Why are older people exempted from the impact of welfare reform?

Elderly people commonly underoccupy property, overconsume assets, and put pressure on rent and house prices

First of all let’s get the personal issues out of the way. I would already qualify for older persons’ housing myself, and I have supported my father and mother-in-law through the difficult process of admission to care homes.

The debate over the government’s social care white paper has focused minds on the demographic time bomb and its costs. The expectation that elderly people will have to put aside up to £100,000 to pay for their care and support has divided opinion. As Michael Portillo put it, people see the equity in their homes as money for a rainy day; if you need care and support, it’s already raining.

So why is it that older people have been shielded from most of the impact of welfare reform? They will not suffer the bedroom tax – a reduction in benefits for under-occupation of social housing, yet they commonly underoccupy property in all sectors, overconsuming assets, putting pressure on rent and house prices and often living lonely and impoverished lives.

Older people can opt to have their rent paid direct to their landlord, even though their financial affairs will often be much more stable than people of working age in low-paid employment. The benefit cap is unlikely to affect their ability to meet their housing costs; it impacts on larger families because their living costs are so much greater, leaving less money for rent.

The only change that may adversely affect them is a reduction in benefits for non-dependent members of the household. This may have the perverse consequence that older tenants invite children of working age to move on, creating more underoccupancy and greater pressure on the housing market.

The consequences of these policies are visible all around us. Where I live in north London the local almshouse charity is resorting to advertising for tenants for a lovely terrace of one bedroom homes on the church green. Meanwhile larger family homes house just one or two empty-nesters, and properties held by older tenants in the social sector are passed on to sons and daughters under the rights of succession, perpetuating welfare dependency.

But wait, necessity (or austerity) is the mother of invention. When I acted as judge for a housing awards ceremony last year, there were four fantastic projects helping elderly underoccupiers to move to more appropriate homes.

It isn’t the money that causes older people to stay in homes that no longer suit them. What they need is a quality housing offer for the active elderly with intensive help and support during the process of moving. Living in smaller accommodation with access to support, life expectancy and happiness both rise.

Mervyn Jones is director of housing consultancy at Savills

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