Cambridgeshire vs loneliness – what do we need to deal with this challenge?

A decade after I first blogged about loneliness, it is now a local as well as a national public policy issuesee the House of Commons Library earlier in 2021.

My previous blogposts include:

…and more recently, Loneliness in a pandemic.

Over recent days, Cambridgeshire County Council has been posting out messages like the one below:

As former MEP, Cllr Richard Howitt (Lab – Petersfield), the Chair of the Adult & Health Committee on Cambridgeshire County Council said:

“I feel that we have all experienced loneliness over the past year or so and as such we can all understand that loneliness can have serious impacts on people’s health and ability to live their lives in the best way they can.

“The power of local communities and a kind word and thoughtful gesture as ever comes to the forefront. And will help tackle loneliness in our local neighbourhoods.”

Cllr Richard Howitt (Lab – Petersfield), 20 December 2021

Hence why the 50,000 Reasons is part of the county council’s Be Well Cambridgeshire campaign.

Loneliness as a public policy issue is not new

In 1938 The National Conference on Community Centres addressed this.

Take the Cambridge Daily News in 1939 from the British Newspaper Archive on one of the side-effects of slum clearances. Interestingly, we come across the issue of funding and management, picked up by the Liverpool Echo.

Again, we come across the same problem of Whitehall being in control. Local government then as today had to apply to central government for funding to build new community centres – the National Fitness Council being the funding holder and the Board of Education being the approving body.

As for who should run and manage the centres, founding and running community centres is easier said than done. Even more so after a decade of local government austerity where councils are struggling to meet their legal duties on public service delivery required by law.

The consequences of few community centres and civic amenities

The Cambridge Daily News’ London correspondent writes of one conversation he had about the phenomenon of “Demolition Melancholia” in his London Letter column of 12 Aug 1939.

This was in the era of interwar slum clearances that was proceeding at too slow a pace as far as opponents of the interwar Conservative-run governments were concerned.

We know this became an issue in Cambridge because the newspapers covered what life was like on the newly-built estates in the 1960s – and a common theme was the lack of community facilities. One of the themes of the 20th Century has been the decline of institutions that brought communities together – in particular churches and workplace & trade union centres. Some of the widespread housing clearances inevitably had an impact on church numbers, along with changes in social attitudes. Changing working patterns, business practices, and economic structures along with party-political decisions in central government also had an impact on trade unions as institutions. Continual cost-cutting drives and greater polarisation between business owners and their workforces inevitably resulted in the decline of firms subsidising social institutions and activities for their workforces.

One of the features of 20th Century housing estate design is the reduction of housing density – followed by rising densities in the early 21st Century. We see this in Romsey Town, Cambridge.

Above – the familiar high density Victorian terraces can be spotted in the top right of this photo of the Ridgeon’s site being redeveloped for Cambridge City Council. At the top left you can see the familiar inter-war ‘cottage’ design semi-detached housing with the larger front and back gardens, learning from the problems of poor air quality and damp from previous generations. In the foreground you can see the medium-high density blocks being built – reflecting the high need for social housing, high demand for private housing, and the high land values in Cambridge. Again, I remain concerned that the community infrastructure may not be sufficient for the number of people moving onto the site.

Loneliness is something studied by academia.

“We examined the relationship between loneliness and three dimensions of the lived environment: geographical region, deprivation, and area classification (urban or rural).”

“Our results indicate that loneliness in older adults is higher in the most deprived areas independent of individual-level factors.”

Victor, C.R., Pikhartova, J. Lonely places or lonely people? Investigating the relationship between loneliness and place of residence. BMC Public Health 20, 778 (2020).

So you can see why for a cash-strapped county council, older people living in deprived areas are a priority group to target. The national-level research has also been striking – something collated by the House of Commons Library earlier in 2021.

A 2017 report, by the New Economics Foundation, estimated that loneliness costs UK employers between £2.2 and £3.7 billion per year.”

Tackling Loneliness – House of Commons Library, June 2021
Cambridgeshire does not have the infrastructure to deal with loneliness as a public policy issue

The three pieces of infrastructure I refer to are:

  • Housing and transport
  • Institutional infrastructure
  • Civic and communal

There is also the broken economic structures beyond the scope and competencies of local government – such as the rise of zero hour contracts and the growth in the number of people dependent on food bank support.

Housing and transport

Reflecting decades of failed national government housing policies, we have not evaluated previous generations of house-building, let alone fed those lessons learnt back into our processes of urban design, housing architecture, and building generally – reflected by the multiple scandals being exposed by the Grenfell Tower Inquiry. What types of housing design, urban design, population densities, areas set aside for open green space, plots set aside for community facilities, are the ones most likely to lead to the best outcomes for mental and physical health?

