Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Elderflowers Projects Co Ltd (AH 30)

  Elderflowers Projects Co Ltd is carrying out background research and developing innovative and practical designs for new housing solutions for active older people from the age of 50 upwards.


  1.  This submission is concerned with the impact of the ageing of our society on housing supply. Little attention has been paid to this aspect of ageing but it is our contention that as the population ages an increasing proportion of the housing stock will tend to be under-occupied by the elderly living alone or as couple households. (The elderly are defined as those aged 50 or more, which is the standard government definition.) This means that less and less of the housing stock is available for younger households, and this tendency has contributed to the housing supply problem. The trend towards under-occupation affects both owner occupied housing and social housing. (In principle a social landlord can require an old lady to move out of a four bedroom house, that is now larger than she needs, into smaller accommodation but in practice this rarely happens.)

  2.  Due to the lack of suitable alternatives, elderly "empty nesters" tend to remain in the homes that they have lived in for many years even though they may no longer be happy living there, or find it difficult. A substantial part of the older section of the population has problems that are recognised, in particular isolation, fuel poverty, paying Council Tax. However it is not perceived that in many cases a move to more suitable smaller housing could solve these problems. It is suggested by Elderflowers that provision of suitable housing for older households, aged between 50 and 70 who are not in need of care, would not only be to the benefit of the households concerned but would add to housing supply by releasing the larger family homes previously occupied. Because the accommodation to be built for older households would be smaller (and very often take the form of flats) building a given number, of units, say 100, would release 100 family homes and require less land than building 100 new family homes. Elderflowers is currently seeking to develop a pilot, mixed tenure, project in Milton Keynes.


  3.  The table below, which is derived from the Survey of English Housing, looks at whether households are over-crowded or under-occupying their homes based on the "bedroom standard". The "bedroom standard" is the number of bedrooms that a household is calculated to need on the basis of the household composition. Households with fewer bedrooms than the bedroom standard are over-crowded. Those with two or more bedrooms above the standard are deemed to be under-occupying. (The bedroom standard does not allow for a spare bedroom which is now generally considered not to be a luxury.)


All households England 2002-03
Difference from bedroom Age of household
reference person
Older age groups
45 to 49 50 to 54 55 to 59 60 to 64 65 to 69 Total
Two or more below 12 8 2 1 3 14
One below6247 151410 86
At standard446356 245186195 981
One above670682 572431386 2,071
Two or more above533792 911804755 3,262
All1,7231,885 1,7451,4351,348 6,415
Two or more below
1000 00
One below43 111 1
At standard2619 141314 15
One above3936 333029 32
Two or more above3142 525656 51
All100100 100100100 100

Source:   ODPM Survey of English Housing.

  4.  The table shows that under-occupancy rises with age. In the 45-49 age group 31% of households are under-occupying, this rises to 42% in the age category 50-54, to 52% in the age category 55-59, to 56% in the age categories 60-64 and 65-69. (Were even older age groups included in the table, the rate for those aged 70 or more would probably be even higher.)

  5.  For those aged 50-69 the overall rate of under-occupancy is 51%. This compares with 36% for all households. The estimated 3,262,00 homes under-occupied by the 50-69 age group represent 16% of the whole housing stock in England, and 44% of all under-occupied homes. In 1981 the proportion of all households under-occupying was 25% as compared to the current 36%; the ageing of the population has been a major factor in the growth of under-occupancy.

  6.  Under-occupancy can be expected to increase in the future as the population continues to age. In 2002 there were 19.8 million people aged 50 or over in the UK, some 33% of the population, whereas in 1961 the number of older people was only 16.0 million. There was a 24% increase over the last four decades of the twentieth century. A further increase is projected to 25 million in 2021, when older people, ie those aged 50 or more, will represent 40% of the population. (Some 25% of the population, 16.1 million, will be aged 60 or more.)


