As the Older People’s Housing Taskforce finally gets under way, it will attempt to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing the UK – how can suitable housing options be provided for later life? 

Amy France

Amy France

Housing has always been intrinsically linked to life chances, and this is no different in later life. Housing that provides the right kind of support and adequate care, if required, can help people live well for longer.

The UK suffers from a lack of suitable housing options for those in later life, and this has had grave consequences for the NHS. Delaying patient discharge has an adverse impact on already stretched healthcare budgets and the ability to provide hospital treatment to other people in need.

Much is written each year about ‘bed-blocking’ – an unpleasant term that refers to patients in hospital who no longer need to be there but do not yet have anywhere else to go. This January, more than 19 in 20 beds were occupied across adult general and acute hospital wards, and more than 14,000 of these beds were taken up by patients who no longer required hospital care. This is the second-highest level ever recorded and 12% higher compared with the same period in 2022.

It is anticipated that having suitable housing, which allows older patients to be discharged into safe and supported environments, could save the NHS and social care sector millions of pounds, but the argument for providing suitable housing for later life extends beyond the economic benefits.

Staying in hospital for prolonged periods of time can lead to an increased risk of falls, sleep deprivation and catching infections, and can have a disastrous effect on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.

The taskforce is due to return its recommendations in 12 months, and its focus needs to be on providing recommendations that can be delivered, rather than reiterating the scale of the issue. Ultimately, many of the solutions will require the delivery of new homes. How else will the taskforce meet one of its central aims – providing older people with access to the right homes in the right places?

The government’s own white paper ‘People at the heart of care’ acknowledges that “every decision about care is a decision about housing”. And this will be one of the most significant challenges – how do you deliver the homes that are needed for later life without the planning system or policy in place to ensure it can be done? With the government recently scrapping mandatory housing targets, it will be even harder to deliver the homes the country needs.

Analysis shows that the number of net additional homes delivered each year will drop to 140,000. Ideally, local authorities need to commit to delivering a certain percentage of these homes as housing suitable for older people.

At the same time, the planning system is massively under-resourced. The government is proposing to rectify this by increasing planning fees, which the industry is behind if it translates into a tangible improvement in the time it takes for planning applications to be determined. At the current pace, though, applications and the homes they propose to deliver will take months to materialise, while our population continues to age and our NHS and care system continue to buckle under the pressure.

The announcement in early May that the government would not be pursuing wholesale leasehold reform was another hammer blow to the perception of the new homes industry and the willingness for people to purchase leasehold homes. As a large majority of later-living schemes offer apartments with a wide range of amenities, they are largely leasehold properties with associated service charges.

Minister for care Helen Whately has said the government wants “a thriving older people’s housing sector based on choice, quality and security”. Let’s hope that the government can find the political will to ensure that it delivers on this promise.

Older people don’t want to have to move miles away from their existing home so that they can access retirement communities or sheltered housing. In later life, people want to have the option of moving to a more suitable type of accommodation close to their existing home – the only way that we can ensure this is possible is to support the development of later-living schemes all over the country, and in all different sorts of settings.

The taskforce needs to take a truly holistic view of the solutions, and cross-department working will be essential in delivering these solutions. Let’s hope that this once-in-a-generation opportunity for meaningful and significant change in delivering housing for older people is seized and much positive change emerges from it.

Amy France is partner and head of later living at Forsters