This is the first of a series of deep-dives into the detail of the "Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to national planning policy" consultation, which closes on 2 March 2023.
This post considers the implications of the consultation for seniors housing and, in particular, whether the government's proposed changes are as helpful as DLUHC would like to believe.
At first glance, seniors housing appears to be one of the few sectors with something genuinely positive to take from this consultation.
DLUHC have devoted no less than five paragraphs (quoted below) to:
- expressing support for the sector;
- articulating why our supply of specialist retirement housing needs to expand;
- committing to the outcomes of the Mayhew Report; and
- finally getting the Older People's Housing Taskforce off the ground.
This expression of support has been translated into the following proposed amendments to Paragraph 62 of the NPPF:
"Within this context of establishing need, the size, type and tenure of housing needed for different groups in the community should be assessed and reflected in planning policies (including, but not limited to,: those who require affordable housing; families with children; older people including for retirement housing, housing-with-care and care homes; students; people with disabilities; service families; travellers 32; people who rent their homes and people wishing to commission or build their own homes33)"
The amendment places local authorities under a more specific obligation, when preparing their local plans, to:
- establish or calculate, the level of need for each type of specialist older peoples' housing - from retirement housing, to integrated retirement communities and care homes - within their area; and
- reflect that need in their local plan policies.
The need dilemma
This amendment is a good thing. The failure of local planning authorities to properly grapple with the challenges of an ageing population during their local plan process is a real problem.
Our joint research with Knight Frank, published last summer, demonstrated that only 23.3% of local authorities in England had both a specific policy addressing the housing needs of older people AND an allocation for a retirement housing scheme in their local plans. This is not a high bar - it simply tests the existence of local plan policies, it does not attempt to assess the quality of the policy that has been adopted. It is, to use a crude analogy, the planning equivalent of the Bechdel Test.
Recent appeal decisions have shown that even where a specific policy has been adopted, they can be insufficiently fine-grained to be fully effective. This was the case in the Sonning Common Appeal Decision, where the inspector found that although the local plan policy supporting the provision of specialist housing for the elderly "covers all forms of specialist housing for older people" ...."it is completely generic as to provision. No attempt is made to differentiate between types and tenure of specialist housing for older people, nor to address the need for each. The needs of all older people are simply lumped together. Nor is there any engagement with the market constraints and viability considerations relating to specialist accommodation for older people".
Any policy changes that encourage and incentivise local planning authorities to more fully grapple with the specialist housing needs of older people can only be a good thing.
This change, however, is not being made in isolation. Whilst requiring the housing needs of older people to be properly assessed and reflected in planning policies in a good step, it is being made in the context of a raft of other amendments which make it easier for local authorities to bring forward plans that fail to meet their objectively assessed housing needs in full.
My colleague, the amazing Pamela Chesterman, will be writing more about the changes to calculating and delivering housing numbers in a separate post - so I won't go into detail here - but *spoiler alert* - the general consensus seems to be that the upshot of these changes will be a reduction in the level of housing that is planned for and brought forward through the local plan process.
As such, it is distinctly possible that the improvements in planning for the housing needs for the elderly, as part of a local authority's overall housing need, is entirely counteracted or overridden by the reduction in the level of housing planned across the board.
The proposed changes to the calculation of housing need, however, are not the only changes in the consultation that have the potential to make life more difficult for retirement housing providers across the sector - particularly those who develop and operate integrated retirement communities.
Design codes and marginal sites
In addition to the focus of design codes - and insisting on 'beauty' - which will need to be applied with great care to developments that also need to take the mobility, accessibility and safety of potentially vulnerable residents into account - there is a further amendment to footnote 67 of the NPPF which could prove problematic for some operators.
As amended, this footnote would read as follows:
"67 Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality. The availability of agricultural land used for food production should be considered, alongside the other policies in this Framework, when deciding what sites are most appropriate for development."
Given the difference in the overall viability profile of specialist seniors housing to market housing (particularly those models, such as integrated retirement communities, which provide high levels on on site amenity space and both recreational and care facilities), operators often find themselves taking 'marginal' sites which are less attractive to volume market housebuilders. Many of these are former agricultural sites in the green belt.
