'Retirement flats' to free up family homes

Picture of Vanessa Feltz, a white woman with long blonde hair wearing a thick white coat of some sortDemos: build retirement properties to free up 3 million family homes

I was going to be writing a piece this morning about how unworkable it would be to ‘encourage’ the over-55s to move out of their family homes in London into retirement flats on the coast, as was being discussed on the Vanessa Feltz show on BBC London yesterday morning. I listened to the first hour and a bit of the show as I drove out of London on my run up to Rotherham; I go out of range around Luton and switch to Radio 4 then anyway. The prompt for that was a Demos report which she said claimed that the think-tank were proposing encouraging older people living in family homes in the suburbs to move out so that young families could move in. However, I took a look at the press release this morning, and it really says no such thing.

The report was titled The Top of the Ladder and was actually published last September (you can download it free). It claimed that older home-owners wishing to down-size were sitting on £400bn of housing wealth and that “helping them move would free up 3.29 million properties, including 2 million three-bedroom homes”. They also claimed that their poll showed that 76% of over-60s in three-, four- or five-bedroom houses who wanted to move, wanted to move to somewhere smaller. It also criticised the government’s policy of favouring bungalows for retirees:

The report goes on to argue that the Government’s recent focus on housing for older people is a welcome step in the right direction, but the focus on bungalows as a solution to the housing crisis, put forward by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, is unsustainable and does not go far enough to ‘grasp the nettle’.

Demos finds older people want to be centrally located near shops and transport. However, bungalows can’t be built in town centres in the quantity needed to prevent the looming crisis of an ageing population.

Instead what is urgently required is more retirement housing, particularly to cater for the specific needs of Britain’s fastest-increasing demographic bubble of over-85s, who often need on-hand care and are inadequately catered for by bungalows.

Often misunderstood, retirement housing is defined as accommodation where older people have their own dwellings and front door, but share communal areas such as lounges and restaurants, with facilities and staff on hand to provide round-the-clock support.

So, the report was not about encouraging them all to move out of London down to the coast, even though they paid for those houses themselves. That would be a bad idea, for a number of reasons: many of their houses are still a focal point for their family activities even when their adult children no longer live at home (although they often do, because much London housing is too expensive for people on low incomes), and where they look after the grandchildren and so on. In addition, even though many of them are quite healthy at 60, the same is unlikely to still be true when they are 80 and need the support of their family. Until last year, my parents were fulfilling this role for my grandparents, as we were the only part of the family remaining in London. Many of these younger retirees are in fact carers and are not living lives of carefree leisure. And many country and coastal towns in the south also have a housing crisis; younger people and key workers cannot find a place to live because the houses are being bought by wealthy retirees, who often do not want to live in a retirement flat or ‘village’; they want to live in a house, where they can entertain family or have them to stay.

I do not know where Feltz got the impression that this was news, except for maybe this article by Peter Girling, chairman of Girlings Retirement Rentals, published last Tuesday which made reference to the September 2013 report. That report made no mention of ‘encouraging’ older home-owners to move out either. Feltz seized the opportunity to stir up a heated debate and some of the calls were impassioned and made quite valid points, like the lady who said that removing older people removes wisdom, and also that some older people like to remain in the city because they “like a bit of life”, as her mother did, but it was all based on a false premise. There is a lot of mileage to be made in blaming one group or another for the housing shortage or the cost-of-living crisis and more still in defending older people who’ve worked hard and paid taxes all their lives (and the foreign oligarchs and kleptocrats who splash other people’s money around London, like the recently deposed president of Ukraine, are not going to be in the firing line any time soon), but surely someone in Feltz’s team could have looked at the date on the report or the footnotes to the press release (which mentions the date)?

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