“Ageist and insulting” was the verdict of one local resident, when Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey turned down a 220-home retirement village proposed by a fellow developer last Autumn. The decision triggered an angry response from locals as well as charities and campaign groups for older people.
In particular, the council’s statement that the scheme would ‘undermine the vitality’ of Walton-on-Thames town centre was seen by some as provocative.
It is also unlikely to age well, if you will forgive the pun. Because elsewhere around the country, new partnerships are being formed between local groups and a new breed of more socially conscious property developer set on building communities for older people that both support positive ageing but also reanimate the towns and neighbourhoods they call home. A confluence of factors means these partnerships are very likely, over the next decade, to draw billions of pounds of baby boomer and institutional pension fund money into towns and cities across the UK.
So, what are these factors? And what is the potential prize for the UK as we recover from Covid?
The first driving factor is well known – a growing concern about the future of our towns. Council leaders are increasingly concerned that the damage to retail from technology and then Covid is irreversible. Added to this, no one knows by how much town centre office space will shrink in years to come. Local politicians understand the vital role of town centres as social hubs and meeting places that lie at the centre of how we function as a society. They are therefore looking, with urgency, to attract investment and find a sustainable future for the burgeoning stock of empty commercial space.
At the same time, in the City of London, major investors are looking for ways to have a greater social impact. The way they think about their contract with society has changed quite profoundly over the last few years. For some, such as Retirement Villages Group owned by AXA Real Assets - on behalf of its clients - the idea of investing patient capital or pension fund money to build higher quality housing for older people, while at the same time contributing the to the post-Covid renewal of towns and cities, is exciting.
Last, but not least, is the demand factor. Baby boomers are a different proposition to their predecessors; as is well documented, they have more wealth than any previous generation of over-65s, a greater desire to stay connected, a preference for being closer to town centres and for playing an active role in local communities.
There are also more of them than any previous generation while total the number of people over 75 is projected to double over the next 30 years. So, there is a depth of well-heeled future customers demanding something different, something better.
The prize then, is for billions of pounds held by the older generation to be put to work for the national interest, as part of a programme of home building and urban renewal. If we can build more of the right kind of housing in the right places, we also have a better chance of tempting older folk out of the large family homes they often occupy for life and in the process unlock a million bedrooms onto the mainstream housing market.
One new partnership already taking shape can be found just seven miles down the road from Elmbridge at West Byfleet. Here, Retirement Villages is taking on a fifty thousand square foot, seven story eyesore in the town centre which has lain empty for five years and create a new beating heart the town will be proud of – a place for everyone – young and old. Unlike its forebears, typically located in rural locations, this new breed of urban, inclusive and design-led retirement scheme will work to integrate the community and offer new, shared amenities including cafes, libraries, nurseries, gyms and community space.
With support from local councils, developments like West Byfleet will help address the ‘provision gap’ in the UK’s social care system, where there is a growing shortage of housing for people needing low to intermediate levels of care – people who should not be considering care homes as an option. During the Covid crisis, retirement communities have shown themselves to be extraordinarily effective at helping residents to self-isolate independently while maintaining social connections. As we re-emerge, they have an important role to play in the creation of a better post-Covid social contract with our elders.
So, there are plenty of prizes ready to be won. We can build a different kind of home for the older generation, set in urban, connected, locations. Our industry can play an important role in the renewal of town centres, while at the same time providing places for older people to continue to live active, fulfilling lives in their communities. But we need the right level of support for Government to make this a reality. The ask is not too onerous - greater clarity in a planning system that recognises the social value inherent in building housing-with-care and allows partnerships with local authorities to develop faster. With this in place, disputes of the kind seen at Elmbridge should be few and far between.