Maybe it’s my age, but I had more than a sense of déjà vu when Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint announced the government’s policy on lifetime homes this week. It’s great to see the enthusiasm, but it is a bit like watching a teenager discover rock-’n’-roll.
For those who missed this seismic moment, the government has decreed that new standards of accessibility (lifetime homes, to those in the know) should apply to new housing – and that we shouldn’t stop there, but should think in terms of ‘lifetime neighbourhoods’ too. I’m all for this, as I’m already worrying about how I’ll get my pavement buggy down to the local alehouse and back up the hill after a pint or three.
But for those who equate government announcements with action, let’s just pause and consider how long it’s taken to get here. Back in the mid 1990s, I edited a magazine about housing and was quite closely involved in this sort of thing. We ran a campaign calling on the then Tory government and on social landlords, then quaintly known as housing associations, to ensure all new homes were built to lifetime homes standards.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and here’s the announcement we’ve been waiting for. From 2013. Oh, and social housing should lead the way, with new homes conforming to the standards by 2011. And there’ll be a national housing advice service, something else that did the rounds a decade or two ago.
Apart from the sheer cheek of presenting such tardiness as a great leap forward, while giving the construction industry another three years of unsustainable practice, this new national strategy is far less visionary than it purports to be. Lifetime neighbourhoods is a fine concept, but surely there’s more to it than better lighting and appropriately positioned bus stops.
The heart of a neighbourhood is the activity that goes on there, and there’s a great opportunity to invest in neighbourhood centres and organisations that bring older people together, enabling them to use their talents for mutual support and volunteering. People wouldn’t get so irate about post offices closing if something better took their place.
Perhaps the most amusing line in the announcement was this: ‘The government is clear that urgent action is required now to better design communities and support older people.’ Most of us show more urgency in visiting the dentist.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine