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Addressing older people's housing needs could ease the crisis

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The state needs to intervene to provide truly affordable homes for the whole population, says Sarah Wigglesworth

The housing crisis is perhaps the biggest problem facing the UK, fuelling poverty as people are forced into the insecure rental market, and the north-south divide, as developers speculate in the south while abandoning the north. This limits economic development and social mobility, and cements geographical divisions. The bedroom tax and benefits cuts have made the situation worse, and may ultimately lead to homelessness and resentment. This is an unsustainable situation.

As Rowan Moore of the Observer stressed during a recent debate, the state needs to find new ways to play a role as house builder. The only time housing targets have been close to being achieved was when large scale council housing was being built, and the market has never filled this gap. Current policy has only succeeded in stimulating the demand side, but it is the supply of dwellings that needs attention. State intervention is necessary in order to provide truly affordable homes, particularly in the south of England where property prices are extreme.

There is no easy solution, as housing encompasses a wide spectrum of issues ranging across (but not limited to): land availability (and land banking); planning strategy and delivery mechanisms; the empowerment local authorities (providing them with new borrowing rights, the ability to develop land themselves, the right to use capital receipts on subsidized housing, acquisition of new skills and entrepreneurship, masterplanning skills and identifying and enabling sites to come forward); raising quality and standards in design, procurement and construction; adopting housing standards that will support the life course (such as Lifetime Homes and Lifetime Neighbourhoods standards); provision of skills and training for construction workers; investment in the green economy, making sure our new dwellings last longer and are future-proofed against the inevitable effects of climate change.

Our research at the University of Sheffield shows exploring the market for housing addressing the needs of the older population could be a key ingredient to stimulating the provision of housing for all sectors. Sections of the older population have capital tied up in their family home, and many want to down or re-size when their children grow up. What often stops them making the move is the lack of attractive options in the right place. But if the offer is right, and there is a range to suit all lifestyles, tastes and wallets, this type of housing could free up badly-needed family homes for the younger generation while ensuring older people can live well and independently in suitable accommodation.

DWELL (Design for Wellbeing in Environments for Later Life) is designing prototypes of new housing for this group (among others) based on sustained design engagement with representative groups of older people. We are considering a range of typologies of housing, reinventing old ones (such as the terrace and mews), as well as inventing new ones. We are also considering issues if independence, co-dependence and care. Our focus is on wellbeing and mobility, understood as ‘engagement with the world past, present and future’: family, friends, culture, services, current affairs, the transcendent and natural and built environments. It is this engagement that is going to keep older people healthy, active, independent and happy, allowing us to tell a new narrative around older people’s contribution to society.

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