I was delighted to speak about Bagnall Heights yesterday in the debate in Parliament on the effect of the Covid-19 outbreak on the retirement community housing sector:
It is perhaps unusual that I am contributing to a debate introduced by the hon. Member for Strangford, rather than the other way round, but I wanted to contribute because I have a number of retirement villages in my constituency that offer a fantastic service, a real alternative to independent living in later life. I want to talk about how they tackled covid in a way that was as kind as it could be. Let us be clear: there is nothing about the pandemic that I like. I do not particularly like the fact that we are in the Boothroyd Room rather than the Grand Committee Room for a Westminster Hall debate, even though I fought very hard as Chair of the Procedure Committee to get this room opened up because it can host hybrid proceedings.
I do not like not being with my family and friends and not being able to see people freely, and I do not like what has happened to the more elderly in our communities. In my constituency, loneliness and social isolation have been prevalent among the elderly during the pandemic, and I want to talk about the role that retirement villages have played. Also, I want to talk about the role that I think they can play in the future provision of health and social care.
By retirement villages, I mean places with independent living: campus-based community living, but each individual or couple living independently. People have their own home and their own furniture. It is equipped for them to live the way they want to live, but in a communal setting. There are shared communal facilities with club rooms, restaurants, hairdressers, gyms and spas, and sometimes even swimming pools in what we might call the more desirable accommodation. They offer an alternative way of life for those who are post their careers, an alternative that perhaps means they can have a longer independent life than they might have had if they had stayed in their own homes.
As I say, I have a number of retirement villages in Staffordshire Moorlands. We have an older-than-average population, demographically, by which I mean that proportionally, there are more people aged over 55 in my constituency than there are in others. We therefore have an awful lot of traditional retirement homes, traditional care homes, traditional home care services and the housing with care alternative—independent living. One that I have visited on a number of occasions is Bagnall Heights. For people travelling into the moorlands through Light Oaks, Bagnall is the first village that they see after leaving Stoke-on-Trent. In fact, Bagnall Heights could be called the gateway to Staffordshire Moorlands. It is owned by the Vincent family, David and Phil, and run by the fantastic Sue Clarke.
I have had many visits to Bagnall Heights, and I have always been made incredibly welcome. I have also always been incredibly challenged by the residents, who very much enjoy getting a politician in and grilling them. They have had a difficult time during covid, as has everybody. Sue Clarke contacted me thanks to the work of Councillor Sybil Ralphs MBE, who is leader of Staffordshire Moorlands District Council and represents Bagnall at ward level. I will read out what Sue said, because she put it incredibly well and there is no point trying to paraphrase her. She said:
“Here at Bagnall Heights we have done amazingly well as we went in lockdown as soon as we had the information and as we were in a gated complex, we were able to monitor anyone coming in and out. We have always had plenty of PPE available and always done temperature checks on everyone and we have never let our care staff go home in uniforms since we opened.”
That is not just during covid; it is a full-stop thing for Bagnall Heights. She continued:
“We arranged for all residents and staff to have Covid Vaccinations”.
Sue said that residents had both by May and staff had both by April 2021, and she went on:
“We have done shopping for residents to cut the risk of families coming on site and we have managed to keep our residents all safe by working together as a community and with the help of excellent staff working all hours this has worked well.
"We only let deliveries come to reception and leave everything with us so we were able to deliver to residents’ homes. The same with milk and papers. We have always had a good relationship with our 84 residents and were able to keep a close eye on everyone and know if they were feeling low and we were there to offer support with care needs or just as a friend. The families and friends of our residents know that they only need to call the manager if they needed to pass anything on or ask our advice on anything.
"Here at Bagnall Heights we are set in beautiful gardens”— I can absolutely vouch for that— and were able when restrictions were lifted to organise Sir Lee Pearson, who is one of our local celebrities, and a Paralympic gold medallist several times over, to come and give us a dressage with his gold medal Olympic winning horse Zion, and a local band playing in the gardens and all the residents were able to sit in the grounds at social distance and have a wonderful afternoon with ice cream van that they went up to one by one to stay safe. We also had meals delivered by local pubs/chip shops and we delivered them to the residents to keep everyone safe.
"We also did Quizzes weekly and raffles and exchanged cheques for cash so they did not go short of anything they wanted.
"We are registered with the county council to do weekly Lateral flow tests for our residents and twice weekly for staff and staff also have one PCR test a week. Before this we had them delivered and registered with the NHS.
