Seizing the 'New Town' opportunity

Clare Gibbons
Clare Gibbons
Healthy New Town programme lead, Northstowe
Dr Tom Archer
Research Fellow, Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University

The development of new towns presents a unique opportunity to plan and build communities which enable older people to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.  In this article, we explore the opportunities arising at Northstowe, a new town of 10,000 homes in South Cambridgeshire.

The vision for Northstowe is a bold one. As one of the ten demonstrator sites in NHS England’s Healthy New Towns programme[1], the needs of older people are being taken into account in every aspect of development, not only in the design and build of properties to address housing needs, but also the ways in which older people will inhabit the new town overall. The public spaces are to be welcoming and inclusive, the recreational opportunities available to all ages, and people will be enabled to stay active and healthy as they age, with the support they need to stay independent at home.

Northstowe must respond to the needs of older people, providing the sorts of homes people want, if it is to attract them to this new community. To understand the number, type and tenure of older people’s housing which should be built at Northstowe, and how this fits within the wider provision across the district, South Cambridgeshire District Council (on behalf of the Northstowe Healthy New Town partnership), has commissioned research to explore this. The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), at Sheffield Hallam University, are assessing the housing needs and preferences of current and future generations, and estimating what future provision will be required. This presents an opportunity to build accommodation and provide related services in such a way as to meet identified needs, and maximise the health and the wellbeing of older residents.

We need only look at changing demographic patterns to understand the growing importance of older people's housing, care and support. To ignore this issue will be both expensive and harmful.  In England, population projections suggest that the number of over 85s will increase by 106 per cent by 2032. Between 2001 and 2036 the population of over 85s in Cambridgeshire is expected to grow by 317%, from 10,303 in 2001 to 43,000 in 2036. This leaves aside the significant growth in those aged 65-84.

This change at the upper end of the age spectrum will place significant additional demand on public services, state pensions and benefits. As a practical example, one can consider the increase in hospital admissions. Whilst the number of over 85s in England increased by 64 per cent between 1989/90 and 2009/10, the number of elective hospital admissions by this group over the same period increased by 310 per cent. Clearly, an ageing population will place greater strain on these essential services, but also pensions, state benefits, and social care provision.

However, a number of these economic concerns will be offset by economic benefits. As over 65s constitute a larger proportion of the workforce, greater tax revenue will be generated from this group and their collective spending power will rise, estimates suggest by 68 per cent by the year 2030. This is not to mention the many social benefits that can be derived from an older generation who can use their experience and time to enrich society, which will arguably help develop the community “in balance” at Northstowe.

Clearly the costs and benefits arising from these demographic changes are complex, raising the prospect of various challenges, but also opportunities which can and should be maximised. The provision of housing is a key component of ensuring older people can live a decent and fulfilling life. However, ensuring housing provision is woven together with care and support is no easy task. CRESR's previous research has suggested that any strategy for meeting older people's housing, care and support needs must address the following 5 key priorities:

  • The provision of effective housing support and assistance services
  • The development of specialist housing (for instance, Sheltered or Extra Care housing) 
  • The development of new housing which promotes independent living
  • The provision of health, social care and other services which promote well-being and independence across all housing options. 
  • The delivery of information and advice which promotes informed choices about planned moves and independent living. 

Supporting people to pursue their preferred housing and care options will be a key challenge.  In Cambridgeshire, the framework for achieving this is set out in an Older People's Accommodation Strategy[2], which outlines three priorities for local partners; to address current issues to manage short term demand for housing, health and social care, to increase the choice and affordability of specialist care, and to ensure a good choice of accommodation options for older people (in general needs and specialist housing). 

Helping people to continue to live in general needs housing, if that is their preference, is clearly an important task.  However, getting new developments right is also critical, ensuring new general needs' housing is future-proofed for the requirements of older people (for instance, through the application of Lifetime Homes Standard equivalents), and also ensuring that any specialist housing can meet needs and preferences, whilst at the same time being affordable.  This makes new developments, such as Northstowe, a prime opportunity. 

CRESR's research is developing a nuanced view of the need and demand for older people's accommodation, for instance, in terms of preferred types, tenures and geographical distributions, and helping understand how developments like Northstowe can contribute to meeting needs across the Greater Cambridge area.

The Northstowe Partnership has leaned significantly on the expertise of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, a Northstowe Healthy New Town partner, to age-proof a range of planning documents, and will continue to inform the planning for future phases, to deliver an age-friendly new town.

Whilst Northstowe is still in its early phases, unique opportunities are arising to test and learn new approaches to planning healthy communities, fit for older people. We will share more details of CRESR's research, and learning from the Northstowe development, in future months.

[1] (opens new window)

[2] (opens new window)

Seizing the 'New Town' opportunity in Northstowe


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