We need housing designed to bind communities and different generations together

The recent General Election result engendered much talk of a ‘youth-quake’ – less than a year after older voters allegedly stole their grandchildren’s future in the EU referendum. This political generational chasm in the UK is becoming increasingly reflected in where and how we live.

In the not too distant past, it was normal for two or three generations of families to live in close proximity. They resided in the same town or city; often in the same street – and for some, even in the same house.

If those latter arrangements were perhaps a little too intimate, the splintering of the generations we’re now witnessing brings its own hardships and social costs.

Over the last decade or so, despite the ‘great recession of 2008-09’, the focus of housing policy has shifted slightly but significantly. It has moved from how we free up family housing (which occasionally resulted in outraged press headlines about pressure on older people to down-size) to how the kids can afford to get a foothold on the housing ladder.

The ill-fated alliance of the recession, austerity, and soaring costs combined with under provision within the housing market has hit the under-30s hard.

Meanwhile, the well-publicised social care crisis is hardly helped by the fact that older people often live in housing many miles from their adult children who might otherwise meet many of their care and support needs.

Nirvana truly would be bringing together genuinely affordable housing options that also glue back together the demographic splinters of our families. As a society we are failing to address this implicit intertwined challenge of housing and social care.

I have recently been drawn to a ‘hub-type’ model in Germany which advocates housing designed to bind communities and different generations together; where the young benefit from the wisdom of the old, and the old benefit from being cared for by the young; a place where everyone can meet and flourish.

Maybe we should be looking more closely at this Mehrgenerationenhaus model and how it might work for us in the UK? But, with the emphasis here on austerity, the German approach is a contrasted pathway and this is a crucial element to expanding the range of housing options that people of all ages can actually afford.

Despite the economic challenges, there is some positive thinking around inter-generational housing and community development evident in the UK – but delivering on these aspirations can prove to be a practical challenge. Developers are happy to talk to us about their ‘latest ideas’ but market realities regularly impede real progress.

The majority of larger developers and construction companies have their own commercial model for the delivery of general housing but this precludes the construction of specialist housing for older people. Quite simply – and non-withstanding our ageing population – general needs housing is the biggest market and the easiest to sell. I’m afraid the inclusion of a ‘granny flat’ doesn’t really cut it.

Of course there is no reason why all new homes should not be designed to be flexible and easily adaptable to changing needs utilising Building for Life12 and Lifetime Homes as the minimum standard. But it is fair to say that this is not always the case and the time is long overdue for developers to recognise the importance of delivering accessible homes in response to the national demand that is appropriate for all generations.     

There are a number of retirement housing specialists who also have their tried and tested viability models, all offering a range of tenure, location and facilities; some with, and some without care. But a more ‘British’ interpretation of the Mehrgenerationenhaus seems to be emerging where the ‘inter-generational public living room’ is represented by communal facilities with access for all of the wider community; an open meeting point where everyone can flourish.

In High Wycombe, we have recently designed a retirement village that is currently under construction, located immediately adjacent to student accommodation. The contrast is obvious but so are the potential benefits. I have to say, we are lucky to be working with a client who is willing to acknowledge the local wider neighbourhood with the vision that this interaction could bring. The development has a gym, a bistro and a bar, a village hall, hair dresser, a library, all of which, with careful relationship-building, could present opportunities for the young and old to interact.

By building up this trust between the retirement village residents, management, and the student body, there is opportunity to raise revenue which could be spent in a way that benefits residents.

In both the Longbridge area of Birmingham and the Stoke Gifford area of Bristol, we are also working with the same client where we have engaged directly with the local authority to similarly deliver retirement accommodation with communal facilities that will be shared with both their residents and the wider neighbourhood. Still not quite multi-generational apartments, but never-the-less an exciting opportunity to bring cross-community benefits and interactions. That can’t be a bad thing.

There does appear to be an appetite and recognition of the benefits of multi-generational living in the UK, even if only at a community level, yet we have a planning system that acknowledges only three classes of housing – residential institutions such as care homes, general needs housing, and HMO (houses with multiple occupancy).

If we are going to deliver truly sustainable homes where all generations live together, learn from one another creating vibrant compassionate neighbourhoods, and where the care of our older generation does not become a burden to the state, we must start by transforming our uncompromising planning system. This will speed up much needed development and will remove the shackles of rigid classification.

"We need housing designed to bind communities and different generations together"


Posted on by Marianne Overton MBE

Having a granny living nearby is great, but having a hundred other people's grannies is not and it works both ways. Your own grandchildren nearby is one thing, but thousands of teenagers who want to party all night outside your shared accommodation is not. The problem is one of scale. Villages do very well when they have mixed housing. The problem is that our planning is not controlling the developers, who naturally only want to build what they can sell at the highest profit. Planners should put more control on house types.

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