England’s small towns are set to swell with increasing numbers of elderly people as they reject city living amid a hidden housing crisis caused by a lack of appropriate homes for a rapidly ageing population, a new study reveals.
Bexhill in East Sussex, Corby in Northamptonshire and Denton in Greater Manchester are forecast to see the biggest increases in populations aged 55 and above during the next two decades, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Centre for Towns thinktank.
Failure to improve housing options for the elderly could add hugely to care and NHS costs, with the Building Research Establishment forecasting that inappropriate housing for the over-55s will cost nearly £20bn by 2041. Hip fractures caused by falls on stairs, excess cold and overcrowding are among the threats.
Bexhill, and Hartley in Kent, are set for a 19% increase in their over-55 populations by 2041. By contrast, cities and large towns are proving a turn-off for older home movers, with just one in five willing to consider an urban move compared with a third who want to move to a small town, polling commissioned for the study reveals. A lack of space and accessible and adaptable ground-floor homes were among problems cited.
The forecasts raise the prospect of rising generational polarisation, with the young increasingly prevalent in cities and unavailable to help look after their elders in towns and villages, where the “dependency ratio” between people aged 65 and over and those aged 15-64 is forecast to rise. The sharpest increases will be in the Yorkshire towns of Ilkley, Catterick and Knaresborough, Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire and Frimley in Surrey.
“Well-designed places can ensure that older people can continue to contribute economically and socially for longer,” the report says. “Isolation and not feeling like valued members of the community are major issues that particularly affect older people. Failure to get to grips with this will have severe consequences.”
After years of housing policy focused on first-time buyers, the RIBA is now calling on ministers to make it mandatory for all new homes to be accessible for older and disabled people, for councils to allocate sites for “age-friendly” housing and for estate agents to clearly label accessible housing in marketing materials.
It argues this could free up family housing. A third of the UK’s homes are thought to have two or more spare bedrooms, according to analysis of 2011 census figures. But the retirement and older-age housing currently on offer is not proving sufficiently attractive to persuade people to sell up.
Maria Brenton, a founder of Older Women’s Co-Housing (OWCH), which has built 25 homes in Barnet, north London, said the choice of older-age housing appeared to be based on the idea that “we can cram their lives into 48 sq m and they don’t need room for hobbies or having family to stay”.
She added: “You don’t entice people out of their three-bedroom family houses by offering them a small box.”
OWCH features spacious apartments, designed with wide doors and few steps to accommodate disabilities, and gives control to the residents. Hedi Argent, 90, a retired social worker, said she had looked at retirement villages but “didn’t want to be told how to live; I wanted to make the rules”.
The homes are designed in a horseshoe shape with balconies overlooking shared gardens tended by the residents. There is a large common living room and laundry, but otherwise the flats are self-contained.
“It is liberating to choose how you’re going to live and who you are going to live with,” said Jude Tisdale, who moved in in late 2016.
“It is not a seaside town like Eastbourne – heaven’s waiting room,” added her neighbour Josie Pearse, 64, a fiction writer. “Bugger that.”
Most of the women are either widowed or separated and men cannot live in the complex apart from as temporary guests. Their women-only arrangement is perhaps a sign of things to come as actuaries currently predict that women aged 65 will live two and a half years longer, to 87, than men.
“If there were blokes here, they might want to take charge or be looked after,” said Argent. “A lot of us have been in relationships or been married and a lot of us have thought, well, we’ve done that.”
Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP and co-founder of the Centre for Towns, said: “An ageing population and a widespread failure to understand and deliver the type of housing we need is causing a crisis. A decent, suitable home in your own community is one of the best ways to combat loneliness and prevent conditions like dementia from deteriorating.”
“Our current housing stock is among the oldest in Europe, and only 7% of existing homes meet basic accessibility requirements,” said Dr Anna Dixon, the chief executive of the Centre for Ageing Better. “Most new housing caters to first-time buyers and families. Most people in later life want to live in mainstream housing and stay in the communities where they currently live.”