Here’s a revelation: I’m getting on a bit. 66 next week, but feeling older in body (especially compared to my tennis-playing and hiking friends) yet far younger in mind.
Another birthday is not the only reason why I’ve been thinking about housing and older people recently. I’ve also been reading a new report from the International Longevity Centre which is disparaging about the way our society is responding to ageing. They conclude that the social care system is crumbling; health care is failing to incentivise prevention of ill health; the housing system is failing, leading to many older people living in housing which does not meet their needs; and there is growing risk of people running out of money in retirement. As the current vogue is to accuse this older generation of feathering their own nests at the expense of future generations, this is quite a challenging list.
Increasing longevity and Government policy changes mean that many older people will no longer fit the stereotypical image of a mortgage-free old age living comfortably in their own home. More will carry debts, including mortgages, into a much later retirement, more will be asset-rich but income poor, more will have problems repairing and heating their homes, more fill face large care bills, more will want to release some of their equity to help sons and daughters get a home rather than wait until they die. They will also sit on a huge amount of empty space – while the Government punishes working age social tenants with a ‘spare’ bedroom, the real issue of under-occupation in housing remains totally untackled.
The Tories have played a clever but typically cynical political game with older people, and it has reaped dividends for them. At the election, Labour had a clear lead over the Tories among 18-34s, social classes D and E, and private and social renters but their vote share fell amongst those aged 65+ to a tiny one in four, with IPSOS MORI recording a 5.5% swing to the Tories since 2010 amongst the age group that is not only increasing fastest but is also the most likely to turn out to vote (78%). The Tories led by 47% to 23% across the age group as a whole. Looking just at tenure across all age groups, the Tories led Labour amongst people who owned their home outright – mainly older people – by 24% but by only 8% amongst those that had a mortgage – despite the housing costs of this latter group falling over the past few years due to low interest rates.
The Tories identified themselves with ‘looking after pensioners’, especially by contrasting their pension reforms and the ‘triple lock’ with Labour’s ‘75p pension increase’ (which was a one-off of course). Pensioners also know they have been protected from the ravages that have befallen working age households who have faced a major income squeeze. Like many popular Tory policies, it is a mirage – my parents were made vastly better off by the Labour Government, especially when wider policies like carer allowances, fuel allowances, and council tax benefit were taken into account. The Tories successfully promoted their headline pension policy amongst existing pensioners whilst undermining the position of poorer pensioners and those needing care, and by totally screwing future pensioners at the same time. (The Resolution Foundation’s reports on Living Standards provide all the background data you’ll ever need).
The electoral figures are worse even than they seem. Many of the older people who supported Labour in 2015 could be described as life-long habitual voters, and I suspect the numbers could scarcely fall any further because of that. It is good that Labour is perceived as a young person’s party, but not enough. The demographics were well known before the 2015 Election, but Manifesto commitments on older people were rarely highlighted in the campaign.
To win in future, Labour must have no less an ambition than to regain its former lead amongst older voters, and it needs to think more seriously about how it appeals to this group. Of course many will vote on general issues like the economy or immigration or health just like the rest of the population, but there must be an advantage in thinking through a comprehensive policy which specifically appeals to older people, whatever their tenure. Labour accepted the triple lock, which helps, but needs to check through the gamut of policies that have affected poorer pensioners, and especially the collapse of the care system. Here, as Andy Burnham rightly said during the election, it is not just about spending more, it is about spending money better, like helping people in their own homes rather than keeping them in expensive hospital beds. It is also vital to highlight and address the fears of people now approaching retirement who have been hung out to dry – especially that cohort of women who expected to retire at 60 but will not now be able to retire until they are 66 or 67.
Ageing has long been a neglected area of housing policy. There have been plenty of ideas and a few programmes but insufficient priority has been given to creating real options and on a sufficient scale. Policy should be based on giving older people real choice rather than just pushing them in a particular direction. Labour’s policy on supporting people had the inadvertent consequence of undermining very popular sheltered housing (by switching money from supporting communal schemes to individual care packages) just as the Tory benefit policies are now undermining the provision of new supported housing. Support for voluntary organisations providing low-level support like shopping and gardening has almost disappeared, as have the projects offering ‘care and repair’ services to home owners that mushroomed in the 1980s. For people with declining health who want to stay in their own home, the central issue is providing far better social care, from domestic support to nursing, and much better post-hospital support. For those who want to stay at home but release some equity, we need a better range of (crucially) properly regulated financial products that people can trust. The state should be acting energetically to help those who would consider moving to somewhere smaller. Very popular schemes under which councils would buy family homes at a discount and provide good quality sheltered housing in return should be reinstated.
These are just a few of many possible suggestions. A forthcoming report on ‘Ageing London’ from the London mayor’s design advisory group will add to the list. But my central point is that Labour should develop an attractive group of real policies, including housing options, which will have a major impact on older people’s lives and help detach them from the bad habit of voting Tory.