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Houses shape us. In this Blog, the contents of which first appeared in the Legalease Procurement and Outsourcing Journal, I emphasise the growing need for local authorities, housing associations, universities, developers and the NHS to carefully consider whether their investment plans can more effectively help address the current and future housing needs of the disabled and elderly.

Winston Churchill made a powerful observation in October 1943 about the impact of planning. He stated with absolute conviction that: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

The potent truth behind Churchill’s observation is one reason why the current chronic under-supply of suitable housing in England is so deeply concerning for us all as we grow older. Fundamentally this is because we know that our homes – the very physical environments where we increasingly spend more and more of our time as we grow older – can either enable us or disable us.

The quality and location of our homes can make us feel in control of our lives, well-connected to others and fulfilled; or leave us feeling unable to manage, disconnected from others and lonely.

For these reasons housing and planning severely impact on both our physical and mental well-being and have become the silent backdrop to a number of key issues which we as individuals, families and the country as a whole will need to carefully come to terms with over the coming years and decades.

Stakeholders including housing associations, local authorities, universities, developers and NHS leaders can therefore approach these issues with a growing sense of purpose and justification – underpinned by the knowledge that opportunities exist for them to play a defining role in helping to make a valuable contribution to shaping future life outcomes.

Do stakeholders’ current investment plans adequately consider the growing need for a diversity of disabled housing for all ages and elderly housing?

I would like to shine a light on the opportunities and resources available to stakeholders to assist them moving forwards with the difficult challenges they may face in their efforts to sensibly make long-term strategic investment plans in relation to disabled housing for all ages and elderly housing.

At the ‘Healthy Places for People Conference’ run by BRE (the Building Research Establishment) on 28th March 2017, important concerns were raised that the investment strategies of some housing associations and local authorities often lack any long-term plans for developing future accommodation specifically catering for the needs of disabled residents of all ages and elderly residents.

This is based on a growing feeling that despite evidence illustrating the need for more housing schemes to cater for disabled residents of all ages, and for the elderly, housing associations’ and Local Authorities’ consideration of these groups in society still often only tends to be short-term and operational at some organisations. It is also the case that with some other organisations actually having no future plans in place at all for future housing developments which specifically cater for disabled residents of all ages, or for the elderly.

How can you improve the evidence base supporting your investment plans for new housing schemes specifically for disabled people of all ages and the elderly?

Whilst acknowledging that specialist housing schemes are often complex issues for stakeholders including local authorities and housing associations to tackle in the current political and economic climate – with future specialist housing schemes often reliant on partnership working with other organisations – the point was nevertheless persuasively made by contributors at the conference that housing associations and local authorities should consider reviewing their investment strategies to more effectively take in to consideration the evidential base which illustrates the required diversity of housing need now and in the future for both disabled residents of all ages and elderly residents.

Stakeholders should also be mindful of the evidence available around the housing expectations of these two groups of residents, and mindful of the differentials in specialist housing need across the country (which is made even more complex by the localised housing markets which have become such a feature of the current housing market in England.)

Are stakeholders aware of the public perceptions of new housing schemes specifically adapted and accessible to the needs of disabled residents of all ages and the elderly?

One such piece of evidence on the housing expectations of these two groups was undertaken by the Ipsos Mori Social Research Institute. As part of a wider programme of research and thought-leadership, Ipsos Mori was commissioned by Habinteg Housing Association and the Papworth Trust disability charity to conduct a survey of the public to consider their attitudes to ‘accessible’ housing. A nationally representative survey involving 2,074 face-to-face interviews with adults across Britain was consequently conducted between 16th March and 12th April 2016.

Their ‘June 2016 Accessible Housing Survey – Public perceptions of accessible housing.’ began with the research aims of: 1) Improving the knowledge base about the housing and other circumstances and aspirations of disabled people, including those of working age and older people; 2) Enabling housing providers to make clearer and stronger cases to local and national government for housing provision suitable for disabled people by establishing a better evidence base and 3) to develop radical new models of provision, including new approaches to design, financing and project delivery and to make the case for such approaches to social and private developers, local and national government and the public more widely.

The conclusions of the survey are of interest to stakeholders when reviewing their current and future investment plans. This is because the evidence from the survey undertaken specifically illustrated that there is demand for a wide variety of different housing schemes to cater for disabled residents of all ages and the elderly.

For example, when the public were asked about their future housing preference if they ever needed care or support in the future as a result of a long-term illness, disability or infirmity, the results indicated that although the majority of respondents (50%) favoured remaining in their own accommodation with some adaptations being made, a very significant proportion (25%) of respondents indicated that they would actually favour moving to a property specifically designed or adapted to enable independent living (if it was available).

Of those respondents saying that they would favour moving to a property specifically designed or adapted to enable independent living, nearly three-quarters said they would favour moving to accessible accommodation that had been specifically adapted for their needs – with only one quarter preferring to move to accessible accommodation which provides specialist care and support (such as sheltered, supported, nursing or residential accommodation.)

Further analysis of the survey results revealed that owner occupiers, those that are currently not working, and those with an annual household income of £25,000 or above, are more likely than their sub-group counterparts to favour remaining in their current property with adaptations than moving on to a specially modified housing scheme. By contrast, those living in the private rented sector are more likely to favour moving to different property specifically designed or adapted to enable independent living.

The survey was only based on people who were not currently in need of specialist housing but who were asked to hypothetically imagine their preference should they in later life need specifically adapted housing. The results are useful in adding to the narrative around this issue because the results highlighted the significant percentage of people who would in theory favour moving to specifically adapted accommodation suitable to their needs if it were available; and when they were more likely to make such a move.

