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New use class recommended for retirement living communities

The critical need for specialist housing for older people in England is well-documented, as are the difficulties faced by developers endeavouring to provide such housing, including uncertainty as to which use class applies.

The June 2021 report of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee England,  recommending that the Government create a new C2R use class for retirement communities, is therefore likely to come as welcome news for developers and local authorities alike as, if implemented, it would go some way to providing the certainty and clarity that those in the sector have long been calling for.

According to a definition provided by the Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), retirement communities (also referred to as extra care housing, housing with care or assisted living) combine “high quality housing options for older people with tailored support services” … “allowing residents to rent or own a property and maintain  their privacy and independence, with the reassurance of 24-hour on-site staff, communal facilities and optional care and support as need”. As such, retirement community developments “bridge the gap” between market housing and nursing homes and are a key tool to meet the need for specialist housing for older people. It is crucial that the planning system aides, rather than obstructs, the planning for and delivery of high quality retirement communities.

The current Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987 defines Use Class C2 as including use for the provision of residential accommodation and care to people in need of care (provided the use does not fall within Use Class C3) and nursing homes. Use Class C3 includes use as a dwelling by a single person or a family or by not more than 6 residents living together as a single household, including where care is provided (these Use Classes are unchanged by the recent amendments).

The binary terms of the current planning use class system have led to a lack of consistency in how retirement communities, which typically combine elements of class C2 (residential institutions) and class C3 (dwellinghouses), are classified. As a result, the planning process for delivering much needed specialist housing for older people is anything but streamlined.  Issues arise as to which planning policies apply to the developments, particularly in respect of affordable housing.

A new fit for purpose C2R classification could go some way to streamline the planning process for much needed retirement communities however the devil will be in the detail -  the Committee’s Report is silent as to what criteria a development would need to meet in order to be classified as use class C2R. The Planning for Retirement Report published by ARCO in June last year  set out some potential criteria for the C2R classification based on suggestions from operators:

  • provision of substantial communal facilities including leisure and dining facilities, staff offices and treatments
  • meals available to residents
  • 24/7 staff availability
  • CQC registered domiciliary care agency based on site, along with regular CQC inspections to confirm the quality of the care being provided
  • provision of care either by the operator themselves or in close partnership with a high quality partner
  • provision of high levels of service detailed in the lease so that staffing levels, meal services etc. cannot be withdrawn
  • age restrictions, which could be higher than age 55 (according to the report, the average age of entry into retirement communities was in the late 70s – on this basis age restrictions of 65 were thought to be acceptable provided there was scope for the local authority to agree to occupation by younger residents in need of care or partners of older residents).

There is obviously some way to go before any new use class would become a reality and although it would by no means be without its challenges, it would certainly be a step in the right direction and may finally put the age old C2/C3 debate to rest. The proposed new use class could be supported by clearer guidance from the Government about assessing and meeting the need for C2R housing and the type of section 106 obligations that should apply (particularly in respect of affordable housing) to ensure viability.

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