution would be to create a new Use Class for dwellings for elderly people that removes any requirement to provide affordable housing. In an instant this would make developing housing for older generations more appealing, and if the private sector is to be depended on to deliver much needed stock, then such a carrot will be essential. Taken further, larger C3 developments could be encouraged to provide housing for older people instead of affordable housing, thus creating intergenerational living and integration that is successful elsewhere in Europe.

Solving the problem of housing our growing older population is a tough nut to crack, but crack it we must because it’s only going to get worse.