The launch of a new Age UK report, ‘Housing in Later Life’, coincides with several important policy developments which are likely to impact on the housing options open to all older people, both now and in the future.
Does housing wealth really have untapped potential to fund care and support options for older people? Recently Age UK held a policy seminar on housing inequality among older people to consider this and a number of other related questions, with the help of some leading experts. The conclusions they drew seem to challenge a number of faulty assumptions about housing wealth – assumptions that are shaping the thinking of policy makers. Dr Beverly Searle of St. Andrew’s University offered an alternative and more complex picture of the distribution of housing prosperity in England and the implications for policy.
Dr Searle described dramatic geographical variations in the location of housing wealth – linked to house prices – which determine the equity available to older people and the choices they can make. Dr Searle found that 42% of housing wealth is concentrated in London and the South East, while 20% is located in the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West combined. Only 3% of housing wealth is found in North East. These inequalities mean that some housing and care options will only be available in affluent places, while choices for older people in poorer areas decline.
The Government has now released its long-awaited consultation paper on building standards. So far the press have mainly focused on space standards, rather than the implications for accessibility. The Government’s review considers several options to make progress, while recognising the challenges of a rapidly ageing society. The main proposal on accessibility is to establish three levels for building standards to take account of differences in local housing need. At the moment, Part M of the building regulations determines the ‘visitabilty’ of new homes. This covers areas such as level step free entrance and floor, and having a downstairs loo. The Government propose that this should remain a baseline standard that applies to all housing.
At the same time they suggest, as one option, an ‘intermediate’ second level standard that could be based on the lifetime homes standard and a third level for specialist wheelchair accessible housing. This would mean that the number of homes built to either the prescribed ‘lifetime homes’ or wheelchair access levels would be determined by projected local demand, following a local authority’s assessment. While giving local authorities flexibility it would establish a consistent standard at each of the suggested levels to reduce the cost and complexity of the variety of different local requirements, which are applied at the moment. Continue reading “Can we improve the quality of new homes for future generations?”
The retirement homes sector has come under fire in recent years over reportedly unfair practices by some retirement housing providers – aspects of which have recently been investigated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). Problems include confusing service charges, lack of competitive tendering for maintenance contracts, high transfer fees, high commission charges on building insurance and unfair rental charges for wardens flats.
In response to these concerns, the Association of Retirement Housing Managers (ARHM) – which the majority of providers are members of – has worked with Age UK and a panel of leasehold residents to improve their voluntary code of practice. The ARHM has also given older people and their families the opportunity to help shape the new code to improve practice in the retirement home industry. This consultation comes after a recent roundtable discussion, chaired by the Housing Minister, Mark Prisk, looking at promoting best practice in the sector. This is helpful, but it is vital that as well as listening to the views of the retirement housing industry, residents also have an opportunity to express their views and influence Government policy. Continue reading “Have your say – a better deal for older leaseholders”
Age UK has launched a new report on sheltered and retirement housing ‘Making it Work for Us’, coinciding with a meeting of MPs and Peers to discuss reforms to leasehold housing. The complexity of leasehold agreements in retirement housing makes some older people vulnerable to financial exploitation – an issue we address in our report. Older residents tell us they are increasingly concerned about lack of transparency in leasehold contracts, particular in regard to service charges.
To produce the report Age UK supported a panel of older residents to look at how sheltered and retirement housing could be improved. Most of the residents were positive about what retirement housing could offer, but had concerns about a failure to address issues around bad practice.
Why is this so important? Currently only a very small percentage of older people actually live in retirement housing; the vast majority live in ordinary mainstream housing. Yet there is a growing interest in the role of retirement housing in freeing up larger family homes for younger people. Achieving this is difficult when there just isn’t enough affordable, well designed retirement housing in the right locations to make a real difference. Continue reading “Sheltered and retirement housing – ‘Making it Work for Us’”
There is currently a great deal of concern and uncertainty about the ongoing impact of housing benefit reform on older people’s housing Older private rented sector tenants are already being affected by the limits placed on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) especially in the London and the South East. Changes came into force in April meaning that LHA will only cover the bottom 30% of market rents. It is still too early to fully assess the impact of these changes, but up to 80,000 older people could be affected. If LHA does not cover the full rent, older people will have to make up the deficit or find alternative accommodation. As well as creating hardship it is possible that some may find themselves homeless, despite the availability of discretionary additional payments. The situation could become worse after 2013 because benefit rates will be set against the Consumer Price Index – which is unlikely to keep up with rent increases.
