Back in the old country

To make a real impact on rural housing need for older people, Lord Best’s HAPPI 4 inquiry needs to pose some hard questions about our planning system.

As the All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry into rural housing and older people wraps up its final evidence session, the group will now turn to its final recommendations. Allowing the planning system to focus on older person’s housing need across income ranges could transform the future for struggling villages.

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported in 2012 (Older people’s housing: choice, quality of life and under-occupation. Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2012), significant proportions of older people are likely to be living in unsuitable housing. The lack of suitable housing is a major barrier preventing older people from moving to more suitable accommodation. Yet the effect of rural planning policy, is to discriminate between different groups of older people. This means it erodes the very long term sustainability rural housing policy seeks to deliver.

Currently, the practical effect of rural exception sites and general development policies in many national parks is to constrain building to affordable housing. It is neither sensible nor just to deny existing older home owners the chance to access more suitable accommodation locally. Failing to create ‘downsizing’ or ‘rightsizing’ options will force community anchors out of villages, just as surely as not building affordable housing drives first time buyers from the communities of their birth.

Our current stay put or ship out choice represents a bad bargain either way for society, as well as the rural residents it traps.

Staying put in unsuitable housing could present significant health challenges (e.g. falling down stairs) or prevent the earlier discharges necessary to unjam hospital care. Conversely, forcing residents to leave a community that they love, thereby severing their social networks could create greater pressure on the state to plug the resultant gaps in support networks. And that’s not accounting for the additional isolation and loneliness such uprooting may cause.

In terms of social cohesion, all older people, but especially long-term residents, make a massive contribution to community life. They are the mainstay of voluntary services, they provide childcare that allows others to work and they sustain local character.

Above all, older people usually under-occupy family housing, thereby making it more difficult for the community to attract and retain younger households that add the needed balance and vibrancy.

So, HAPPI 4 needs to highlight how planning policy is failing our older neighbours and suggest ways the planning system can promote rural sustainability by widening housing choice for all older people.

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