It is a familiar story: rapidly rising numbers of older people, more people living alone and nowhere near enough affordable, quality houses to accommodate them all. Add that to climate change and the challenge to the government quickly becomes evident.
Global threats naturally demand global solutions and the government has come up with what it regards as an environmentally sound answer to the housing crisis. As part of its programme to build three million new houses by 2020, it proposes to create 10 “ecotowns”, small new towns of “at least” 5,000 to 20,000 homes constructed according to established ecological principles.
For social care professionals they offer more than an opportunity for purer air and a daintier carbon footprint. It is a chance to rethink the way they work with colleagues in education, health and other agencies to give life to fledgling communities while learning from the errors of the past.
While the government’s stated purpose is that the ecotowns should be green, carbon-neutral developments based on the best new designs and architecture, much of it will be accomplished by conventional means. Fifty local authority bids have been submitted to build the towns on brownfield sites and work is likely to begin on one in each region of the country in the next two years.
Although they are expected to be sustainable communities in their own right, they will need to have good links to nearby towns in terms of jobs, transport and services. Each ecotown should have its own secondary school, shopping, business and leisure facilities. Between 30% and 50% of the housing will be “affordable”.
As a new model of urban living it offers social care professionals a chance to help mould communities in a way that minimises risks to the individuals who live in them and promotes their well-being. “Affordable housing will be essential,” says Southampton’s director of health and social care John Beer. “You want local keyworkers to live on the patch, not in the ‘white highlands’.”
Ecotowns could even bring on a revival of community social work, which, according to the Barclay report published 25 years ago when interest in the concept was at its height, requires of the social worker an “attitude of partnership”. The report added: “Clients, relations, neighbours and volunteers become partners with the social worker in developing social care networks.”
Mixed communities with cheaper housing will encourage professionals to live among the service users they support in the best traditions of community social work. “In those days keyworkers were accessible to the people they worked with – ex-offenders, kids leaving care and so on,” Beer says. “It was about social workers living locally, being available and community-based rather than creating a two-tier society in which the professionals live somewhere else.
“If you were starting from scratch what would you want? For a start you’d want to design out crime rather than design it in as has happened in the past. The levels of street lighting need to be right and there need to be places for young people to go. It’s about designing out the things that damage communities. You’d want food stores that didn’t involve driving the car to reach them, so you’d need high density housing to make local shops economically sustainable.”
Neighbourhoods will be laid out so as to promote walking and cycling. Community-based social workers would also help to limit unnecessary car journeys.
New ecotowns will have the example of Hertfordshire adult care services to follow, where the workplace has been reorganised to cut down on staff journeys to head office. “Touchdown bases” have been set up across the county, in libraries, hospitals, district council offices and other locations, where social care staff issued with laptops can log on at special work stations.
“They don’t have to come into the office whenever they want to write reports or retrieve documents as they can go to one of the touchdown bases instead,” says Earl Dutton, Hertfordshire assistant director (older people and physical disability). Dutton admits that there are no targets for cutting carbon emissions, but says the reorganisation is about more than making efficiency savings. Social workers who are out in the field now have to hot-desk, one consequence of slashing the county’s 52 offices to just three.
“We’re looking at a policy to see whether staff can be given an incentive to buy greener cars,” Dutton says, “and when several clients have been placed outside the county by different teams we’re looking at whether one social worker can visit them all rather than have several social workers do it.”
If mixed communities will be essential to the success of the ecotowns, Beer dismisses the fashionable notion of lifelong homes adapted to the requirements of youth and age. What is needed instead, he says, is small communities with a variety of housing types from student flats to family homes and houses intended for older people who may also have disabilities.
Beer adds: “You may be able to build lifelong homes by widening the doors for wheelchair access among other things, but do you have older people continuing to live in three- or four-bedroom family homes or do you ask them to move 100 yards around the corner to a place much more tailored to their needs? I’d say the latter.”
Need for innovation
Ecotowns will have to assert their environmental credentials in innovative ways, although the higher capital costs of buildings may be clawed back in tax breaks and lower running expenses. Homes in the 10 towns will be built to zero-rated carbon standards, and they will be exempt from stamp duty. Energy supplies will be generated locally from sustainable sources, such as solar and wind power, but in this case higher costs will be mitigated by more effectively insulated houses and facilities like zero-carbon schools and health centres.
“In mainland Europe there isn’t a peak of people dying in the winter, whereas here there is because the cold is exacerbated by poor insulation, ineffective heating and having to go out for shopping in ice and snow,” Beer says. “Efficiently heated, properly insulated carbon-neutral homes should make a positive impact here, and they should have internet access so that it isn’t necessary to go out to the shops in inclement weather. We need to concentrate on helping 70-year-olds to use the internet, not just for shopping but for keeping in touch with the world, for finding out what’s going on socially in the locality.”
Internet training could be organised through the well-being centres likely to be a feature of ecotowns, where the aim will be to promote good health among older people.
“Well-being centres will focus on keeping people fit,” says Beer, who likes the idea of “gym on the rates”. “GPs can prescribe healthy activities – it’s a fact that if you promote well-being among older people they’re less likely to be depressed.”
As a result, ecotowns will have only a modest requirement for residential care. They won’t have “granny ghettos” because communities will comprise people of all ages, forming the basis of the social care networks which it will be the role of community social workers to foster. Beer says: “What happens normally is that older people lose confidence as they become more frail – they can’t run the house or manage the garden, they get worried about kids roaming around outside. If you look at the precipitating factors for people going into residential care, most of them are preventable.
“Ecotowns are a very valid concept, but they need to be built primarily because they are good for people rather than good for levels of carbon dioxide. You’ve got to start where people are, then lead them to where you think they can have a better life.”
For more information on ecotowns see the Town and Country Planning Association’s web pages