We need to prioritise making local areas great places to grow old in
Councils are at the heart of supporting local communities and people to thrive. Given the population age shift, all local authorities should commit to becoming Age-friendly Communities and make their areas better places to grow old in.
In this blog, Natalie Turner, Head of Localities, sets out the four key areas where local government can make real, positive change in supporting older adults to have healthier and happier later lives.
Last month, people across England went to the polls to vote in their local elections. Given that for these elections Councillors take office for three years instead of the usual four, they will be looking to act quickly on what matters to the people in their local area.
With the UK currently undergoing a population age shift, people aged 50 and over are expected to make up 40% of the population by 2040. One in three local authorities in England are already at this figure. This means that council planning must make ageing a priority, or risk worse outcomes for their residents and communities in decades to come.
Local government can champion a vision of inclusive growth that is inclusive of all ages and makes the most of the economic opportunities of our longer lives. In the ‘Priorities for Local Government’ paper, Ageing Better has identified four key areas where local government can act now: creating more opportunities for older workers, providing better housing, promoting an active healthy later life and connecting people with their community.
Over the past two decades, older workers have accounted for the majority of the UK’s employment growth, with four million more workers aged 50 and over in 2019 than there were in 2000. However, recent research shows that employment among over 50s is declining at twice the rate as those aged 25 to 49. It also shows that those aged over 50 are three times more likely to be long-term unemployed. Local authorities can help by ensuring that older workers are provided for in adult education and back-to-work interventions. Authorities should themselves commit to being an age-friendly employer by having flexible working practices and making sure recruitment practices do not exclude older jobseekers – and encourage others to do the same.
As key and lead partners in local health systems, local authorities should ensure they are identifying the main drivers of health inequalities
Another crucial area for local authorities to focus on is housing. England’s housing is damaging the nation’s health with 4.3 million homes classed as non-decent – almost half of which are lived in by someone over the age of 55. Only one in ten (91%) of our existing homes meet even basic accessibility standards.
With the majority (90%) of older adults preferring to remain in mainstream houses and flats rather than move to specialist retirement homes, local authorities need to ensure that all the houses built now are to at least Category 2 accessible and adaptable standards, with an informed plan to build wheelchair accessible homes for current and future needs. The Housing Made for Everyone coalition is campaigning for higher standards to be mandatory. Funding and services must be in place for retrofitting homes. Ageing Better’s Good Home Inquiry is currently exploring how the necessary transformation in our current housing stock can be achieved. Improving our homes will bring financial and health benefits to individuals and also help to reduce carbon emissions and the cost of housing-related illnesses on the NHS and social care services.
As key and lead partners in local health systems, local authorities should ensure they are identifying the main drivers of health inequalities and health conditions that cause disability in midlife in their communities, and develop a plan to address them. Particularly important is tackling physical activity and obesity. Investment in weight management services for older adults as well as ‘active travel’, which encourages walking and cycling, can both help residents to live healthy and productive later lives.
And finally, local authorities must prioritse their communities having the right physical, social and digital environments to support connectivity. We need to make it easier for people to make and maintain relationships throughout their lifetimes and not just focus on fixing loneliness when it occurs. This includes protecting the community organisations and infrastructure that has been so critical during the pandemic, and involving local people in how their local neighbourhoods should be designed and the services they need.
This moment of post-pandemic recovery provides a real opportunity for change. Our population age shift is a long-term trend, but we can take action now to change the trajectory of many of those at risk of missing out on a good later life. After all, three years is a long time in politics.