“Ageist and insulting” was the verdict of one resident when Elmbridge Borough Council in Surrey turned down a 220-home retirement village proposal last autumn.
But elsewhere, new partnerships are being formed between local groups and a new breed of more socially conscious developer set on building communities for older people that support positive ageing and reanimate the towns and neighbourhoods they call home. A confluence of factors means these partnerships are very likely, in the next decade, to draw billions of pounds of baby-boomer and pension fund money into towns and cities.
The first driving factor is growing concern about the future of towns. Council leaders are concerned that the damage to retail from online shopping and Covid is irreversible. Plus no one knows by how much town-centre office space will shrink.
Local politicians understand the vital role of town centres as social hubs and meeting places at the centre of how society functions. So, they are urgently looking to attract investment and find a sustainable future for the burgeoning stock of empty commercial space.
At the same time, major investors are looking for ways to have a greater social impact. For some, such as AXA Real Estate-owned Retirement Villages Group, the idea of investing patient capital or pension fund money to build high-quality housing for older people, while contributing to the post-Covid renewal of towns and cities, is exciting.
Last, but not least, is the demand factor. Baby boomers have more wealth than any previous generation of over-65s, a greater desire to stay connected, and a preference to be closer to town centres and play an active role in communities.
There are also more of them than in any previous generation; the number of over 75s is projected to double in the next 30 years. A depth of well-heeled future customers will demand something different and better.
The prize 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 housing in the right places, we have a better chance of tempting older folk out of the large family homes they often occupy for life, unlocking a million bedrooms onto the housing market.
One new partnership can be found just seven miles from Elmbridge at West Byfleet. Here, Retirement Villages is taking on a 50,000 sq ft, seven-storey, town-centre eyesore, empty for five years, to create a new beating heart the town will be proud of – a place for young and old. Unlike its forebears, typically in rural locations, this new breed of urban, inclusive and design-led retirement scheme will integrate communities and offer shared amenities including cafés, libraries, nurseries, gyms and community space.
With support from local councils, such developments will help address the growing shortage of housing for people needing low to intermediate care levels – people who should not consider care homes as an option. During the Covid crisis, retirement communities showed 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.
We can build a different kind of home for the older generation, set in urban, connected locations, and play an important role in town centre renewal, while providing places for older people to live active, fulfilling lives in their communities.
But we need government support to make this a reality. We need a planning system that recognises the social value inherent in building housing-with-care and allows partnerships with local authorities to develop faster. Then, disputes of the kind at Elmbridge should be few and far between.
Will Bax is chief executive of Retirement Villages Group