The increasing policy emphasis on food production, when coupled with the proposed policy changes to dis-incentivise Councils from carrying out large scale green-belt reviews as part of the local plan process, may well result in these types of marginal site being harder to bring forward.
Chilling effect on local plan production
And finally, we have to grapple with the impact of the chilling effect of the consultation itself on local plan production.
One of the more depressing findings of our research, was the impact that stalling local plan production was having on the ability to bring forward seniors housing.
At the time the report was published, six local authorities' planning scores had regressed because of problems with bringing forward their local plans.
|Council||2022 Score||2020 Score||Comment|
|Basildon||D|| B||Local Plan withdrawn prior to adoption|
|Castle Point||D(A)||D|| Approved Local Plan would have been an A, but council has voted not to adopt it|
|Horsham||B|| A||Allocation affected by plan delay - water and nutrients|
|Slough||D||B ||Local Plan work abandoned|
|Wealden||D|| B||Local Plan struck down over Duty to Co-operate issues|
| Welwyn Hatfield||D||A|
Downgraded because of Local Plan issues. Whilst draft plan would be an A, it’s been at examination since 2017 and looks like it will be considered unsound
Since the latest planning policy changes were announced by DLUHC, the number of local authorities who have delayed, paused or put a halt to their local plan preparation work has increased dramatically. Recent reports in the Guardian put the latest number at 9 local councils since late November - in total approximately 33 Councils have put local plan making on hold over the last two years.
This increasing slowdown in strategic plan making is not helpful. It results in applications being assessed against an increasingly outdated policy background and increases the likelihood of applicants being forced to appeal.
In short, the NPPF consultation is more of a mixed bag for seniors housing than it might initially appear.
The government's express support for the sector, and its commitment to increasing the supply of seniors housing, is extremely welcome.
However, this commitment needs to be viewed in the context of changes that are likely to both reduce the overall supply of new-build housing in England and, in the short-term at least, result in a slow-down in the production of the very local plans that are required to deliver it.
In short, the government appears to have committed to giving the seniors housing sector a larger slice of a shrinking pie. A commitment which, in practice, might not be as helpful as it first appears.....
Consultation Text Extract
"More older people’s housing
5. This government is committed to further improving the diversity of housing options available to older people and boosting the supply of specialist elderly accommodation. The National Planning Policy Framework supports this ambition by asking local authorities to provide for a diverse range of housing needs, including for older people.
6. The Framework already makes clear that the size, type and tenure of housing needed for different groups in the community, including older people, should be assessed and reflected in planning policies. In 2019, we also published guidance to help local authorities implement the policies that can deliver on this expectation.
7. The population of the UK is ageing rapidly and around 1-in-4 will be aged 65 or over by 2041. We need to ensure that our housing market is prepared for this challenge and that older people are offered a better choice of accommodation to suit their changing needs, to help them to live independently and feel more connected to their communities. In 2021, a report by the International Longevity Centre indicates that there will be a shortfall of 37% in specialist retirement housing by 2040.
8. We have therefore been considering ways in which the Framework can further support the supply of older people’s housing. We propose to do this by adding an additional specific expectation that within ensuring that the needs of older people are met, particular regard is given to retirement housing, housing-with-care and care homes, which are important typologies of housing that can help support our ageing population.
9. Alongside this, we are also launching a taskforce on older people’s housing, which we announced in the Levelling Up White Paper. This taskforce will explore how we can improve the choice of and access to housing options for older people and will follow important work conducted recently by Professor Mayhew on meeting the challenges of our ageing population."
7. The population of the UK is ageing rapidly and around 1-in-4 will be aged 65 or over by 2041. We need to ensure that our housing market is prepared for this challenge and that older people are offered a better choice of accommodation to suit their changing needs.... In 2021, a report by the International Longevity Centre indicates that there will be a shortfall of 37% in specialist retirement housing by 2040. 8. We have therefore been considering ways in which the Framework can further support the supply of older people’s housing. We propose to do this by adding an additional specific expectation that within ensuring that the needs of older people are met, particular regard is given to retirement housing, housing-with-care and care homes, which are important typologies of housing that can help support our ageing population.