Can the NPPF Help Resolve the Later Living Crisis?
The housing crisis is impacting on all demographics. We frequently read about the problems experienced by first time buyers in getting a foot on the property ladder, but the problems at the other end of the age spectrum are just as acute. Furthermore, as a consequence of the currently proposed changes to national planning policy and further proposed planning reforms, sadly it seems inevitable the existing shortcomings are more likely to exacerbate rather than abate the crisis.
The proposed revised NPPF, which is currently being consulted on, includes some positive commentary in relation to later living.
Specifically, Chapter 5 sets out that, ‘…particular regard is given to retirement housing, housing-with-care and care homes, which are important typologies of housing that can help support our ageing population’. But while this recognition of more general need is encouraging, it is hard to see how sufficient supply will materialise through the embattled planning system. When the changes to housing policy contained within the proposed updates are taken into account, it is difficult to envisage how this improvement to the delivery of new specialist care older peoples homes will be met - which the draft Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill itself notes is already forecast to be at a 37% shortfall against need by 2040.
Unmet needs (now and in the future)
According to the 2021 Census, 9% of the population of England and Wales is aged 75 or over and 18% of the population is aged 65 or over. The NPPF consultation material also highlights that by 2041 its forecast that 1-in-4 of the population will be aged 65+ years old.
Yet despite the future forecast and current demographic population data, the Retirement Housing Group UK (RHGuk)’s recent report Planning for retirement? How the planning system needs to change to better support the delivery of specialist housing for older people describes how the supply of specialist housing for older people has failed miserably to keep pace with the ageing population: falling from 139 properties per thousand people for those aged 75 or over in 2015, to 110 properties in 2021, a 21% drop. Currently only 6% over 65s live in later living specialist accommodation, and less than 1% in housing with care. The RHGuk believes that provision of specialist housing for older people must increase substantially - from the current average level of 7,000 homes to 30,000 per year.
Representing 10% of the Government’s annual housing target, what likelihood is there that this can be achieved? And what is needed to facilitate it?
The Proposed NPPF Amendments – positive or negative?
The amendment proposed to paragraph 63 of the NPPF seems well meant. The specific reference to older people will hopefully encourage local plan policies to be informed by an understanding on the housing needed for different groups in the community, including the needs of older people. The amended text will see the current inclusion of older people being followed by refence to, ‘…including for retirement housing, housing-with-care and care homes.’
But what about specialist housing for older people? We already know this type of accommodation is not being delivered in sufficient quantum – through local plans or speculative planning applications and appeals. We already know the average rate of delivery is forecast to need to be significantly increased by just over fourfold. Yet the importance of specialist accommodation remains off the radar by the proposed amendments. This is a missed opportunity, and if so, should the Government be asking itself why this is so?
The Consequence of the proposed amendments
There is an alarming set of collective changes being proposed.
Firstly, there’s the removal of the requirement for new local plans to be justified. This test should be a low bar requirement for plan making. It should not be seen to be a hindrance or a high bar test, but should be the minimum requirement for a local plan’s strategy to be justified.
The proposed NPPF also includes enhanced rhetoric on ‘brownfield first’ and the removal of the requirement to review Green Belt if this is the only means to meet minimum housing needs, including those of older people.
In authorities of sizeable Green Belt designation it is easy to foresee a significant negative consequence to the delivery of older peoples homes and accommodation resulting from these collective changes. Where local plans continue to fail to objectively identify and understand older people’s accommodation needs, present and future, and these new plans fail to meet overall general housing needs (resulting from the constraint in being able to achieve this without review and release of current Green Belt land), the delivery of new older people’s accommodation and homes will surely be further impacted.
The further emphasis given to maximising brownfield land and building at higher densities will also place a further barrier to promoters and developers of older people’s homes. Competition for limited land opportunities in such locations which are more suitable for older peoples homes will increase.
Overall there is a significant watering down of the current national policy direction to boost the supply of homes and the importance of ensuring that a sufficient amount and variety of land to come forward where it is needed.
