Ageing communities on the high street

I was interested to read recently about a retirement village in Whalton-on-Thames which was refused planning approval after Councillors unanimously voted against the proposal, on the basis that it ‘would undermine the vitality and viability of the town centre’.

A report by the case officer stated a number of reasons for refusal, including that the proposal ‘fails to make efficient use of land by providing the type of elderly accommodation (C2 use class) for which there is no short or medium-term need, despite the acute significant unmet housing need, specifically [for] C3 use class accommodation and affordable housing'.

Despite this, the case highlighted tensions in how we, as a society, regard our ageing population. Under the Equality Act 2010, age is a ‘protected characteristic’, making it unlawful to discriminate on the basis of age.

Phil Bayliss, CEO of later living at Legal & General and chairman at Guild Living, said:

"Far from depleting ‘vitality’ in the town centre, this project would place older people where they belong – right in the heart of their community – while supporting the local economy and delivering on Elmbridge Council’s obligation to provide adequate housing for older people".

Without delving into the specific details of this case, it did serve to highlight some of the key challenges faced in responding to our growing ageing population.

In 2017, the Office for National Statistics predicted that by 2030, the number of people aged 65 or over will increase by 50%; while the number of people aged 85 or older is expected to double in the same period. We are all living longer. In fact, the government’s ‘Ageing Society Grand Challenge’ aims to ensure that by 2035, people can enjoy at least 5 extra healthy, independent years of life.

But the focus should not be simply on the longevity of existence. The UN estimates that by 2050, the number of those aged over 65 will outnumber children aged five and under for the first time in human history. We need to radically rethink how we shape communities to provide environments where older generations can thrive with independence, purpose and dignity.

At the same time, the cost of housing means that the average first-time buyer in the UK is now 34 years old. UK childcare costs are the third highest in Europe and an increasing retirement income gap is leaving more people unable to self-fund long-term care. The COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted the importance of support bubbles for social contact, care and childcare support among other things.

This has seen rising interest in co-housing and multi-generational housing models, including the 2017 RIBA House of the Year Award for Caring Wood, which explores how ‘families might live together longer – but also by providing care solutions for young and old alike, freeing people from punishing costs throughout their lifetimes’.

The so-called ‘Silver Economy’; the sum of all economic activity that supports the needs of over 50s, is vast and growing at a rate of approximately 5% annually. This encompasses all public and private sectors including health and nutrition, leisure and wellbeing, finance, transport, housing, education and employment. The International Longevity Centre predicts that spending by older consumers will rise from 54% to 63% of all consumer spending by 2040.

So why is it then, that elderly accommodation could be seen to ‘undermine the vitality’ of a town centre? Many high street retailers are struggling or disappearing; however, service-led offers, entertainment, leisure, food and beverage outlets remain strong. Recent planning use class changes now allow high street uses to change between office, retail, leisure, food and drink uses without planning permission. High streets will continue to organically evolve based on consumer demand without previous planning restrictions.

My view is that there are significant opportunities to bring together well-designed mixed-use, multi-generational developments in town centres which foster community and fulfil many of the societal challenges outlined above. Exemplar intergenerational developments such as The Chocolate Quarter in Keynsham which integrate independent living, assisted living and care, retail, leisure and a medical service; serve to highlight the importance of creating communities. Surely, this is how we should be designing for our older generations.