Is Perth catering for an ageing population?

The world’s population is ageing and Australia is no exception. It is estimated that Perth will be home to over 1 million people aged over 65 by 2050. According to a Committee for Perth report, the number of people aged over 80 in Perth has increased 127% in the past 20 years.

The biggest proportion of over 65s, according to the Committee for Perth study in 2014, are in areas such as the Western Suburbs, Fremantle and surrounds as well as the Shires of Murray and Mandurah.

It’s not just an ageing population that we need to grapple with. According to the ABS, our overall population continues to grow at the fastest rate of any capital city in Australia. A recent report by well known demographer Bernard Salt puts Perth’s population at approximately 4.6 million by 2050. That’s double what it is today in just 35 years’ time.

A growing population and in particular an ageing population is already having an impact on our housing needs and the particular demands of our changing demographic will be even more keenly felt in the next thirty years.

Already the ABS statistics report a growing proportion of households made up of couples without children (the increase in empty nesters) and project this type of household will become the most common, overtaking couples with children, by as early as 2023. Let’s get that in perspective, in less than 10 years’ time the most common household will be two people without children. Just two people.

So what does this mean for housing supply in Perth and the regions? Not only will we require enough supply to accommodate a doubling of the population, we will need to have a supply of the right types of housing. This bring me to my first point:

Housing diversity

One of the most obvious outcomes of an ageing population is not only the rise of more couple households, but also the increase in single person residencies. This is particularly the case in terms of older women. Women have a longer life expectancy to men and will make up a large proportion of those requiring suitable housing into the future.

It seems like a basic assumption to make that these smaller households will require smaller housing types. Although this is certainly the case in general, there will be a diversity of housing products required to suit a range of older people’s lifestyles. “Older” doesn’t necessarily mean “elderly” these days as life expectancy continues to increase and people remain active and more than capable of independent living later into their life.

It is predicted that one, two and three bedroom options in a range of locations will be in demand. There will be those people seeking small lots, those wanting lock up and leave homes and those looking for more space to garden and do hobbies.

Many people will also want to stay in their local area if and when they downsize. This means the areas that I mentioned earlier such as in the western suburbs, Fremantle and Mandurah will have to particularly consider the needs of older people’s housing requirements sooner rather than later.

There are government plans, such as Directions 2031, that have attempted to address the issue of planning for housing and infrastructure into the future. However the urgency with which change is required does not seem to have translated into fast enough action on the ground.

The average block size in the Perth Metro area has decreased dramatically in the last five years, down to 428m2. This represents a step in the right direction as it reflects some of the lot diversity that developers have been able to introduce to the market. However the densification and redevelopment of existing areas remains slow, with many local governments not even coming close to the density targets set for them by the state.

The importance of increasing densities in the right areas with the right type of housing is critical. We need to see locations in established areas stepping up to the plate. Redevelopments in areas such as Subiaco and East Perth are excellent examples of how we can achieve more density with a range of housing types.

Public transport

A significant factor for older people’s housing and in fact all future housing supply is access to public transport. Once the ability to drive to appointments or to visit family or other destinations becomes limited, public transport is the key to ensuring continued quality of lifestyle and convenience for older people. Transport needs to be in close proximity to home, fast, efficient, safe and easy to use.

While the debate over the future of Perth’s light rail and other public transport options continues, a decision needs to be made and a long term, strategic plan for Perth’s public transport developed. As recently discussed in a WA Business News report, an integrated transport plan that considers the future of our road network together with public transport, with Main Roads, the Public Transport Authority and other relevant government departments and private industry working together toward a common goal is required.

Pension Asset Test

This discussion is not just about providing the right products and infrastructure. The economic realities of downsizing for older people also needs to be taken into account. Many older West Australians choose to remain in their family home rather than downsize due to the threat of losing all or part of the pension. The value of the family home is not taken into account under the pension asset test until after it is sold. The fear of losing the pension if you sell the family home for over a certain amount is enough to keep many people in inappropriate housing for far too long. QWest Paterson have suggested on a number of occasions that only half the money earned from the sale of the family home should be included in the Pension Asset Test. This would encourage a more natural flow of housing stock as older people move to smaller accommodation and allow their home to either be made available for a larger family or for redevelopment.

Stamp Duty

Stamp Duty is another bug bear that QWest Paterson has raised previously and seriously needs to be addressed. The amount of stamp duty payable on the average home in Perth is north of $20,000. That is a major inhibitor for people to move homes and again halts a natural flow of housing product as people remain in a home that may no longer suit their needs, but don’t want to leave because of the costs associated with moving.

The issues that I have raised here are just a starting point for the action required to ensure that Perth is developing as it should into the future. As Bernard Salt suggests, Perth needs to decide what it wants to look like into the future. With a doubling of the population are we just going to continue to spread out as far as we can or are we going to make a solid effort to reduce urban sprawl and take into account the needs of not only a growing population but an ageing population that will certainly struggle unless the right housing options are provided?