Lesley McLeod: Why don’t we design houses to give granny a family home?

Lesley McLeod, CEO ' The Association for Project Safety.
Lesley McLeod, CEO ' The Association for Project Safety.
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We’re none of us ­getting any younger so, when I moved back to ­Edinburgh, I chose as far as ­possible to future-proof my life by buying a ­new-build flat close to the centre.

Improvements to building ­regulations meant I knew I would have ­step-free access and toilet and ­washing facilities on the level. It’s great to have restaurants, bars and theatres almost literally on my doorstep. Certainly, with the capital’s excellent buses, everything is within easy reach.

But I need no support and I’ve fondly assumed I won’t, or will be able to afford it at home. I’ve taken my cue from my mum who is, let’s be ­honest, knocking on a bit. Apart from the limiting effect macular degeneration has had on her ability to get out and about independently, she’s hale and hearty and keen to continue enjoying life. We’re off on holiday in May and we travel widely throughout Europe. There’s Barcelona, with its late-night tapas bars and Athens, where we have a favourite taverna in the picturesque Plaka area of the historic centre. We love the markets, the music and the occasional jug of local wine.

And no one bats an eyelid. When you look around it never seems odd to see groups made up of many ­layered generations. There are grannies and tiny tots. Slicked back boy racers in high-top trainers and suited businessmen. What you don’t get are geriatric-ghettos or girl-gangs where everyone keeps to themselves and their immediate peer group. To me it seems to have a civilising and humanising effect.

I like the mix – but it also highlights concerns I have with the way we’re planning the towns of the future. As the chief executive of the Association for Project Safety, I am in the fortunate position of working with professionals involved with design and construction. Among other things my members are concerned about how we, as a nation, will build and use our homes.

They are involved in the current debate about housing shortages, the need for new homes and the natural focus on younger people wanting to get on the housing ladder. But there is also talk about trading down which seems – to some people, like Mum – like an effort to guilt people out of building ‘family’ homes.

Perhaps older people – or people with special housing needs – don’t want to move or be tidied away.

Whatever happened to mixed communities? It cannot be healthy for society to have such a segregated approach to town planning that ­people end up migrating, like wildebeest to a waterhole, from place to place as they move through life until age and frailty forces them to stop.

Two examples brought this to mind.

A friend is having to build a bespoke home for his daughter to allow a capable young woman to live independently. She is on track to being one of the country’s para-Olympians but, if her parents were not able to help, would find her dreams of gold medals and a home of her own stymied because most of what we are building is inflexible and incapable of adapting to out of the ordinary needs.

Another friend was looking for a care home for his elderly mother. He was stuck between a new – but faceless – facility or a shabbier home with an emphasis on care and support. Neither was cheap, and both relied heavily on carers drawn primarily from Eastern Europe. The homes also unintentionally denied ­residents contact with the young, something that has benefits for both, as Scandinavian planners who build nursery schools and care homes side-by-side recognise. There are also projects in Spain where young ­professionals, looking to save and house share can, in return for ­lower rents, set up home with a surrogate granny who gets help around the house and vibrant company in return.

Instead, either wilfully or not, we seem to be creating segregated ­communities: gravelled and gated-avenues for the over-anxious affluent, or age-group enclaves where everyone is a swinging-singleton, a 2.1-child family or a retiree retreating from life. I’d rather be like a northern white rhino and put out of my misery than forced to lurk in God’s waiting-room pondering an alternative to the meaning of ‘rapid check out’. I’m far too old to live fast and die young but I’d much prefer to see things out with a large gin, a sunny garden and life going on around me.

Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety.