How councils are planning for an ageing population

Many areas of the UK are in need of two things – family housing and jobs for local people. Carl Dyer, national head of planning at law firm Irwin Mitchell, thinks he has a simple, albeit maybe counterintuitive, solution: providing housing for the elderly.


“It’s incredibly efficient in planning terms,” Dyer explains. “Care homes can have anywhere between 50 and 100 beds. You can get that on one hectare of land.” The high numbers of staff employed by these facilities means “you immediately create 100 relatively low-skilled jobs for local people”, he points out. Then there’s a knock-on benefit as the care home’s new residents downsize: “Pretty much all of those 100 people will move out of a home in the area and release it to the local market.”


There are other motivating factors. Data published by the Office for National Statistics in August last year showed that the number of over- 65s in England is expected to grow by more than 20 per cent in the next ten years. That is five times the rate of growth compared to the working age population. Some areas will be affected more significantly than others. In the North East and North West, the working age population will go into decline while the number of over-65s continues to rise (see infographic, p18).


The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) requires councils to have a clear understanding of the housing needs in their area, including those of older people. But retirement living developers cast doubt on the extent to which this requirement is appreciated. Andrew Burgess, planning director at homes provider Churchill Retirement Living, says: “When you get to a planning meeting and ask local authorities what they have done, quite often you get a blank expression.”


Analysis conducted by Irwin Mitchell appears to back up Burgess’s claim. The law firm recently looked at 50 councils to identify whether the needs of older people are being addressed. Only eight were found to have specific planning policies on housing for older people and only seven had allocated sites for care homes (see infographic, p18). Similarly, a report published by the Greater London Authority last year found that only six of the 32 London boroughs had specific policies to address older people’s housing needs.


Developers also point to aspects of the planning system that they say discriminate against provision of elderly accommodation. Burgess says: “Retirement living should be exempt from affordable housing provision because of the very special benefits associated with it.” Then there’s the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which Burgess says affects retirement living developers disproportionately due to the large communal areas which feature in many schemes. “We feel we’re being discriminated against,” he says.


Some councils have adopted positive policies to address these concerns. In South Worcestershire, where local planning work is undertaken collectively by the county council, Worcester City Council and Malvern Hills and Wychavon District Councils, retirement homes providing communal living are exempt from affordable housing contributions. In Dacorum in Hertfordshire, retirement houses receive a 50 per cent CIL discount. “Some councils have policies that are supportive of retirement housing, but they are very few and far between,” says Burgess.


Dyer believes many councils may be reluctant to plan for older people due to misconceptions about the impact on local services. He challenges concerns about the effect that care home developments might have on local health services, arguing that most of their residents are already living in the area in question anyway, and says the claims ignore the positive aspects of these developments. “A lot of councils don’t see the benefit of providing housing for elderly people. They only see the downside,” he says.


Sara Whelan, policy manager at the Planning Officers Society, says many local authorities are likely to have focused their attention on meeting general housing need and responding to Whitehall directives targeted at young people and first-time buyers: “That has really been the push from government.” But she suggests that increasing awareness of the ageing population means policies aimed at older people will most likely emerge during the current wave of local plan preparation.


Whelan also highlights the need to think beyond targets and site allocations. In areas where planning policies for older people have been produced, she notes, councils have also sought to identify the type of housing most in demand. That doesn’t always mean care homes. Even if it does, location is often a key concern. In Northumberland, the county council has prioritised the provision of Lifetime Homes in new developments. In Cumbria, Allerdale Borough Council principal planning officer Julie Ward says the council’s policy on care homes is motivated by “concern about how we could influence their location to make sure they are integrated into the community”.


Regardless of how councils choose to address the needs of their changing population, the government has signalled it would like to see more being done. Last month’s Housing White Paper promised changes to the NPPF so that authorities would be “expected to have clear policies” for addressing older people’s housing requirements plus new guidance on how they should meet this particular need. Reaction to the statement has been mixed. Burgess describes the move as “encouraging”. Others wanted much more. Given the length of time involved in its preparation, Dyer says the paper was “profoundly disappointing”.


Nevertheless, awareness of the need to plan for older people seems to be growing. In February, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee announced an inquiry into the issue, with plans to look at the adequacy of current planning policy and the potential for a national strategy Committee chair Clive Betts said: “There appears to be a glaring hole both in the housing market and in the way authorities plan for the housing needs of older people.” In time, Dyer hopes the benefits of planning for older people will become clear: “There’s a massive win here for everybody.”


How council’s are planning for the elderly

Allerdale, Cumbria

Enquiries from several care home developers led Allerdale Borough Council to draft a policy for elderly needs housing. The council’s local plan states that housing that “maximises the independence of older people” will be encouraged and advises that care home applications will be assessed according to local need and access to amenities. Lifetime Homes standards are encouraged in all new residential developments. The council also says it is receptive to applications for annexes and extensions to provide accommodation for elderly relatives or dependents. Principal planning officer Julie Ward says this last policy has proved “quite popular”, adding: “Not everybody wants to go into structured or extra care housing.”



Northumberland County Council concluded that a planning policy for older people would “assist the council in freeing up family-sized homes which are currently under-occupied”. The authority has focused on securing accommodation with high accessibility standards within all residential schemes. Allan Hepple, cabinet member for economic growth, says: “The needs of older people are diverse and individual and that is why we are planning for a range of attractive housing options for older people in all sections of the market.” Under the county council’s policy, developments of more than ten units are required to incorporate Lifetime Homes standards in ten per cent of new homes, while specialist accommodation is supported “in appropriate sustainable locations and where there is an identified need”.


South Worcestershire

The three South Worcestershire authorities of Wychavon, Worcester City and Malvern Hills identified a need to cope with further significant growth in the number of older households. Their joint development plan encourages housing for older people on all sites of five units or more. Denise Duggan, Wychavon District Council’s senior planning officer, says: “We tried to encourage developers to think about providing bungalows or smaller properties.” The plan also recognises the need for specialist accommodation in key locations and says applications will be accepted where there is evidence of need and links to public transport and other amenities. “We’ve had developers include extra care facilities within their developments,” says Duggan.


Correction: This article was altered at 9.45am on 10 March 2017 to make clear that Churchill Retirement Living is a developer of retirement homes rather than care homes.