Does housing for older people “undermine the vitality and viability” of a town centre? That was one of Elmbridge Borough Council’s reasons for refusing permission for a housing-with-care scheme in Walton-on-Thames in October.
That decision, and its belief that an alternative “mixed-use scheme could bring more footfall into the town, attract a younger generation and revitalise the town centre”, made front-page news.
The incident also ignited a public debate around the role of housing for older people in town centres. We believe such housing is an essential part of town centres and that we should prioritise its development as our population rapidly ages. But councils rarely do this, and often task developers with making the case that older people are as important as the young to town centre vitality.
Older people want to be a part of the community, not segregated because of their age. Many retirement community residents are still very independent and have a car, jobs or regularly volunteer.
We need to dispel the belief that retirement communities are separate communities. Retirement communities support the local economy by bringing jobs to town centres – often more jobs than an equivalent retail development.
Older people have the time and money to spend in town centres. Our own analysis of time-use surveys shows retirees are the leading group of weekday shoppers and shopped the longest, for around one hour and 20 minutes. As for working families, only one in three people who worked on a weekday also shopped and if they did, their trip was short.
Meanwhile, families with children still committed to long shopping trips at the weekend, despite time pressures. Overall, the shopping habits of older people and families complement each other – analysing who visits town centres and when is as important as looking at people’s spending power.
Freeing up housing
Councils struggle to meet housing targets, as suitable land is hard to find. But the conclusion that a site approved for housing older people is a lost opportunity for families looking for homes is short-sighted. People who move into retirement communities have usually lived in the area for a long time and often sell their family home in the process, freeing up housing for families. Housing targets exist to ensure families have suitable housing at more affordable prices – whether those homes are new or old is irrelevant.
Our recent research with the BPF shows we need to increase housebuilding for older people to keep up with demographic change and give people a range of housing options later in life. We urgently need more housing for older people and for people to spend more time and money in our town centres post-Covid. Making retirement communities part of our town centres makes sense for our society and our local economies.
Caryn Donahue is head of retirement living and Greg Mansell head of UK research at Cushman & Wakefield