How is an ageing population changing urban Britain?

Pensioners in Brighton. Image: Getty.

British cities have grey weather, grey concrete, and increasingly, grey heads. People across the country are living longer, and this means the population of our cities are living longer too.

On average, most cities are younger than the rest of the country and will remain so. But a few cities are older than the rest of the country and are ageing fast – with big consequences for policy makers.

Ageing will change society’s needs, and will require more resources to be spent on pensions, healthcare, and social care. And this will have larger implications for some cities than others. The Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook 2018 report offers some insight into population changes in UK cities over recent years.

But to get a better picture of how ageing will affect different places, it’s necessary to dig deeper into the data and to look at the share of the population in each city aged over 65 (notwithstanding the fact that some people work beyond retirement age).

Click to expand.

Currently 18 per cent of the UK’s population are aged 65 or over, compared to 15 per cent in UK cities. Some of these cities are especially young: 12 per cent of the population of Luton are over 65, while in Slough it is only 10 per cent. Interestingly the youngest cities tend to be southern inland cities (as shown by the smaller bubbles on the map).

But this isn’t the case everywhere. In total there are 19 cities which are older than the UK average. The oldest of these include Blackpool, Bournemouth, Worthing, Southend, Birkenhead, and Swansea – all smaller coastal cities.

Cities have also been ageing at different speeds over the last decade

Seven cities, such as Crawley, Brighton, Coventry, and Dundee, have surprisingly seen a decline in the share of people aged 65+ even as the country has aged. This has mainly been driven by large increases in those in younger age groups.

However, in the other 56 cities across the UK the share of people aged 65+ has increased, and in 22 cities this demographic has grown by two or more percentage points. This was led by Wigan (see the table below), where the share increased from 15 percent to 18.8 percent.

Click to expand. Source: NOMIS, Mid-year population estimates.

Of the cities that have seen the largest increase, there are two main trends. The first is the presence of a number of new towns in this group, such as Telford, Milton Keynes, Warrington and Basildon. Ageing in these places reflects in part a number of original movers to the new towns turning 65, and means they are now likely to be dealing with greater demand for adult social care than in the past.

The second is that in many places (which includes some new towns), the rise in the share of those aged 65+ was not only the result of an increase in the number of older people, but also because of a fall in the population aged 16-49. These are the largest, darkest bubbles on the map. This may reflect an underlying weakness in their economies, as younger people move elsewhere for job opportunities.


Policy implications

All cities will face greater funding demands as pressure on social care increases from a combination of an ageing population and budget cuts (as the infamous “Graph of Doom” shows). And the data above shows that this will be particularly acute in certain places.

In the short term the government has announced stop gap funding of £150m to spend on social care. But this doesn’t address the longer term growing pressures on services. Allowing local authorities to keep a greater share of their business rates is a potential longer term response, but will be more effective in places with stronger economies (such as Milton Keynes) than those with weaker ones (such as Wigan and Southend). If – as suggested above – weaker economies do experience faster ageing, the current system risks creating and widening inequalities between places in the quality of care.

Ultimately, government reform of social care is required to balance the funding demands of an ageing population between the taxpayer and wealthier pensioners. The politics of the situation make this difficult, of course. Indeed, the most recent proposal to reform social care lasted only four days, before being dropped by the Prime Minister Theresa May after being branded “the dementia tax”.

There has been little movement on this since, and the Chancellor Philip Hammond did not even mention social care once in the November budget. However, it is an issue which will only grow in urgency in over the coming years. And an answer will be needed if we are to avoid further Northamptonshire-style local authority financial calamities in the future.

Anthony Breach is an economic analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared. 

 
 
 
 

Uncertainty is the new normal: the case for resilience in infrastructure

Members of the New York Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One help evacuate people from their homes in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in September 2018. Image: Getty.

The most recent international report on climate change paints a picture of disruption to society unless there are drastic and rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. And although it’s early days, some cities and municipalities are starting to recognise that past conditions can no longer serve as reasonable proxies for the future.

This is particularly true for America’s infrastructure. Highways, water treatment facilities and the power grid are at increasing risk to extreme weather events and other effects of a changing climate.

The problem is that most infrastructure projects, including the Trump administration’s infrastructure revitalisation plan, typically ignore the risks of climate change.

In our work researching sustainability and infrastructure, we encourage and are starting to shift toward designing man-made infrastructure systems with adaptability in mind.

Designing for the past

Infrastructure systems are the front line of defense against flooding, heat, wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters. City planners and citizens often assume that what is built today will continue to function in the face of these hazards, allowing services to continue and to protect us as they have done so in the past. But these systems are designed based on histories of extreme events.

Pumps, for example, are sized based on historical precipitation events. Transmission lines are designed within limits of how much power they can move while maintaining safe operating conditions relative to air temperatures. Bridges are designed to be able to withstand certain flow rates in the rivers they cross. Infrastructure and the environment are intimately connected.

