Is sheltered housing approaching its retirement?

Published on September 24, 2013 in the Westminster Briefing

This once venerable British institution is in danger of selling itself short and failing to respond to the changing needs and aspirations of older people, writes Jeremy Porteus, Director of the Housing Learning and Improvement Network (LIN).

As a recent briefing by the Institute of Public Care (IPC) at Oxford Brookes University points out, older people currently living in sheltered housing value their homes and it is potentially popular.

This is despite decades of under-investment in what is often very old housing stock. It fails to meet the aspirations of many of today's older people in terms of design, accessibility and energy efficiency.

However, its continuing popularity with residents despite these shortcomings suggests we would be foolish to consign it to history.

After all, as the IPC briefing points out, with around 476,000 sheltered housing units in England, whose value has been estimated at around £19bn, "it does constitute probably the highest value asset owned for older people in the public domain".

A toolkit to help local authorities and their partners assess the local market for retirement housing identified a chronic shortage of quality housing schemes for older people. We must look to make this uniquely large and historic asset work for us in policy terms and meet the very real challenges of our ageing population.

There is a sense that ministers and policy makers are grasping the key role that housing will play in meeting the health and wellbeing outcomes of older people.

The £300m care and support housing fund, which the Department of Health has launched to help develop 9,000 units of specialist housing for older people, is merely the most concrete example of this.

Meanwhile, the wider social imperative to provide specialist housing that older people actually want to live in was recently illustrated by a Demos report. Building decent retirement housing (or improvements to existing provision), would "free up" more than 3 million homes for "desperate families", the think tank said.

With a vast housing and public asset on their hands, local authorities and charities should start that process with an options appraisal and also engage with private retirement housing providers in shaping local housing older people strategies.

Providers and commissioners of housing for older people must assess how sheltered housing can help improve health and wellbeing outcomes for older people.

Under-investment in maintenance and refurbishment, allied to the inferior building and design standards mentioned earlier, mean that upgrading or remodelling the stock can be more expensive than rebuilding. That is exacerbated by arcane and counter-intuitive VAT policies.

However, if providers do go down that route they must involve residents and embrace the aspirational models and principles around design, accessibility and services set out in recent reports. The design principles are out there - notably in the work of the HAPPI expert panel (Housing our Ageing Population: Panel for Innovation), chaired by Lord Best.

Some may consider adapting traditional sheltered housing to new models of 'senior' living. The increasing recognition of the role of extra care housing in promoting the independence of older people, delaying or preventing admission to residential care and reducing demand for health and social care makes this an attractive option for commissioners.

The demand for extra care housing for rent and sale exceeds supply in most parts of the UK. However, adapting existing sheltered housing to meet that demand could be difficult given the higher care needs of extra care housing residents and issues around mobility.

Despite this, sheltered housing providers should not be deterred. They should work with commissioners and local planners to reinvigorate this asset, which could in turn reinvigorate older people for generations.

Depending on the condition of the schemes and local circumstances, sheltered housing in new guises could again be a jewel in the nation's crown.

Jeremy Porteus
Director
Housing Learning and Improvement Network (LIN)

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