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Age old questions

Eleanor Young

As the population ages, local moves to prepare for more, older, people are the initiatives that are making the difference. The North East is ahead of the game

Britain’s population is ageing. In the North East it is ageing fastest of all, particularly in Northumberland. Projections from the Office of National Statistics show that about a third of the population here is over 65. By the time you reach the ONS’s predictions for 2033, these figures apply to an area that has expanded inland from the coastal and market towns. And that ignores the impact of the ‘young old’, which is predicted to see nearly half of Northumberland’s residents reaching the age of 50 or beyond by 2021. 

In 2009 Northumberland County Council recognised this with a report that laid out the challenge of the changing demographic. It used a three phase definition of age: older workers, third agers and older people in need of care. ‘This is a very current area of policy,’ says the county’s principal spatial planner Peter Rutherford. Population growth at the moment is driven by older people coming to seaside and market towns with attractive landscape and heritage, such as Berwick-­upon-Tweed and Hexham. Like all those discussing an ageing population, he sees both pluses and minuses. 

But the upside of economically active older people and those with the disposable income to justify the term silver/grey pound are not what bother him; it is the cost. Much of the burden of care in old age is paid for by the local authority. 

The local plan to 2031, now under consultation, aims for nothing less than a shift in the demographic projections. ‘In policy terms it is what most councils in the North East and Scotland are doing,’ he explains. ‘We are chasing young people and younger capital. If we don’t create policies for a competitive social and economic future then it is rather bleak.’ He wants to set the conditions for a generation of individuals not only to choose Northumberland but also to want to set up business there.

Housing calls
The second part of this twin-pronged approach is housing, to answer need and bring investment. In the current climate, this is only going to come from the market, Rutherford explains. And where housebuilders want to build – on the edge of market towns – is not where existing residents want development. But the greenbelts that have ­protected these settlements from growth over the last 25 to 30 years will have to be redrawn if Northumbria is to defy its ageing projections, he insists. And only the freedom that this brings for development will ensure there is the money to deal with areas like Ashington in the north east of the county, which are blighted by housing market failure. 

Many heads have puzzled over what an ageing population means for society, our environment and plans for the future. The RIBA’s 
Building Futures think tank has looked at the positive potential of active third agers. One section posits a seaside economy based on a mix of quality of life, ageing workforce and specialist knowledge and industry (see box). 

However, the proportion of older people affects the economy. We know that to keep them happy, healthy and housed needs a certain forethought and planning if they are not to be isolated. Catharine Ward Thompson, director of the OPENspace Research Centre in Edinburgh, was also director of the I’DGO Consortium, a major multi-­university research project into inclusive design in the outdoor environment. While many of the proposals in this, and indeed the World Health Organisation report Global Age-Friendly Cities (2007), focus on issues that would encourage individuals of any age to use their environment actively and healthily, Ward Thompson stresses the ­importance of a safe and easily navigable environment from the moment older people leave their front door. She points to active groups such as Newcastle’s Age Friendly City Group who will go and audit certain areas. 


‘We are chasing young people and younger capital. If we don’t create policies for a competitive social and economic future then it is rather bleak’

The Newcastle location of this group is indicative of the city’s commitment, in 2011, to be an age friendly city. It has some stake in leading on this given the University’s Institute for Ageing and Health, which is based on the Campus for Ageing and Vitality, and has argued that working with older people can give the city an advantage. Whitley Bay based ­architect  Neil Barker is chair of the Chamber of Commerce and has been working with the university, councillors, planners, a developer’s group called Developing Consensus, and business improvement district NE1, to ensure age friendly issues are seen as important. Local practice Ryder’s work around the city’s Central Station will be informed by them and they are embedded in the draft ­local plan. RIBA North East is also preparing a new document, Lifescape, on the impact of the ageing process on the built environment. Previous research into such forward thinking strategies shows they take around 10 years to reach fruition. So watch this space. 

Could a third-age skill cluster around media and entertainment turn film into a visitor experience in a reinvigorated Blackpool?
Could a third-age skill cluster around media and entertainment turn film into a visitor experience in a reinvigorated Blackpool? Credit: Patrick Vale

2030 Enterprise-on-sea, 
A Sea Change in our Coastal Towns 

The seaside town of 2030 is no longer a place of significant social and economic decline with high unemployment and poor levels of education. The trend for older people to move to the coast in later life continued after 2013, but with the threshold between working life and retirement becoming increasingly blurred, the rise of the active Third Age proved a catalyst for wholesale re-birth. The presence of an educated, skilled workforce brought in much needed investment and began to shape a new economic purpose and identity, bespoke to each town but united as a riposte to the traditional tourism model of the past. While coastal tourism was born in the days of the industrial revolution, as an escape from dirty, polluted cities, there was no reason, in the modern world, why industry and tourism should be so starkly separated. New specialist industries were well suited to a location outside England’s main cities, and encouraged to work in tandem with tourism to revive both the economic structure and the unique identity of coastal towns. Private companies that increasingly welcomed older employees were encouraged to invest in coastal areas, forming strategic partnerships with the local authority. The Coastal Communities Fund, set up by the government back in 2012, acknowledged the public sector role in stimulating investment and became key to unlocking the potential of demographic change and the impact the active Third Age could have at town scale.

A new model of identity-led regeneration has merged; each location being defined by a different industry combining tourism, production and training. It is even reflected in retirement homes with career type specialisms giving residents the confidence that they will be living among those with similar interests. This layered economy provides a resilient and sustainable structure. 

Edited extract from RIBA Building Future’s Silver Linings. 
Download the full document at

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