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Planning housing innovation with WYG, Matter Architecture and Hertfordshire University

Above: Dean Court Almshouses walkway (Matter Architecture for Pathways Housing Trust)

Community consultation, Dutch innovation and electric bikes featured in a lively discussion at our March forum on new ideas for housing the elderly, multi-generational living and retro-fitting suburbia. This panel involved debate between planning consultancy WYG, Hertfordshire University and Matter Architecture.

Architect Lucy Block gave a vivid picture of how the traditional almshouse could be updated to accommodate multi-generational living. Her firm Matter Architecture views almshouses, owned and managed by small, local charities as filling a niche area in housing provision, and while unlikely to solve the housing crisis on their own their unusual histories and constitutions mean that they are not subject to the same land pressures as many housing providers and demonstrate means by which the planning system could better support innovation and supply of affordable housing.

Lucy explained that 'The main question we ask is how can different people benefit from multi-generational living. When we interviewed the elderly residents of the almshouses, there were three priorities for them: daylight, views and access to community. We are now speaking to a number of local authorities about our approach and Camden is currently looking at pilot sites for development. We have also looked at the Dutch idea where students commit to spend time with the elderly in a shared development, where the students benefit from discounted accommodation costs.'

The highly experienced planning director Nigel Abbott, from WYG, joined the discussion panel saying that a number of councils across the UK including Mansfield, Birmingham and Essex County Council are looking closely at older people's housing requirements.

'Times are changing. Local government research in last seven years is focusing on the massive need to design better environments for the elderly - we are all getting older, something has to be done. There's a little way to go yet. Some of the solutions for better elderly housing communities are relatively simple such as introducing better lighting, but more importantly, the good news is that more funding is becoming available and it is going to local authorities directly now.

'The trend is to get the elderly to stay in a place that they are familiar with - but this notion is taking time to filter through to every area. Local plans are still catching up with the NPPF which includes parts on housing the elderly. There is no one size fits all. When embarking on age restricted developments it's a good idea to involve future occupants about the design of the scheme, rather than just assuming you know what they want.'

Dr Susan Parham, Head of Urbanism and Planning, University of Hertfordshire, then commented:

'How do you persuade older people to live differently, to mode-shift, perhaps to give up cars and live a more fine-grain, connected life? These (incentives) will be partly fiscal but also it will become increasingly evident that living in a community can be beneficial rather than being isolated, with only a car and a cat for company. We need to re-make built forms rather than being forced into this low density suburban sprawl. For me suburbia is an untapped resource, it's a waste of land, and it's a sustainability problem in a climate change situation. Older people, like everyone else, need to step up if we are going to change the way we live - or otherwise we destroy the planet.'

Responding to Future Cities Forum's Heather Fearfield's question on the feasibility of housing developments becoming a bike-led utopia with the elderly struggling to keep up, Susan said:'The Netherlands bike-based model works because it gives priority to bike users. I have been overtaken on a bike in Holland by many older people, but in the UK it is quite astonishing that HS2 should drop plans for the bike lane that runs along the route. It's for us to reclaim the idea that bike-based movement can be first choice, and this is important for the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford corridor new housing settlements. Comments on the use of electric bikes, particularly for the elderly, as 'cheating' is unhelpful!'

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