Institutional infrastructure

I’m referring to larger infrastructure – district-wide and beyond. For example specialist adult education colleges for which I was astonished to learn that both funding and approval is required from ministers if local councils are to establish them. Furthermore, successive governments have taken the view that ‘subsidising middle class hobbies’ is not something that taxpayers’ money should be funding – instead diverting such funding towards basic skills instead. This is one of the reasons why basic skills training – important as it is in its own right, is prominent in adult education prospectuses. Such as this one for Cambridgeshire. Yet for combating loneliness, you don’t want to have an institution full of courses where you get tested on everything, or where everything has an exam at the end. Hence the importance of leisure and hobby courses such as these at Cambridge Regional College. Or the ones at Hills Road.

For district-and-beyond-level infrastructure, are the critical public and active transport links in place to enable people from many different places to access the facilities? It’s all very well having the evening practical skills courses at Cambridge Regional College in North West Cambridge, but if you live in South East Cambridge it’s not easy to get there by public transport – as I found out the hard way when I did my adult teacher training a decade ago.

Civic and communal

This is ward/neighbourhood level – and sometimes referred to in the 15 minute city concept.

“Many people never visited shops close to their homes before because they were busy. They didn’t know their neighbours or the parks nearby. The pandemic made us discover this. We have rediscovered locality, and this has improved quality of life.”

How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise – BBC Work Life.

What do you do if you are stuck with an urban design that does not facilitate this? Such as the “Cherry Orchard” development in East Cherry Hinton during the late 1980s which I’m old enough to remember being built.

Above – the northern half of Cherry Orchard – with the distinctive curvy roads…

Above – the southern end of Cherry Orchard, distinctive curvy roads and cul-de-sacs which stand out from the straight roads of the previous post-war generation of council housing to the west. Note the car-dependent supermarket that was also built in the 1990s – not pleasant to walk to (I’ve done it before!)

“So, what’s the solution then?”

It’s very complicated – and even then, the results will never be perfect. Public policy isn’t like maths at school where you’re either right or wrong. For something that affects different groups of people in different ways, there’s only so much you can do. How much and with what policies is inevitably a political decision. And rightly so.

Take my case: Single male, heading into middle age, graduate, long term chronic illnesses, probably never going to work full time again in my life. The public policy solutions that might work for me won’t necessarily be the same as say a single parent in their early 20s who left school with few qualifications. Or the retired home owners who over the years have much-reduced mobility and whose close friends have passed away as the years have gone by. Or the ’empty nesters’ whose children have left home and who no longer have the social structures that their children’s friendships from schools used to provide.

Interestingly, some of the most effective solutions won’t involve direct intervention into communities – eg paying for new community centres or subsidising community-centre-based activities. The problem might be getting people to those centres. Hence some of the solutions may involve focusing on removing existing barriers – such as lack of public transport or poor cycleway links. (This is why I want a footbridge/cycle bridge over the railway line linking the two housing developments north of Mill Road).

I think for me, the big policy nut to crack is this:

***Can councils & communities bring people together on a regular basis so they can find others with multiple shared interests and can undertake shared activities over an extended period of time that not only benefits individuals, but can also be for a greater common purpose?***

That above-sentence can be simplified. Examples can include groups of parents who are involved in a local community group and whose children go to the same school and the same out-of-school sports clubs. Multiple shared interests, brought together on a regular basis. In work places that employ hundreds/thousands of people, it might be similar: Work in the same work place, take part in the same social activities, members of the same trade union branch. Multiple shared interests, brought together on a regular basis.

It might be the case that residents do not know what’s on offer – especially if they are new to an area. In decades gone by, local councils produced annual guides with essential information on who was responsible for what. I’m not yet convinced websites have been designed well enough to replicate this – all too often designed from the perspective of the institution rather than the citizen. (Although we have seen positive changes in recent times). Some of them may involve overhauling existing publicity so that it is city-wide rather than institution-specific. (Eg Cambridge Matters from the City Council). What would that magazine be like if it had contributions from all of the essential service providers and major decision-makers? Ditto event listings – I’ve been a long time fan of Events On The Wight for the Isle of Wight because their colour-coded design for events is superb. It’s the one place on the island that everyone knows where to go and how to use.

That’s why for a decade I’ve been calling for annual Cambridge Societies Fairs – basically like Freshers Fairs at universities but for everyone in and around our city. I wrote more about it earlier this year here, followed by a ward-specific piece a few weeks later.

Ultimately the solutions will come just as much from the people as they will the institutions. It’s not for me to tell the city what activities should be put on. The problem is we’ve not come up with good enough actions to find out what people are willing to get involved in. Part of the building back better strategy has to involve getting much better at consultation. Otherwise we’ll continue making the same policy mistakes of the past.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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