Early investment decisions and strategic forward planning is vital to ensure that organisations are well positioned to adapt to the future housing needs of disabled residents of all ages and the elderly

In general, the results of the survey broadly illustrated that people’s appetite for moving to specifically adapted property was greater before they entered their later years – and when they were not currently disabled. Consequently, there is seemingly a great challenge emerging for stakeholders and policy makers to try and make accessible housing schemes available for people to move in to at a time in their lives when such a transition in their living arrangements is something which they feel is within their control and something which they would chose to do as a sensible option to plan for their futures.

It is perhaps a result of currently not having enough suitable accessible housing schemes available to encourage this easier transition that some disabled residents of all ages and the elderly (perhaps a significant number), are being left scared of making such a big and disruptive transition during their later years. The risk then is that significant numbers of residents could potentially be being left in accommodation that is not well located or adapted to their needs and which makes their daily lives disabling and daunting – rather than enabling and inspiring – unless modifications to their houses are possible and achieved (… of which neither are ever a given.)

There is an alarming lack of adequate housing supply for the disabled of all ages and the elderly

I believe it should be of alarm to all generations that approximately 93% of the country’s housing stock is estimated by the Centre for Ageing Better as not having the basic characteristics to allow for independent living.

What resources are available to stakeholders when planning for strategic investment in their housing stock?

There are a number of organisations who can assist stakeholders in gaining a more in depth understanding of these issues and in helping them to build their evidence base for supporting current or future investment plans to build schemes for the disabled of all ages, or for the elderly. The following list is by no means exhaustive:

The Centre for Ageing Better can help support housing associations and local authorities to more effectively plan for an ageing population.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) contains three particularly informative briefing papers titled:

For local authorities or housing associations also wishing to plan for a significant upgrade of their existing housing stock in order to better enable residents to remain living in their homes in old age – the BRE Housing Health Cost Calculator quantifies and demonstrates the health-cost benefits of housing improvements.

The Housing Learning and Improvement Network (Housing LIN) provides advice on specialist housing and care. Its ‘Dementia and Housing Working Group’ aims to promote the contribution of the housing sector to improving the health and well-being and quality of life for people living with dementia. They have also published a document: ‘Retirement Living Explained: A guide for Planning and Design Professionals”.

The Retirement Housing Group (RHG) is a membership organisation which works to encourage the development of good quality retirement housing and makes the case for a choice of housing for older people by:

What role might universities consider playing in future accessible housing schemes?

In Holland it has been reported that a nursing home called ‘Humanitas’ was previously successfully set up to bridge the gap between young and old by letting local university students live there for free, reportedly on one condition – that they must spend 30 hours each month with the 160 senior residents.

There have also been reports of other mixed housing initiatives bringing the elderly and younger populations together within specialist housing schemes which, if replicated, could potentially play a small but important role in helping to reduce the growing number of all ages worryingly reporting to regularly feel lonely.

Universities, as part of their long-term campus and property portfolio planning, may therefore wish to reflect on whether they feel they have a role to play in mixed use or accessible housing developments.

With student mental health becoming an increasingly worrying issue, the quality of student buildings (and what impact they have in shaping the welfare of their students) is also something universities are closely considering.

The importance of procuring planning and planning law experts early in your property projects cannot be understated

If the land which interested parties own or are looking to acquire or sell for future development is located in areas where local authorities are still finalising their local plans, it is imperative that they act swiftly to start participating in local authorities’ local plan making and ‘Call for Sites’ consultations before their deadlines expire.

Interested parties should ensure that they consider making formal representations to the council through their planning consultants in order to make strong and persuasive arguments justifying why they believe a particular area or parcel of land should be allocated in the local plan for a specific desired future use.

The planning team, as well as being on board early enough to make policy representations to local authorities in relation to emerging local plans, will also then be primed and ready to act on future instructions to help guide projects forward through all stages of the planning system: from pre-application discussions with councils and architects through to submission of planning applications; engagement with local communities and politicians; s106 and CIL negotiations; and planning committee representations.

If planning consultants also have local and national political experience in their ranks, they will also be well placed to assist with any long-term political monitoring requirements. Housing associations, local authority property teams, universities, developers and the NHS should be giving careful consideration to what they can do now to better position themselves to take full advantage of land development and disposal opportunities, and also to ensure that they have the capacity and essential skill sets within their teams to promote their sites for development and to try and achieve optimum planning consents. This could necessarily involve consideration of collaboration with private sector Planning consultants and law firms and/or setting up additional partner panels.

Utilising private sector skill sets is likely to be increasingly important for universities to maximise the development and disposal potential of their sites and to unblock planning constraints – and also for local authority development companies and property investment portfolios who often need to have separation between their asset management divisions and their planning departments.

Stakeholders should also be very mindful of the ongoing importance of having professional representation on board to oppose inappropriate planning applications or local plan representations which may affect land around their sites, or which may adversely impact on their future development plans. It is important for stakeholders’ future strategic development aims that they have somebody monitoring the political and planning landscape to analyse planning and political changes influencing their sphere of operation.

A concluding call to action

I hope this article has helped to shed light on the growing need for stakeholders (including housing associations, local authorities, universities, developers and the NHS) to consider the diverse long-term housing needs which exist for current and future disabled residents of all ages and the elderly; as well as shedding light on the resources available to assist them when undertaking research to build the evidence base underpinning their current and future investment plans.

I also hope this article helps to further encourage stakeholders to think innovatively about partnership working and devising well thought through long-term strategic investment plans to realise the widely beneficial development opportunities which are materialising around new accessible housing schemes.

If you require any further information or assistance around planning for disabled or elderly housing please do get in touch with me.