Tim Whitaker: Will Sadiq Khan help build an age-friendly London recovery?

Tim Whitaker: Will Sadiq Khan help build an age-friendly London recovery?

Now that Sadiq Khan has been re-elected and is back at his desk, older Londoners will be looking for signs of London becoming more age-friendly at long last. Age didn’t really figure as a political issue during the election campaign. The virtual hustings run by Age UK London heard customary warm words and promises for older people, though both Khan and the Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey were conspicuous by their absence.

The Mayor did, though, write a blog acknowledging there’s more to do to improve the wellbeing and welfare of older people, making reference to tackling loneliness, digital access, transport and housing. Also, his manifesto talked about bringing greater co-ordination to City Hall’s work supporting older Londoners and building on progress with making London a dementia-friendly city, concluding, “I’ll push forward so that London is an age friendly city whatever your circumstances”. But note no firm promise of publishing an age friendly action plan in the first six months of the new term. 

So, can older Londoners take solace from these promises and is an age friendly London high up in Sadiq’s burgeoning in-tray? 

Unfortunately, they’ve been waiting an exceptionally long time. London signed up to becoming an Age Friendly City back in 2018 and, despite work pre-pandemic with stakeholders and age organisations, nothing has yet appeared. This lag contrasts with other cities, notably Manchester which has a clear age-friendly city framework in place, making age a bigger policy issue across all its activities. 

The reasons for this delay, given that the number of over-65s in London will have risen by a third by 2030, is unclear. The London cynic might say there aren’t votes in older people, take a political view that older people are “generally fine” or conclude that age advocates haven’t been forceful or canny enough to push the agenda forward in political terms. But what has changed is Covid and the need for recovery – the now oft-quoted “building back better”. 

The huge death toll for older people is the hallmark of this pandemic. Less visible is the lasting effect of the virus on many of those who have survived it. Like all age groups, older people suffered in different ways with lockdown, yet there is a widespread perception that most older people coped stoically. Surveys of older people in London – and elsewhere in the UK – reveal the reality that older people experienced a litany of problems.

Covid exacerbated many of the problems they face – not just physical health, but also poor housing, loneliness, mental health, poverty, and digital exclusion. Research shows how Covid in London has disproportionately affected low income communities, and these include the quarter of Londoners of pensionable age living in povertyNow we are also seeing older workers facing the prospect of unemployment and difficulties finding work again. They are the second most economically affected age group after young people.

This changes how we need to think about an age friendly London. Urgently tackling the problems facing older Londoners hardest hit – the poor, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds – is fundamental. Recovery needs to be genuinely age-friendly, not one-sided with the needs of older Londoners forgotten or badged in the “vulnerable” category while failing to recognise the active contribution they make to the city.

The London Recovery Board has made a start with its nine broad missions, but each needs to have a specific age plan and more sophisticated age impact assessments. Recovery also needs to be truly London-wide, synchronised with actions London boroughs, health bodies, third sector and other agencies are making. The Mayor’s leadership role in championing an age friendly London will become vital in making this a reality. 

Tim Whitaker is involved with a number of age organisations in London, including Wise Age and Positive Ageing in London.

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