The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has just published a timely report reminding us that we face immense financial and social pressures arising from our growing elderly population.
The report, “Living longer – how our population is changing and why it matters” highlights the consequences of this demographic explosion: in 2016, there were 11.8 million UK residents aged 65 and over – that number is projected to rise to 20.4 million by 2066, some 26% of the UK population.
In Scotland the figures are equally daunting. Within a generation around a third of all Scots will be aged over 65, increasing from 1 million people to 1.8 million by 2039. And those aged over 75 will have nearly doubled from 0.44 million to 0.8 million.
As the ONS report makes clear such trends will have an unprecedented impact on public spending. Already Scotland’s councils spend around £3.1 billion on social care; however the Accounts Commission estimates that an extra £667 million will be needed just to maintain current levels of provision by 2020. And with the working age population increasing by a mere 7% by 2035, there will be a higher ratio of people depending on health and social care funding. So how do we plan for a future where the Scottish population will become older than ever before at a time when financial pressures will increase rather than decrease?
Much of the answer lies in building suitable accommodation. Scotland is not currently building sufficient retirement housing. There are only about 20,000 sheltered or very sheltered houses provided by local councils and housing associations, while in the private sector there are some 4,550 houses available for homeowners.
The Planning Bill currently winding its way through Holyrood could do much to help meet demand. While the updated 2014 Scottish Planning Policy (SPP) identified the need to plan for older people’s housing for the first time, experience shows that that welcome change has not translated into increased supply.
The Scottish Government’s Independent Planning Review’s report, “Empowering Planning to Deliver Great Places” raised welcome questions as to how far the housing needs of Scotland’s elderly were being met and called for “a proactive approach to expanding homes for the elderly” to become a key priority.
Sadly the draft Planning Bill contained no proposals as to how the planning system could contribute to tackling the current shortfall. However, with the Bill set to enter Stage 2 a number of MSPs, having heard the evidence given to the Local Government and Communities Committee from a series of experts, have decided to seek to amend the Bill in ways that would expedite new house building for the elderly.
A basic prerequisite is the need for the Scottish Government to prepare detailed guidance to address the current and future needs of older Scots. Secondly councils need to set out how they will prioritise sites for older peoples’ housing, given the need for these homes to be situated close to transport networks and accessible local services. And thirdly councils need to be asked to establish annual targets for building retirement and sheltered housing.
There are massive gains to be made by achieving essential growth in the sector; reduced hospital admissions; significant savings to the public purse; the release of larger family homes; and consequent further moves down the housing supply chain with a much needed increase in revenue from the Land and Building Transaction Tax for the Scottish Government as well as increased council tax contributions for Scotland’s councils.
This is a win win situation and if the opportunity provided by the Planning Bill is missed the difficulties ahead, not just for councils and health and social care services, but for elderly Scots themselves, can only multiply.