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Feature: The need to integrate social care with the planning sector

Christopher Collett, Associate at Carter Jonas London explains why the government must integrate social care with housing, health and the planning sector too.

Last month, the Government published its long-awaited Social Care White Paper, People at the Heart of Care.

The White Paper recognises the crisis that the social care sector faces, but despite a £300m commitment for housing, it was widely criticised.

Hugh Alderwick, head of policy at The Health Foundation stated that it ‘falls well short of what is needed to deliver the prime minister’s promise to ‘fix’ social care once and for all’ and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt berated his own Party’s policies for taking ‘three steps forward, two steps back’.

The White Paper’s emphasis on housing is specifically focused on supporting care in individuals’ homes.

A new service is planned, to make minor repairs and changes to people’s homes to help them remain independent at home, and an increase to the upper limit of the Disabled Facilities Grant for home adaptations such as stairlifts, wet rooms and home technologies is intended to ensure that more care is provided at home.

top-view photography of houses at daytime

In fact, the White Paper goes as far as stating that its objective is to ‘shift away from a reliance on residential care’. While this approach is undoubtedly good news for many, it raises concerns in relation to the already unprecedented shortage of residential social care provision which is often the only option for those most in need of care.

Not only is funding for such schemes threatened, but planning policy also has the effect of thwarting much needed social care provision. Recently amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order have allowed for greater change of use between use classes, in creating the all-encompassing Class E.

This not only allows for change of use between a wide range of ‘commercial, business and services’ (those as diverse as offices, health centres, creches, gyms and even light industrial use) but also allows for these uses to be converted to homes under Permitted Development Rights.

But the provision of care homes continues to be restricted by the planning system and the continued lack of clear, local planning policy direction. When Planning Use Classes were amended to allow considerably more flexibility, Use Class C2, under which residential care homes fall (along with hospitals, nursing homes, boarding schools, residential colleges and training centres) remains a narrow use class. The Use Class system still fails to recognise the wide variety of residential care models that are now available.

Class E was clearly a response to the ‘perfect storm’ that was engulfing the high street: not only the pandemic but also the long-term effects of out-of-town retail parks and online shopping.

Back in 2018, the retail expert Bill Grimsey published The Vanishing High Street which concluded that high streets could no longer rely solely on retail and that they ‘need to be repopulated and re-fashioned as community hubs, including housing, health and leisure, entertainment, education, arts, business/office space and some shops’.

Post-pandemic, that argument is stronger than ever. And yet while medical/health services and day centres are seen as benefiting the high street, social care and retirement homes are not. The refusal, in October 2020, to allow Guild Living to build 222 retirement homes in Walton on Thames town centre suggests that some local authorities and communities are yet to be convinced of these benefits: the planning application was rejected on the basis that the development would damage the vitality of the town centre.

More specifically, the LPA stated that, ‘The proposed development fails to make efficient use of land by providing the type of accommodation (C2 Use Class) for which there is no short or medium-term need,’ and that, ‘The application fails to demonstrate whether any alternative mixed-use would be viable and feasible to support diversity in the town centre…it fails to add to the centre’s competitiveness and would undermine the vitality and viability of the town centre.’

At the time of the decision, the developer accused the Council of ageism, winning support from Age Concern, and in June 2021 Guild Living won an appeal on the basis of the social, economic and environmental benefits that the scheme would bring, along with its significant contribution to the supply of housing and specialist accommodation both locally and nationally.

The benefits of providing residential homes and housing in sustainable locations are multiple: for those who reside there and can enjoy both local amenities and essential facilities, but also for the town and city centres which benefit from the enhanced vitality and viability that such schemes bring.

The recent Social Care White Paper committed to a ‘joined-up way to deliver the best possible outcomes for their communities.’ In his seminal research paper on the retirement sector Too little, Too Late? Housing for an ageing population, Les Mayhew, Professor of Statistics at Cass Business School calls for a more ‘joined-up approach between departments dealing with housing and health’.

The Government’s investment in social care is of course welcomed, but to be successful the approach must be joined up – not only within housing, health and social care, but with the planning sector too.

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