Changes to Local Housing Allowance are just one aspect of wider reforms to the housing benefit system as part of the Welfare Reform Bill to introduce a unified single benefit – Universal Credit. A particular area of concern is the proposed restriction on housing benefit for working age people who are deemed to under occupy. This could have a devastating effect on many disabled people living in adapted housing. The National Housing Federation is currently campaigning to stop these changes happening in 2013. There are some fears that this rule could, in future, easily be extended to retired older people, also forcing them to leave settled accommodation. The Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers to change the regulations without referral to Parliament.
As well to the Welfare Bill there are new proposals on the funding of supported housing, which could affect older people living in sheltered schemes. The housing benefit budget for all supported housing is relatively small (1-2%) but reforms could have a massive impact on many vulnerable people. The Government are seeking a way of controlling and simplify housing benefit for sheltered schemes by introducing a fixed rate of housing benefit. Although this rate will not apply to housing associations registered with the Tenant Services Authority, it is still likely to have a knock on effect at a local level on the rate that providers receive. This is problematic because supported housing schemes are paid at a special rate, based on local conditions, in recognition of extra housing management costs. If this element is reduced it will mean that providers will still need to make up the deficit. As a result they may cut back services or expect residents to pay more.
The DWP have said their reforms will be cost neutral. In reality they could result in significant cuts to sheltered housing, further damaging traditional forms of support. When the Government introduced the Supporting People funding regime, in 2003, they wanted to separate the costs of housing from the costs of support services. This has contributed to a decline in services that had previously been integral to most sheltered schemes. Supporting People funding for sheltered schemes is discretionary funding, not a statutory requirement like housing benefit. Every week local authorities are announcing cuts to Supporting People funding that impact on sheltered schemes. If the housing management costs of sheltered housing are reined in, this will be a double whammy representing an additional destabilisation of sheltered housing. This is despite research by Cap Gemini, commissioned by the Government, demonstrating that sheltered housing saves money over the longer term, if you take into account the way it reduces costs on other services. The end result of all the changes could be a further decline in sheltered housing which inevitably will impact on vulnerable older people. Yet there has still been no proper debate about the future of sheltered housing and no meaningful engagement with residents.
With all the changes going on at the moment it is vital that we fully consider the impact on vulnerable older people who have limited options and deserve guarantees of safety, security and support. Although a simplification of the benefits system is desirable we still need to take account of the complex circumstances that make older people’s housing viable and protect the most vulnerable.
Extra care housing is often promoted as a break through model in the delivery of housing with care for older people. It offers a practical alternative to residential care, allowing older people to retain independence and control, with support and flexible personal care. Typically residents have a self- contained flat, access to communal facilities, with some meals provided. These core features are required as a condition of funding, although defining extra care isn’t clear cut.
I’ve just attended the excellent Institute of Housing annual extra care conference in Nottingham, which explored the prospects for extra care. The topics discussed included cuts to Supporting People budgets, welfare benefit reform, possible future changes to security of tenure, new local planning structures, and the delivery of health and nursing care to schemes. All these issues, and many others, will have an impact on the sector – although no one is certain about what they will be. The conference discussed positive opportunities, as a result of deregulation and localism, but had some apprehension over the instability of revenue funding for retirement housing in both the private and social sector.
My own conclusion is that extra care will increasingly depend on income, where you live and how far your local authority has a joined-up approach to older people’s housing. Pressures on funding will mean it will increasingly cater for the frailest groups, rather than offering balanced communities – an important selling point for many schemes. It may become more difficult to move into rented extra care, unless your costs are covered by welfare benefits. Escalating service charges could exclude many self funders from the sector. Buying an extra care flat will also become more expensive as prices and charges rise. It will still make sense for many older people seeking to transfer the equity in their home rather than pay for residential care. If the Government offers greater practical support to the use of equity to pay for housing with care, the extra care model could thrive.
A key question that struck me during discussion of flexible models of housing with care, is why it is economical to pay for 24 hour care in extra care but not for 24 hour cover in sheltered schemes with a similar or identical resident profile. Will more flexibility in the design of schemes and the levels of care, mean a move away from local authorities taking a blanket approach to existing sheltered scheme? Will they consider each scheme on its own merits and fund 24 hour onsite support where required?
Related to this debate Age UK is helping to promote the Joseph Rowntree Foundation ‘A Better Life’ initiative which aims to improve the lives of older people with high support needs – including those in extra care housing. This work reinforces the principle that policy decisions in this area must be informed by the views and experience of older residents themselves.