  7.  In general the private sector and social landlords focus on providing housing for families with children. Where housing is provided specifically for older people it is intended to be housing for people with substantial care needs. In the public sector this takes the form of traditional housing for the elderly. In the private sector it takes the form of housing schemes catering for those whose income is high enough to pay for costly services. Examples of these retirement homes and "villages" serving the top end of the market are those built and run by Abbeyfield and McCarthy & Stone. Most of the new housing built for older people tends to be focused on security, shelter and care, with the result that such housing is usually fenced off from the rest of the community with restricted entry, and paid staff caring for the residents and providing security. In some cases certain members of staff live on site. The future needs of older people are seen in terms of care, security and dependency. Even for providers appealing to a wider market, such as ExtraCare, the emphasis is still on security and the residents are still dependent on the ministrations of a large paid staff. Therefore the costs of living in such settlements include substantial service charges to pay for the staff in addition to normal maintenance etc.

  8.  Older households on low to medium incomes cannot afford the private sector housing, and if they are relatively "fit" they do not qualify for, and would not wish to move into, traditional public sector housing for the elderly. When sheltered housing was first built there was an influx of people who were then in their sixties, with the result that many sheltered housing complexes are now filled almost entirely with much older people, many of them frail, and those developments are now not attractive to younger pensioners (and those in their fifties) even if space is available.

  9.  It is widely acknowledged that there is "a shortage of affordable, suitably sized and accessible housing for older couples or people on their own within the mainstream housing market," to quote Prof Sheila Peace of the Open University. The result is that many people who would move to more suitably sized housing remain in their over large houses as long as they are able to, often well into their 80's.


  10.  Housing for the elderly has traditionally been geared to the needs of the infirm/ill. However, many people entering the third age are fit and active and living a useful life, many still working. They are neither in need of care nor of institutional accommodation, and would probably refuse even to consider either for themselves. It is proposed that these people, with low to medium incomes, should be considered as a market for a different kind of quality housing, and associated facilities geared to their specific needs. The intention would be to produce a new kind of moderately priced housing for a more mixed age range than conventional housing for the elderly, and which is attractive, non-institutional, non-care-centred, and yet will be able to meet residents' changing needs for many years (during which time some of them can expect to become less fit, and couple households can expect to become single person households).

  11.  For the new type of housing to be successful the target group would need to find the package sufficiently attractive so that they would consider moving from their existing accommodation. In addition they would need to understand the importance of making housing decisions at a young "old" age (ie between 50 and 70) when they are more capable of moving. The implications of remaining in their own homes into their seventies and beyond, would be made clear to them and the alternatives presented so that they can make informed choices.

  12.  Provision of more suitable housing for older households, who are not in need of care, would not only be to the benefit the households concerned but will have advantages for society as a whole. In the first place under-occupancy of the existing housing stock will be reduced. In addition because households in the targeted group are small, new developments intended specifically for older households will have a higher density of dwellings per hectare than new developments intended for traditional families. Thus less land is required to provide say 100 dwellings for older households than to provide 100 family sized dwellings. However providing 100 dwellings for older households will release the dwellings currently occupied by these older households for use by families. Hence providing suitable sized dwellings for older households is a more efficient way (in terms of land "take") of providing family housing.

  13.  Another advantage of making suitable provision for older households is that this will reduce the problem of inadequate maintenance by elderly owner occupiers leading to physical deterioration in the housing stock. For various reasons, including lack of income, elderly owner occupiers are often unable to maintain their homes to the standard that they would wish, leading to long-term deterioration.

  14.  Providing appropriate housing for older households will also reduce the classic "housing rich but income poor" problems of older (particularly pensioner) households. Many older households are in fuel poverty, meaning that to heat their home to an adequate standard would cost more than 10% of the household income. Moving to a well insulated smaller home should ensure that a household escapes from fuel poverty. Paying Council Tax and other property related charges can also be a problem for older households living in homes that are large in relation to their current income. Means tested rebates are available but there is often a reluctance to apply for such rebates. Moving to smaller accommodation should make Council Tax and other property related charges more affordable, particularly for households who are able to withdraw some of their housing equity.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2006
Prepared 20 March 2006