We need to stop blaming older homeowners for the failures of housing policy
Media interest this week has once again focussed on the need for more older people to downsize from homes they are using “inefficiently”.
Our Chief Executive, Dr Carole Easton, says a desperate lack of housing options is the key reason why so few older people move house until a crisis.
I was taken aback by a story this week in the Daily Telegraph. Headlined 'Where baby boomers are locking the most bedrooms out of the housing market', it laid the blame for our misfunctioning planning and housebuilding policies at the door of older people.
The article stated that nearly two million spare bedrooms have been locked out of the housing market in the last ten years with Britain’s ageing population the reason why the country’s housing stock is being used more and more inefficiently.
It added that across England and Wales in 2021, 8.9 million households had at least two spare rooms, while a further 8.3 million had one spare room.
But it is simplistic to suggest a bedroom not used for sleeping in is not being used efficiently. The number of bedrooms in a property is a crude and often inaccurate measure of the actual size of a property and how it is used. Older people, like any homeowner, may choose to use a room as a home office, room for exercise, guest bedroom for family visitors, space to pursue a hobby, to receive or carry out care. Who has the right to decide for what purpose someone should use their own home?
The reason why older people move house at half the rate of other age groups is the lack of suitable housing options that allow them to remain in their communities where they’ve brought up families, made friends and built social networks. The vast majority do not want to live in a segregated retirement community or in a bungalow out of town but this is what our outdated, planning system offers older people.
We need a planning and housing system that reflects the needs of older people and delivers the types of homes that allow them to remain independent as they age.
Older people’s house moves are motivated by the same desires as anybody else; finding somewhere with better access to green spaces, to have more space for guests, moving to a nicer property or area. Housing choices should not be reduced to “just find somewhere smaller” when you reach a certain age or stage in life. Downsizing often means older people moving into smaller properties that do not meet their needs and which can significantly impact their mental or physical health. We should be promoting rightsizing where older people can make a positive choice to move to improve their quality of life.
What older people need is a significant increase in the supply of affordable homes which are also accessible, ie which are built to be appropriate for people with disabilities and special needs. One way the government has committed to addressing this is by raising the minimum accessibility building standards for newly built properties but we need this change brought into law urgently. Even then, its impact will still take time to be felt. Meanwhile we have an ageing population and so the number of older homeowners wanting to move but who cannot find the next home that meets their needs will only increase.
We know most people want to remain living in their own homes as they get older. To make that a reality, we need a planning and housing system that reflects the needs of older people and delivers the types of homes that allow them to remain independent as they age. Ageing Better will soon be launching our Rightplace report which we hope will offer solutions for how planners can help break down the barriers that older people face when attempting to rightsize to their next home. Opening up the housing market in this way would lead to positive outcomes for everyone.