Providing suitable housing should be a central pillar of any strategy to support Scotland’s growing elderly population.
However a report published by the Universities of Dundee, Heriot-Watt and Stirling found that the housing sector remains ill prepared.
While there is some evidence of growing political buy-in to the concept of more – and specialist – housing for older people, little practical progress is being made.
Indeed the latest evidence from both the public and private housing sectors in Scotland indicates that we may be going backwards.
Recent statistics published by the Scottish Government point to a worrying decrease in sheltered housing.
They show that the number of sheltered/very sheltered and medium dependency houses provided by councils has fallen by nearly 12% in 12 years: from 23,108 in 2006 to 20,315 in 2018.
And earlier this month, the specialist retirement house builder, McCarthy and Stone announced that they were proposing to withdraw from the Scottish market and would not seek new land opportunities here.
The company have built over 4,500 apartments in 110 developments for older people including assisted living schemes specifically for the over 70s.
While policy makers have long been aware of the massive growth in Scotland’s elderly population, legislative and policy developments – never mind bricks and mortar – have simply not kept pace.
So what needs to be done to stimulate growth in housing for the elderly in the private and public sectors?
Firstly, realistic national and local targets should be set based on council’s assessment of need. Secondly local councils should identify suitable sites in their local development plans for housing for older Scots and thirdly retirement housing developers should not be burdened with providing affordable housing contributions.
While exclusion from affordable housing contributions may appear generous, a closer examination of the arguments in favour of this policy exemption, show how it would help.
Retirement housing developers need to find appropriate sites; these are usually on brownfield land, close to town centres.
Most of these sites are subject to fierce competition from discount retail and student housing developers who are able to maximise their bid for the site as their product is cheaper to build than retirement housing.
Retirement housing incorporates shared living space such as lounges and guest suites – and usually around a third of the remaining living space, needs to accommodate design features such as wheelchair access and lifts.
And unlike mainstream developments, the entire development has to be completed prior to commencing sales. It cannot be sold ‘off plan’.
Aside from the direct, obvious benefits to older Scots who downsize there are other, wider, societal benefits to specialist retirement housing.
For example it reduces pressure on NHS finances (a week’s stay in hospital for a pensioner can cost up to £3.7k).
There is increased tax take for both the Scottish Government through Land and Building Transaction Tax and local councils through the council tax.
Building retirement homes sets off activity in the housing chain; the purchase of one retirement home can kick start up to six moves on the housing chain creating supply and boosting the local economy as new homeowners improve their property.
And of course, boosting supply through releasing existing homes has the added benefit of lessening pressure on Greenfield sites.
Finally, in the social housing sector the release of family homes has obvious benefits for those on the housing waiting list.
The Planning (Scotland) Bill that is currently winding its way through the Scottish Parliament has been amended to include clauses which will help identify suitable sites and quantify need.
While welcome, there still a need for a joined-up approach for housing for older Scots.
Perhaps Health and Social Care boards should be given the responsibility of driving forward the need for retirement housing?