Let's hear it for the Neighbourhood

In an ageing society where social networks are leading to a pandemic of loneliness, the benefit of our neighbourhoods as the settings where residents can socialise, realise common values, and achieve a level of social control and purpose should not be underestimated.

By 2035 we anticipate a UK population comprising more than 17 million people over the age of 65. This is a significant change from 11 million today, especially given that currently some 49% of over 65s are living with a life threatening long-term condition or disability.

The social, economic and policy considerations, health and care implications, technological solutions and housing agenda all need to work harmoniously if we, as a nation, are to address the challenges associated with this demographic shift. 

To meet the needs of a population which is much happier ageing at home, we are obliged to substantially increase our housing output and make a concerted effort to boost the regeneration of older stock.

Easier said than done of course, which is a source of great frustration for Lord Best, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Housing for Older People.

Volume housebuilders do not have the public interest in mind

Last week I was invited to address the APPG at the House of Lords. AAA and the APPG share an aspiration for a surge in the creation of great homes fit for later life. The roadblock, according to Lord Best, is the “Oligopoly of volume housebuilders, who control supply and do not have the public interest in mind.”

Following the APPG I enjoyed two high octane days at NatWest HQ with over 400 passionate AAA activists, who definitely do have the public interest in mind. Marking the Agile Ageing Alliance’s 5th anniversary, our objective was to further the agenda articulated in the latest Neighbourhoods of the Future report. Commissioned by Tata Steel, we asked:

In an ideal world, what will our homes and neighbourhoods look like by 2035, and what should we be doing now, to help make that vision a reality?

Grant funding is not the be all and end all

Whilst we are well aware that political constraints are impeding progress across the board, it was reassuring to hear our first keynote speaker of the day, Catherine Davies, Deputy Director, for the Ageing Society Grand Challenge at the Department of Health and Social Care, sharing aspects of a far reaching Ageing Society Grand Challenge strategy, and talking confidently about ISCF funding flowing for the £98 million Healthy Ageing Challenge before the end of this year.

There is a tendency among academics and early stage businesses, to view the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF) as a cure-all panacea, especially when talking about R&D specific to healthy ageing. While I am a huge advocate for the mainstream Innovate UK style funding, supporting the future needs of an ageing population is a particularly complex challenge, and I believe it is only right and proper that before launching UKRI should be looking for evidence of joined up thinking, taking account of the primary drivers: Likelihood of social and commercial impact; strategically sound commitment from universities, local authorities and entrepreneurial SMEs; together with system integrators and critically, industrial stakeholders willing to match fund and help promote scale and sustainability.

In the interest of transparency, I should remind readers that AAA has quite a lot of skin invested in this particular game. Last year we submitted an ISCF Expression of Interest to “Reimagine our Neighbourhoods of the Future”. Led by Tata Steel, the AAA consortia included over 50 like-minded private, public and 3rd sector partners and a £20 million commitment to get the ball rolling from Tata Steel.

The UKRI Steering Board review panel agreed that ours was “a compelling challenge area which could have a transformational social and economic impact on the UK construction and healthy ageing sectors.” The panel also said that “the challenge would benefit from having a sharper focus supported with matched funding from a larger consortium, encompassing more of the housing supply chain, and from fully considering the issue of customer pull, given the complexity of this area.”

Where there is a will

Fair enough, at least we know we are on the right track. And the good news is not all local authorities are sitting around waiting for government funding in order to act.

Following the UKRI panel’s advice, AAA and Tata have been talking with progressive council’s and universities who came together last week to share plans for exciting projects in the pipeline, involving Coventry, Greater Manchester, Newcastle, Stirling, and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.

Property developer Jonathan Parnes, CEO of Regents Regeneration, spoke enthusiastically of Regents’ aim to establish the UK’s first Neighbourhood of the Future in time for Coventry's tenure as the UK City of Culture in 2022.

Johnathan told us that "It's time to reimagine supply chain dynamics and the volume construction process employing Modern Methods of Construction. This ensures that a large housing scheme will take 14, rather than 24-30 months for a traditional build. While the method is tried and tested, it’s the scale of application we are proposing that is disruptive, along with the additional infrastructure that goes with it."

According to Jonathan, Regents' homes will incorporate "the recommended `cognitive' systems, including health-based monitoring and environmental controls and will adapt in form as people's needs change."

Working in partnership with Coventry University, Jonathans' vision includes a modular factory producing 300 + homes for a multigenerational city centre exemplar, incorporating innovations consistent with the AAA’s Neighbourhoods of the Future white papers, commissioned respectively by McCarthy & Stone 2017, and Tata Steel 2019. Regents has captured the essence of this vision in a short video which you can see here.

Defining and sharing best practice

In research terms there is much going on in the housing and healthy ageing space, but few beacons of best in practice; best in knowledge, best in experience and best in impact.

With a view to addressing this deficit AAA has hooked up with the Bartlett Real Estate Institute at UCL. At Congress, Bartlett Director Andrew Edkins spoke about our aspirations to establish an innovation hub which will collaborate – in an equitable spirit of open innovation - with leading universities and research institutions to signpost the latest developments in knowledge, policy & regulation, commercial practice and third sector activity that link the principles of Agile Ageing with the built environment. While primary focus will be UK specific, we intend to adopt a global agenda by partnering with countries actively undertaking similar inter and trans-disciplinary working (e.g. Japan, Netherlands, Italy).

There are two very distinct sides to the Neighbourhoods of the Future proposition. New developments, as illustrated by Regents Regeneration’s Coventry project referenced above. And then, to quote another distinguished AAA key note speaker Sue Adams, CEO of Care & Repair England: “With 80% of the homes we will be living in by 2050 already built, retrofit is the big story in ageing.”

Given that AAA Congress featured over 50 speakers across two action packed days, and I have already written twice as many words as I had anticipated. The only way I can cover sufficient ground to help make sense of such a complex challenge is to split my report. Click here to read part two, featuring John Godfrey, Director of Corporate Affairs for Legal and General, with more from Sue Adams.

I will also cover Health/Care and NHS integration and we'll share some insights from our neighbours who attended Congress to talk about the fruits of their own projects across Europe.

Until then, Stay Agile.

Image: Members of the Regents Regeneration, Coventry University, AAA team hope to launch the first Neighbourhood of the Future this year.