Where will our seniors live?

Many Australian economists and politicians have spent a lot of time in 2015 talking about Australia’s ageing population – how it will change our economy, our workplaces, our communities and society.

However one question hasn’t been asked as much as it should be during these public discussions: where will the next generation of senior Australians live?

The bedrock of economic and community participation for all Australians, including seniors, is a safe, secure and comfortable home. Many are fortunate to be in modern, well designed houses, but too many others are in older, insecure and poorly designed houses that won’t support their desire to ‘age in place’.

Demand for retirement communities is expected to increase sharply – if supply keeps pace, independent forecasts suggest the number of retirement villages will double in the next decade.

Retirement villages are a vital part of the seniors housing mix and, while not all older Australians  want to live in a retirement community, they deliver choice and make almost 200 000 people happy right now  .

However if development rates stay at current levels, this choice will be severely reduced, due to a shortage of new affordable development sites. Recently the Property Council released new research by national planning experts RPS which looked at how current land use policy is unnecessarily inhibiting the development of new and existing retirement villages, especially in inner and middle ring suburbs where demand is normally highest.

RPS neatly categorised the land use and planning policy barriers as the ‘five As’, where reform is urgent:

Awareness: Many state and local governments don’t have an understanding of what retirement villages are – and, just as importantly, what villages aren’t. Many conflate them with residential aged care, when in fact, despite the increased co-location of independent living and aged care services, they are vastly different.

Accessibility: Retirement village developers and operators have difficulty acquiring sites in appropriate locations, due to numerous factors – streamlining planning processes (such as enabling fast track approvals) and identifying land specifically for seniors housing are two of many potential solutions.

Affordability: Unique drivers exist in developing new retirement communities that don’t exist in normal residential development – such as the need to develop common facilities such as a community centre – which can drive up costs. Rate rebates, infrastructure charge exemptions and development bonuses for developing this new community infrastructure will encourage new builds.

Adaptability: The inflexibility of ‘one size fits all’ planning provisions often involves the stringent enforcement of prescriptive accessibility and mobility provisions rather than allowing the provider to design for the future retrofit of those aides when the need arises.

Attitude: The culture and attitude of local governments can override all of the previous four points, and an adversarial and unsupportive authority can lead to delays, cost blowouts and complete withdrawals. Fifty per cent of developers surveyed for the research have pulled out of retirement projects with unsupportive development provisions and development conditions being a key reason.

Despite the necessity of improving understanding and provisioning for villages by local government, a state government response to land use planning issues is just as important, as state policies are the basis for the development of local planning schemes. State governments have an opportunity to lead and affect broad, integrated change. Few local governments are large enough, have sufficient capacity or corporate knowledge to undertake initiatives to respond to this housing shortage.

No one state scored highly in any of the ‘five As’, but some states have taken steps to address the seniors housing shortage. Queensland’s ‘fair value’ schedule, for instance, differentiates retirement facilities from other residential developments. But few local governments have adopted this schedule. Logan City Council in Queensland is an exception, and thus a leader in the industry, applying a flat retirement village infrastructure charge equivalent to a one bedroom apartment, which reflects that extra bedrooms in a retirement village unit do not correlate with higher number of occupants.

There is enough complexity in running a retirement village without poor land use and planning policy adding to the challenge. These developments have a hugely positive net overall benefit to the community - through increased amenities and community interactions for all seniors, delayed and reduced entry into hospital and aged care facilities, to name a few - but without significant reform, the supply of seniors housing will never meet the looming demand we’re about to experience.

First published in Australian Ageing Agenda, November | December 2015 Issue