Late last year, I was fortunate enough to attend the Housing LIN’s West Midlands regional meeting (opens new window) and tour of the new Longbridge ExtraCare Housing Charitable Trust retirement village, in Birmingham.
Built on the site of the former Longbridge Austin Rover car factory where many of the current residents used to work, it is now a thoughtfully designed, lively, and welcoming scheme full of reminders of the area’s heritage and history. Perched breathtakingly above your head, as you enter the tall glass atrium, is a shining Mini Cooper mounted high on the wall – local industry repackaged as public art, in respectful homage to the life’s work of generations of local people.
A group of us were shown around the scheme by one of the first residents, a lady whose husband had himself worked at the Longbridge car factory throughout his working life. Our guide, one of several residents who were known as ‘Ambassadors’, showed us around her new home with evident pride and enthusiasm, and I am sure that I was not the only visitor who felt a little envious by the end of the tour!
My experience of the Longbridge development is much in my thoughts as I read and reflect on the conclusions of the recent House of Commons CLG Select Committee’s ‘Housing for Older People (opens new window)' inquiry, to which Jeremy Porteus of the Housing LIN gave evidence in person.
At the Housing LIN, we would strongly endorse the CLG committee’s report and its key recommendations. The report highlights the true diversity of older people, with their varied circumstances, choices and preferences; it recommends that the forthcoming adult social care green paper should consider carefully the range of housing options needed for older people, including the real potential for extra care housing to play a greater role in providing social care alongside home care and residential care. The committee recommends that Councils should publish a strategy explaining how they intend to meet the housing needs of older people in their area.
The report also emphasises the importance of location – i.e. being near amenities, public transport, and other people – in reducing older people’s social isolation, improving physical activity and promoting a healthy lifestyle. While social isolation is not the same as loneliness, one of the much-discussed scourges of our society, it is certainly the case that reducing social isolation, and supporting stronger communities, can help tackle some of the ill effects of loneliness.
In fact, when I reflect on what I admired so much at Longbridge, I would conclude that – of course – it was partly about the architect’s inspirational design, the light, the beautiful and calming spaces, and the blurring of inside and outside.
However, it was at least as much, if not more, about the strong sense of community and identity, the friendliness of our welcome and the powerful sense that here was a place where the residents would continue to shape their own community, and support one another, as they had always done.
It is therefore to be celebrated that the CLG Select Committee have recognised, in their report, not only the importance of accessible and high-quality design, but also the strengths of co-housing models, and of other approaches where people can live together as part of a mutual community.
For me, my experience at Longbridge was a reminder that for all the (necessary) emphasis on hard needs assessment and shared planning, in order for successful older people’s housing schemes to be developed at scale, the real alchemy happens with the coming together of inspired people, shared respect and supportive communities. The bricks and mortar are a prerequisite, but are only ever a tool in enabling people to achieve their potential. To drive change, I hope that any future housing strategies for older people developed between local authority planners, health and social care commissioners and local providers, will be produced in that people-powered spirit.
And if you would like to find out more about ExtraCare Charitable Trust’s Longbridge village, read Nicol Thomas architect, Wendy Griffen’s Housing LIN case study, 'How Extra Care Living helped in the Regeneration of Longbridge'.
Follow Clare on Twitter - @SkidmoreClare (opens new window)