It is important to acknowledge that not all older people’s accommodation is suited to delivery within existing urban area defined confines. For example, integrated retirement communities (IRC) include a provision of high levels of on-site amenity space and both recreational and care facilities and so densities can be lower than comparable (in terms of unit size) general housing developments. Operators and promoters of IRCs often find themselves taking marginal sites which are less attractive to the volume housebuilders. Many of these sites are on edge of settlements, former agricultural land and or undeveloped sites within the Green Belt.
Increasing policies which dis-incentivise Green Belt release alongside, greater emphasis on protecting agricultural land, will very easily result in these sites evaporating.
The consequence the above points is that current levels of delivery of older people’s accommodation and homes will be reduced, not ‘significantly increased’ as the revised NPPF promises. And as we already know from multiple sources, this is a pressing issue both now and into the future. These proposed changes will almost certainly have negative impacts on the health and well-being of the nation’s older population.
What Amendments could/should be brought forward?
The NPPF should be amended to include a clear direction that through local plan review, local planning authorities (LPAs) are required to undertake an objective and robust identification and understanding of current and forecast needs across the new plan’s period. The assessment must not be just for overall older persons’ accommodation. It needs to drill down into the type of care needed (general and specialist) and at least attempt to grapple with where the accommodation is most needed across the LPA.
Secondly, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to older persons’ housing. LPAs should be facilitating a range of options to provide needs-based supply (meeting at least the minimum level of need) as well as the different typologies of older people’s housing needs. And of equal importance, identifying the right locations and areas for delivery of new older people’s homes and accommodation – in most cases, town centres and locations where services, transport and facilities are already and are planned to be readily available.
Further more local plans should allocate sufficient number of sites, in the right locations for the delivery of older people’s homes. Presently where local plans do include an allocation, it is usually for a care home within a much larger strategic site allocation. Local plans should be looking to allocate sites in existing town and village centres, and on edges of settlements where such locations meet the locational needs of the type of accommodation needed by the community.
Finally, local plans should continue to include at least one policy supporting the delivery of new older persons’ homes – across all typologies. It’s important the planning system remains plan-led. But it must not become plan-absolute led. Local plans cover periods of a minimum 15-years. Changing economic, social and demographic circumstances rarely have regard for the duration of plan-making, plan lifespan and review cycles. It is important that planning policy, national and local, provides for speculative application secured developments – when the needs are demonstrated.
Use Class Disorder
Planning policy also needs to consider the question of Use Class for extra care schemes. There is currently a lack of clear planning guidance on this issue and local authorities often take different approaches in their assessment of which Use Class extra care/later living schemes should fall within. This ambiguity causes problems in the application of affordable housing and CIL, as Use Class C3 requires developers to provide affordable housing and CIL contributions, whereas this is not always the case for Use Class C2. This can cause unnecessary delays in the decision-making process which creates increased cost to developers and further hinders the delivery of accommodation for older people.
As such, it would be beneficial if planning policy guidance could be improved to include an analysis into how the different forms of older person’s accommodation can be classified within the Use Class system. This will ensure that clarity and certainty is provided for developers on matters such as affordable housing and CIL contributions, as well as achieve a more consistent approach across the country.
One solution could be for further guidance to set out the specific characteristics of extra care schemes which would fall within each Use Class, as the GLA has done in regard to affordable housing provision within the London Plan. This approach would recognise the considerable variation across the scope of Extra Care development and would attempt to draw upon the specific characteristics which would fit within either Use Class C2 or C3, rather than attempting to offer a blanket approach.
The revisions to the NPPF proposing to improve the diversity and supply of housing options available to older people are welcomed, at a time when our population is ageing and there is a documented under-supply of senior living housing units. However, in order to ensure that the delivery of older person’s accommodation can be delivered effectively, there are substantial issues which will first need to be addressed.
A number of the collective changes being proposed to the NPPF may actually hinder the delivery of older people’s accommodation, such as the removal of the requirements for a new local plan’s strategy to be justified, the removal of the requirement to review Green Belt to meet minimum housing needs, and the watering down of policy direction around boosting the supply of homes.
In addition, there are gaps within current policy guidance on this issue which the updated guidance fails to address, such as a general lack of promotion of the delivery of specialist accommodation and uncertainty around whether extra care development should be required to make contributions towards affordable housing and CIL.