We have just been given an object lesson in “how not to propose a new Government policy”. Grab half an idea, claim it is an important new initiative, push it out to catch a headline at the start of a new year, then announce it with bold bluster and a cheery smile.
The luckless champion of this new policy is Grant Shapps – the Housing Minister. His proposal was to encourage older people to move out of their large family houses into smaller homes. As an approach it has great merit and it is something I have been doing for the last thirty years. However, the inept way in which this initiative was launched means that it was greeted with howls of derision and scare-mongering headlines.
The consequence of this three steps forward, two steps back accidental strategy is that little is likely to come from it and an opportunity to address a vitally important issue for the elderly and the country as a whole, has been lost.
Let’s go back a few months and look at the clarion call that first revived this issue in the headlines. In October 2011, a little known and curiously named think tank “The Intergenerational Foundation” published a report crassly entitled “Hoarding of Housing”. It highlighted some significant figures:-
- There are 25 million surplus bedrooms in under-occupied houses in England;
- 33% of all households are under-occupied;
- Downsizing amongst the over 65’s has stagnated.
Unfortunately, the headline of the report guided shallow minded journalists into focussing on how the elderly could be driven from under-occupying their family homes. The spiteful thought planted in the full text of the 34 page report was that older people were “hoarding” their houses at the expense of families who desperately need them. This gross distortion of the situation meant that any prospect of the report being treated seriously was rapidly dismissed by blizzard of newspaper shouts of “shame”. No housing minister could ever admit to championing this report. Mr Shapps said “we do not agree that older people should be taxed or bullied out of their homes”.
All was not entirely lost, a spark was kindled and the Government quickly reached for another idea.
Redbridge Local Authority deserves credit for bringing forward this initiative. It enables elderly owner occupiers to move into more suitable smaller houses without having to sell their home. The Local Authority will then rent the larger house to a family and pass on the rental income to the elderly person. In principle it seems like a useful option which may entice a few people to move, although their extra income may well disqualify them from welfare support which owning their own home would not have.
Mr Shapps has thrust this idea into the limelight as an example of how his new strategy for reducing under occupation of housing can work. However, it feels more like clutching at straws rather than a carefully considered housing strategy. By concentrating on under-occupation it immediately puts people on the back foot. The press starts to talk about compulsion and this just engenders fear amongst the elderly. An almost hysterical full-page article in the Daily Mail by Brenda Almond, a “nutty” Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy at the University of Hull, talks about the prospect of elderly people being:-
- “urged by municipal meddlers to get out”
- “properties being commandeered”
- “homeowners pulling down walls to reduce the number of bedrooms”
What silly nonsense! But it’s only given a hearing by hastily launched half-baked policies.
There are lots of elderly people who would benefit from a move out of a home that has become too large to maintain, too expensive to heat and too isolated from once familiar neighbours to feel safe and secure. The drivers for a move are already there, compulsion is neither needed or helpful.
I have been privileged to be involved in building thousands of retirement houses over the years and if they provide independent living of a good standard with a degree of support, they are an attractive option for many elderly people. The Minister needs to make positive steps not beat people with a stick.