Sheila Pugh is 91 and in good health. She lives on her own in Congleton, Cheshire, where she takes pleasure in cooking for herself and moving about the place with a dustpan and brush, albeit a little gingerly at times. She has a private garden with a pond and views over arable land.
A lot of her friends and a great number of people of a similar age have had to move into retirement or care homes, cashing in their savings and surrendering their independence in the process. Mrs Pugh’s good fortune and the difference between her and so many other ninetysomethings is simple: she lives in a bungalow. ‘It’s a real lifeline for her,’ says her daughter, who is a friend of mine.
I get that. My parents-in-law moved into a 1960s bungalow in Swaffham, Norfolk, two years ago and although at first it was a wrench to leave their cottage spread over three floors, the move couldn’t have come at a better moment. My father-in-law is 85 and suffering from polymyalgia and my mother-in-law is 81 and struggles to go upstairs unaided. But they are both a long way off a nursing home. Their bungalow has come to the rescue.
So it was good to hear Brandon Lewis, the housing and planning minister, banging the drum for bungalows at last week’s Tory party conference. ‘We need to see more bungalows being built… it is around creating a product that older people find attractive enough that they positively want to move to because there is a psychological barrier to get over.’
Lewis was talking at a fringe meeting. I don’t imagine many head honchos from the big property developers were in the audience, because builders don’t see the point of bungalows — they think ‘single-storey dwellings’ take up too much land space and don’t pay their way. That’s why the number of bungalows being built is declining year by year. It’s about time we cottoned on to this sad state of affairs if we’re serious about finding solutions to the ageing population.
In 1996, 7 per cent of new-builds were bungalows, but by 2013 that figure had slumped to just 2 per cent. It will get worse. The Papworth Trust, which specialises in helping elderly and disabled people live independently, estimates that no new bungalows at all will be built in six years’ time.
Where Lewis is wrong is in suggesting that people have a ‘psychological barrier’ to overcome about bungalows. A snooty few might, but a recent YouGov poll of more than 2,000 adults showed that bungalows are still one of the most popular types of home, with 30 per cent of us saying we would like to move into one in retirement. What’s more, 93 per cent of adults currently living in a bungalow said it ‘makes them happy’ to do so.
We hear a lot about starter homes and how David Cameron wants to turn Generation Rent into Generation Buy, but we don’t hear nearly enough about how to help the elderly avoid becoming institutionalised before they have no other choice. Yes, a lot of people in their seventies or eighties might be living in houses that are too big for them (there are some 25 million spare bedrooms among the older population) but there has to be a tempting alternative if you want to lure people out of spacious family homes. And that’s where the bungalow comes in.
Planning rules up until 2010 have a lot to answer for, not least the one that forced developers into building at least 30 dwellings per hectare — without any consideration of what some of these ghastly sprawls on the outskirts of towns would look like. That particular decree has been revoked but there’s still little appetite for building houses for the infirm, even less for the disabled.
The Papworth Trust estimates that we’re likely to need almost three million more ‘accessible’ homes by 2036 as the population ages. Of the 2.2 million new homes that will be required by 2021, half of those are expected to be homes for those aged 65 or over.
When constructing an argument for more bungalows, there’s room for a brick or two of nostalgia, but they are not, as Lewis has claimed in the past, ‘quintessentially British’. They were originally conceived by Indian builders in Bengal during the 18th century and made their debut here in the 1860s. In the 1920s we sent prefabricated versions to America, South Africa, Canada and Australia — and even back to India.
Attractive, practical bungalows still thrive in many of those countries, while here they’ve been sacrificed in favour of short-term thinking for which we will all pay the price as life expectancy continues its irresistible rise.