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Rightsizing, not downsizing, is the answer for the UK retirement housing sector

– 3 min read

David Cowans discusses the Group’s collaboration with the University of Cambridge to launch a new report into the viability of retirement housing in the UK, citing significant barriers for both developers, and for the customer.

The ageing UK population is “one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century” (United Nations, 2015), yet the choices you have if you move in later life can be very limited.

As a sector we are focused on downsizing, when instead we should be looking at ‘rightsizing’ – addressing what the population wants, rather than basing designs on outdated assumptions.

In our newest report, written in collaboration with the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research, we’ve looked to address this, and introduce new ideas for the sector.

The report identifies numerous constraints to supply, investment and demand in the market for specialised housing for older people, and for retirement living communities in particular, and makes a number of recommendations.

Listening to our customers

The creation of retirement homes has dropped by two-thirds since the 1970s, when around 30,000 such dwellings were created each year. Even though that’s marginally increasing now, our report questions the industry discourse around downsizing with evidence showing that most older movers do not choose to move into smaller housing.

The housing market is the least consumerist part of the UK economy and it’s rare that people are asked what their consumer preferences are. We need to make the customer voice real if we are to move forward with a significant shift in retirement housing provision.

Ignoring the real wants of customers is perhaps why just 3% of all households made up of older adults move every year, with most of these moves being within mainstream housing, rather than moves into specialised housing for older people.

Costs and logistics are the main issues here, with fees and charges associated with retirement housing, the cost (and practicalities) of moving in later life, and concerns around implications for inheritance. The leasehold nature of much retirement housing may act as a deterrent to moving for people considering selling their existing home.

Housing and health

There are also emotional barriers that may prevent moves in later life, as people can have a strong emotional attachment to their current home, and cultural or social barriers, such as the fact that people do not necessarily plan ahead to ensure against declining health in old age, but instead tend to prioritise the ‘continuous present’.

We must address the needs of older people and the connections between housing and health. We’re already behind as a nation – just 0.8% of homes with care provision are created each year, that’s a fraction of the 6% in the US, 5.5% in New Zealand and 5% in Australia, we have to change this by listening to customers, and creating sustainable and viable homes that suit the needs of a sophisticated aging population.

Challenges for developers

There are also significant viability constraints for developers creating retirement housing. It is generally more costly than the development of general needs housing, making it harder to compete with other developers when bidding for land. 

Developers face inconsistency in the planning frameworks used by different authorities, creating disputes about planning obligations and undue complexity throughout the development process. 

Without stronger leadership and encouragement from national and local planning policymakers, and greater clarity in planning frameworks, the supply of retirement housing may not increase.

Moving the conversation forward

The next step is collaboration. We must collaborate, bringing in the voices of customers, agencies, national and local governments, housebuilders, housing providers and financial institutions, in order to collectively tackle the barriers and improve the choices old people have. 

Our report is not a silver bullet to unlock a stronger retirement housing market but we think it’s an important contribution to the debate and a step on the road to better understanding the complexities of supply and demand in our housing market and ultimately, delivering more homes that people can thrive in.

Read our retirement housing report in collaboration with the University of Cambridge: Understanding supply, demand and investment in the market for retirement housing communities in England.

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