Now, however, the country is more frequently exceeding these historical conditions and is expected to see more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Said another way, because of climate change, natural systems are now changing faster than infrastructure.

How can infrastructure systems adapt? First let’s consider the reasons infrastructure systems fail at extremes:

  • The hazard exceeds design tolerances. This was the case of Interstate 10 flooding in Phoenix in fall 2014, where the intensity of the rainfall exceeded design conditions.

  • During these times there is less extra capacity across the system: When something goes wrong there are fewer options for managing the stressor, such as rerouting flows, whether it’s water, electricity or even traffic.

  • We often demand the most from our infrastructure during extreme events, pushing systems at a time when there is little extra capacity.

Gradual change also presents serious problems, partly because there is no distinguishing event that spurs a call to action. This type of situation can be especially troublesome in the context of maintenance backlogs and budget shortfalls which currently plague many infrastructure systems. Will cities and towns be lulled into complacency only to find that their long-lifetime infrastructure are no longer operating like they should?

Currently the default seems to be securing funding to build more of what we’ve had for the past century. But infrastructure managers should take a step back and ask what our infrastructure systems need to do for us into the future.


Agile and flexible by design

Fundamentally new approaches are needed to meet the challenges not only of a changing climate, but also of disruptive technologies.

These include increasing integration of information and communication technologies, which raises the risk of cyberattacks. Other emerging technologies include autonomous vehicles and drones as well as intermittent renewable energy and battery storage in the place of conventional power systems. Also, digitally connected technologies fundamentally alter individuals’ cognition of the world around us: consider how our mobile devices can now reroute us in ways that we don’t fully understand based on our own travel behavior and traffic across a region.

Yet our current infrastructure design paradigms emphasise large centralized systems intended to last for decades and that can withstand environmental hazards to a preselected level of risk. The problem is that the level of risk is now uncertain because the climate is changing, sometimes in ways that are not very well-understood. As such, extreme events forecasts may be a little or a lot worse.

Given this uncertainty, agility and flexibility should be central to our infrastructure design. In our research, we’ve seen how a number of cities have adopted principles to advance these goals already, and the benefits they provide.

A ‘smart’ tunnel in Kuala Lumpur is designed to supplement the city’s stormwater drainage system. Image: David Boey/creative commons.

In Kuala Lampur, traffic tunnels are able to transition to stormwater management during intense precipitation events, an example of multifunctionality.

Across the U.S., citizen-based smartphone technologies are beginning to provide real-time insights. For instance, the CrowdHydrology project uses flooding data submitted by citizens that the limited conventional sensors cannot collect.

Infrastructure designers and managers in a number of U.S. locations, including New York, Portland, Miami and Southeast Florida, and Chicago, are now required to plan for this uncertain future – a process called roadmapping. For example, Miami has developed a $500m plan to upgrade infrastructure, including installing new pumping capacity and raising roads to protect at-risk oceanfront property.

These competencies align with resilience-based thinking and move the country away from our default approaches of simply building bigger, stronger or more redundant.

Planning for uncertainty

Because there is now more uncertainty with regard to hazards, resilience instead of risk should be central to infrastructure design and operation in the future. Resilience means systems can withstand extreme weather events and come back into operation quickly.

Microgrid technology allows individual buildings to operate in the event of a broader power outage and is one way to make the electricity system more resilient. Image: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy/creative commons.

This means infrastructure planners cannot simply change their design parameter – for example, building to withstand a 1,000-year event instead of a 100-year event. Even if we could accurately predict what these new risk levels should be for the coming century, is it technically, financially or politically feasible to build these more robust systems?

This is why resilience-based approaches are needed that emphasise the capacity to adapt. Conventional approaches emphasise robustness, such as building a levee that is able to withstand a certain amount of sea level rise. These approaches are necessary but given the uncertainty in risk we need other strategies in our arsenal.

For example, providing infrastructure services through alternative means when our primary infrastructure fail, such as deploying microgrids ahead of hurricanes. Or, planners can design infrastructure systems such that when they fail, the consequences to human life and the economy are minimised.

The Netherlands has changed its system of dykes and flood management in certain areas to better sustain flooding.

This is a practice recently implemented in the Netherlands, where the Rhine delta rivers are allowed to flood but people are not allowed to live in the flood plain and farmers are compensated when their crops are lost.

Uncertainty is the new normal, and reliability hinges on positioning infrastructure to operate in and adapt to this uncertainty. If the country continues to commit to building last century’s infrastructure, we can continue to expect failures of these critical systems, and the losses that come along with them.

The Conversation

Mikhail Chester, Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Sustainable Engineering, Arizona State University; Braden Allenby, President's Professor and Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University, and Samuel Markolf, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Resilience to Extremes Sustainability Research Network, Arizona State University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.