Earlier this summer, I eagerly attended a series of workshops led by the team seeking to redevelop a site in Kew, SW London, currently functioning as the Kew Retail Park. The site is owned jointly by Marks & Spencer and St George’s, and the former is apparently following the lead of its rival John Lewis in entering the housebuilding sector through this project.
Not entirely surprisingly, the majority of locals attending the sessions were “older”, eg 50+, and most had lived in Kew for 30+ years, having bought large family houses, raised children and formed deep local friendships. I chatted with many of them about their aspirations for the new development and their own futures in Kew. What I heard consistently was a desire to downsize from the large family home into “something smaller and local that isn’t a flat”. Everyone I spoke with was enthused to participate in the workshops, where they were given an opportunity to express “hopes and dreams” (as designated by the workshop facilitation team JTP Placemaking) for the redevelopment of the site.
The proposed scheme, presented to the local community a few weeks later, was for 1000+ flats.
A planning application won’t be submitted for this redevelopment until next summer, so many changes could take place between now and then. But the experience got me thinking about the challenges facing older Londoners who wish to downsize their housing, and the opportunities that this would provide for housing younger Londoners.
I’m not alone in my concerns. Earlier in the summer I interviewed Emma Best AM,deputy chair of the London Assembly Planning & Regeneration Committee and Councillor for Waltham Forest. Emma discussed the emphasis placed by local planning authorities on “viability” – or what the developers of a scheme determines is commercially viable for a project to go ahead. She expressed her concern that inner and outer London are different places and a scheme’s viability must be defined and assessed accordingly, and noted that smaller developments that provide low-density housing too often get refused in the outer suburbs in favour of high-density developments, even though the latter is not what local residents want.
Earlier this year, City AM reported that one in five Londoners plan to downsize their family home to fund their retirement, the highest ratio across the country. It was acknowledged by the authors of the study that this was difficult within London:
“Unless you are moving from a house to a flat then you could struggle … even those living in London with its sky-high property prices may find they need to move a considerable distance to get their home and their retirement income sorted.”
For many older Londoners this situation means that they do nothing – and then are accused of being “bed blockers” in London’s out-of-control housing market.
The issue was raised in Parliament in May of this year. Cherilyn Mackrory MP told the Commons that
“The Government must increase the proportion of housing stock for people of retirement age and encourage those over 65 in properties with surplus bedrooms to downsize, those who wish to that is. That will allow younger families to up-size to reduce the pressure to build more houses, and therefore easing the housing the crisis and improving health and wellbeing for older residents.”
The benefits from promoting local downsizing are clear to see - releasing housing stock for younger generations while keeping older folks local, reinforcing intergenerational diversity in our local communities. But as little is being done at the central or local government level, or being driven by property developers to support local housing for older residents , who is the agent of change?
Influential organisations and individuals that recognise the housing challenges facing older Londoners and actively campaign on housing issues include
Age UK, which campaigns for “age-friendly housing in London”; Independent Age, which addresses options for downsizing; and the Centre for Ageing Better, which has looked in detail at policies that would encourage downsizing by older homeowners.
A particularly enthusiastic voice on this issue comes from Esther Rantzen, founder of the Silver Line Helpline which offers “friendship, conversation and connection” to older people. She recently told the Times that “older people want to downsize but there’s nowhere for us to go” , pointing out that
“not everyone wants to downsize in their old age, and everyone should not be forced to. But millions would love to. An inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on housing and care for older people found that eight million older people in seven million homes would like to downsize, but they can’t because suitable homes do not exist. Whereas in the 1980s we were building 30,000 suitable homes each year, now we are only building 8,000. First-time buyers are being prioritised, and nobody would want to deprive them. But if we can free up those big family homes for big families to live in, that would allow everyone on the housing ladder to move up. It makes sense in so many ways.”
Perhaps it’s time for a new breed of developers to seize the opportunity and take the lead. I propose Marks & Spencer in its redevelopment of Kew Retail Park, as the majority of its customers are over 50.
Listen to Locals
21 September 2022