Can planning help solve the social care crisis?

Leading consultancy Bidwells has highlighted how the COVID pandemic has brought the crisis in our Social Care system into sharp focus.

Leading consultancy Bidwells has highlighted how the COVID pandemic has brought the crisis in our Social Care system into sharp focus, and while much of the Government’s recent attention has been on reform of funding mechanisms, we ask what role the Planning System can play in helping to fix Social Care, and particularly Older People’s Housing. 

While life expectancy in the UK continues to increase, health expectancy has not kept pace, and the likelihood is that most of us will experience a number of years when we are not in full health and require a degree of care and support.  Age UK estimate that 1.5 million people aged 65+ do not currently receive the care and support they need with essential living activities.  With the number of people aged over 75 set to double in the next 30 years, it is easy to see why we are facing a crisis in Social Care.  In simple terms, we are not building enough of the right types of homes for older people and the gap between supply and demand is constantly widening. 

In the UK, we tend to stay in our family homes as we get older, and often wait for a trigger event such as a medical incident or bereavement, before considering moving to housing that better suits our needs.  As we age, our needs change – older people often need more help with maintenance and may require social care to help maintain their independence.  Social networks become ever more important in reducing loneliness, as we saw so starkly during the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021. 

It is clear that there is an increasingly important role for housing and care options that bridge the gap between care homes and people receiving care in homes that no longer suit their needs – from Retirement Villages and Sheltered Housing to Assisted Living and Extra-Care Housing. 

Importance of tailored accommodation 

Accommodation tailored to the support and care needs of the individual lessens the burden on the NHS by keeping older people out of hospital for longer.  When an older person moves into specialist housing, they typically move out of a larger house, and their transition into new accommodation releases family housing back into the market. The knock-on effect can consequently contribute towards fixing the wider housing crisis too.  

 However, there is a huge shortage of tailored accommodation and housing across the UK in both the private and social sectors.  We need to significantly increase the provision of accommodation that enables older people to live independently for as long as possible, with the option of accessing on-site care as and when this is required.   

Varying approaches of Local Authorities

Within Norfolk, quarter of the population are 65+ (compared to a national average of 18.5%). The emerging Greater Norwich Local Plan identifies a significant need for housing – 3,857 specialist retirement units between 2020 and 2038.  While the Plan does support the provision of older people’s accommodation, it provides no requirement or incentive.  The strategy for meeting 90% of the identified need for older people’s specialist accommodation is consequently reliant on developers and providers pro-actively seeking to bring forward schemes, effectively hoping that the market will be sufficient to drive forward developments of this nature. To date, the evidence suggests that this is not happening.  Without a clear strategy for provision, there is a danger that the right accommodation will not be provided in the right places. 

 A similar approach is found in Breckland Council’s Local Plan, which was adopted at the end of 2019.  Breckland identified a need for 1,277 additional C2 bed spaces to be provided during the Plan period, but only made one allocation for a 60-bed care home.  The approach is one of ‘support’ and ‘encouragement’ but no attempt to proactively plan to meet the demand. 

By contrast, North Norfolk District’s emerging Local Plan takes a very different approach to the provision of housing that meets the needs of its growing elderly population.  The First Draft Local Plan, published in 2019, includes a policy requiring all developments of over 150 dwellings to provide, as a minimum, 80 bed spaces of specialist elderly housing or care provision.    

What other difficulties are we facing? 

Another obstacle that is encountered when seeking planning consent for specialist Older People’s Housing, is the lack of consistency in how it is classified within the Use Classes.  While traditional Care Homes fall neatly into Class C2 (Residential Institutions), proposals that involve housing with support and care of varying degrees are not clearly defined, and there is a great deal of variation in how Local Planning Authorities classify such proposals.  This leaves Planning Authorities with little on which to base their judgements about how to deal with proposals for specialist housing that doesn’t fit squarely into the definition of a Residential Institution.  

We have experienced a wide divergence in approach between Local Authorities, and even between Officers within the same Local Authority, and the implications are potentially significant.    

Our Social Care system is deep in crisis, and whilst it is reassuring that the Government appear to be focussing their attention on addressing some of the complex issues responsible, the Planning System can certainly do more to play its part.  

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