Unlocking the potential for seniors’ housing: What needs to change?


Bungalows in a suburban UK neighbourhood in spring
Image: © trgowanlock | iStock

Planning policy has failed to keep pace with demographic shifts and the UK’s ageing population. Nicola Gooch of Irwin Mitchell and Oliver Knight of Knight Frank discuss new analysis on the supply of seniors’ housing and what needs to change to improve supply

The UK’s population is ageing rapidly. Forecasts from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that there will be an additional four million seniors living in the UK by 2043.

Over that time, the over-65 age cohort is expected to grow at three times the pace of the national average.

These demographic trends are not new and, clearly, they are going to have big implications for the planning and provision of new senior’s housing.

Yet, more often than not, planning policy has failed to keep up with these demographic shifts.

According to our latest analysis, tracking the rate at which local planning authorities (LPAs) in England plan for seniors’ housing, just 23% of local planning authorities (75 out of 326) have clear policies in place indicating details of their required number of seniors housing dwellings and achieved, and specific site allocations given.

A further 100 local planning authorities (30.7%) do have policies in place indicating the need for seniors’ housing dwellings and care home beds, but do not provide any guidance on how this will be achieved or where they’ll be built. A further 47 (14.4%) have site allocations, but no policy to support that ambition.

Of most concern are the 104 local authorities (30.9%) that have neither a clear policy nor site allocations, meaning they are underprepared for the effects the UK’s ageing population will have on their communities.

The pace of change has stalled

This is the fourth edition of our research. We first conducted the survey in 2017. At that point, only 9.7% of English LPAs had both a clear planning policy addressing the need for seniors’ housing and a specific site allocated for development.

By 2020, that percentage had increased to 18.6%. In 2022, the percentage of English LPAs with both planning policies and allocations in place had increased to 23.3%.

The 2024 iteration of the report shows that, over the last two years, this trend of slow but steady progress has come to a halt.

At a local plan level, there has been no statistically significant progress in the number of ‘top tier’ LPAs. It still stands at 23%.

Worse, this static national picture masks an increasing number of regressions in the data with 34 local authorities having moved backwards when compared to their previous score.

And yet, the case for more specialist housing for seniors is undeniable. Driven both by demographic change, but also the wider societal benefits on offer.

It has been shown, repeatedly, that not only do these developments improve the quality of life for their residents (delaying the point at which people need to move into care homes, and reducing overall pressure on the NHS), but they release much-needed underoccupied family housing stock on to the market as residents downsize.

A new sense of urgency

It is not all gloom, however. Despite the policy inertia, delivery of new seniors’ housing developments is increasing. More than 9,140 new seniors housing units were built in 2023, an increase of 19% from the previous year.

Yet, this falls someway short of actual need with the Mayhew Review calling for 50,000 units a year to be built.

Our analysis of planning data, cited in the same report, shows more new seniors’ housing schemes are coming forward. Around 200 new planning applications were submitted last year, roughly on par with 2022.

Since 2022, some 270 schemes have received planning permission – accounting for a potential 14,474 additional homes.

The appetite from new and existing market players to deliver more age-appropriate housing is clear. A more consistent and supportive policy environment will help unlock more supply, more propositions and more choice for seniors.

There is also a sense of urgency over the need to get behind the sector from central government. The Older Person’s Housing Taskforce is due to report later this year, and the government’s support for the sector has been recognised – both in greater recognition in the NPPF itself, but also in the Levelling Up & Regeneration Act 2023 (LURA).

When brought into effect, LURA will place the secretary of state under a legal duty to provide detailed guidance on how local authorities should meet the needs of the elderly population.

LURA also lays the groundwork for the introduction of National Development Management Policies (NDMPs). NDMPs will sit alongside (and, in some cases, override) a council’s Local Plan policies. They have the potential to make a huge difference to the sector.

Senior’s housing must be a key part of UK housing strategy

This growing government and public sector understanding of the important role senior housing can play in the UK’s wider housing crisis is critical to helping support the growth of the sector.

Increased endorsement will help enact policy and instigate conversation that will ultimately facilitate more delivery. Combined with growing investor appetite, the sector continues to expand.

Given our aging population and the wider housing crisis, there is no time to waste.

A link to the full research report is found here: Unlocking Potential – Real Estate: Unlocking Potential for Seniors Housing Development.

 

Nicola Gooch

Partner and planning specialist

Irwin Mitchell

Tel: +44 (0)808 115 5889

www.irwinmitchell.com

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Oliver Knight

Partner and head of residential development research

Knight Frank

www.knightfrank.co.uk

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