"We have now organised 6 residents per day to go in the lounge together for chats and to let us monitor track and trace if we did ever have anyone to test positive. This also lets us do a thorough clean each day. We have always done touch point cleaning 3 times a day on a rota throughout the pandemic. We make the Paramedics and Doctors smile when they come as they say we are the only ones that check their temperatures before letting them enter.
"We all work as a team and to get through this we must appreciate that the government have had very hard decisions to make and need us all to help and work with each other. This has been so hard and now we all feel that we must try to get back to some normality.
"It has been my pleasure working with such dedicated and loyal staff in such difficult circumstances, and for a company that cares. Bagnall Heights is more than just a retirement Village that offers care.”
That was Sue Clarke, the estate manager for Bagnall Heights. Once David Vincent found out that this debate was happening, he called to make sure that we heard from him. He made it clear that Bagnall Heights had taken a very proactive approach. He said that if a resident had to attend hospital, for whatever reason, the staff made sure that the resident went into their independent, private home and isolated for the requisite number of days before they went to hospital, and a designated carer moved into their home to isolate with them and look after them. He says they are a well-knit community within a community and felt that everyone was cautious on the whole. To me, that speaks of a real success story in dealing with covid. It has been difficult for everybody, but to hear what the management at Bagnall Heights have done—I can vouch that this is also happening at retirement villages around the country; it is not unique to Bagnall Heights—shows what can be done by a community working together in the way that they have.
That takes me on to my more general points about housing with care facilities—retirement villages. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, the statistical evidence is that they have dealt with covid in a safer way than other, comparable facilities. As he said, the St Monica Trust and the Housing Learning and Improvement Network published research in April showing that only 0.97% of housing with care residents died from covid-19 between March and December, compared with 1.09% of those of the same age living in the wider community. That might not sound like a very big number, but when we are only talking about relatively small numbers, percentage-wise, of people dying from covid who contract it anyway, the fact that the number was lower in that cohort indicates real success. The majority of housing with care operators also had no or very few confirmed or strongly suspected covid cases during each month in 2020, with fewer than 1% of residents with covid-19 in any of their properties through to November last year.
I think this is a real model for how care can be provided. I want to be clear: I am not criticising traditional models of care homes or retirement living. There has to be a full suite of facilities available, so that the right facility is available to the right person. It would be absolutely inappropriate for Government, Ministers or an MP to suggest what would be right for any individual, but this is a lifestyle approach for those in later life that I think should be considered more. It is worth noting that only 0.6% of over-65s in the United Kingdom, or one in 200, live in one of these kinds of facilities, whereas in the US, New Zealand and Australia the figure is closer to 5% to 6%, or one in 20. If 10 times as many people proportionately are living in them in other places, we might want to consider why that is.
The hon. Member for Strangford said—this has come from the Associated Retirement Community Operators—that it is partly down to the lack of sector-specific regulation and legislation, but I think it is also down to other things. In part, I think it is because this kind of facility needs to be looked at with a cross-Government approach. ARCO is calling for a cross-Government taskforce. I would urge the Minister to consider that, because this is not an issue that merely sits within the Department of Health and Social Care, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government or any other Department. It is a cross-Government issue that needs to be looked at in the round.
Indeed, there is a real opportunity to use this kind of facility to assist with the housing crisis and bring it into the debate about the housing crisis. One of the operators told me that every night there are 20 million spare bedrooms in homes of elderly people who are living in the old family home but have not yet downsized. Twenty million spare bedrooms a night goes a long way to tackling affordable housing needs in certain parts of the country. That has to be part of the agenda and discussion.
There is an opportunity for people to move into housing with care, and the attraction is that care can then be provided at home if needed. Care can, of course, be provided in family homes, but they often have to be adapted at great expense. Perhaps people feel they do not want that to happen in their home and they end up going into care homes unnecessarily, when they would not want to go into a traditional care home and it is not right for them, but it is the only option available at the time. Those in independent living—in housing with care facilities—have that care provided at home. Few of the people living in those facilities end up going into care homes. That has to be part of the answer to the care crisis. I am well aware that it is not the only answer, but it has to be part of it.
I am a big supporter of retirement villages, including those in my constituency, and a big supporter of making sure that they are part of the Government’s approach to dealing with the housing crisis for younger people and the care crisis for the elderly. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and shadow Ministers.