Treating the causes of loneliness as a public policy issue

…rather than a medical issue, something raised in The Lancet.

I’ve written more than my fair share about loneliness because it’s a part of my life – to the extent that I’ve been exploring the public policy issues behind it. I wrote this piece shortly after I came out of hospital this time last year, trying to get my head around who needed to do what locally. Fast forward to today’s very low temperatures (to the extent we have a Met Office weather warning in place) and I got thinking about it again. Just before I was about to write, I had a quick look online to see what was new in public policy land.

It was this post that caught my eye.

“We call for research to establish a foundation of evidence that measures lonelygenic environments, which could vary from place to place, and to integrate that evidence into optimising loneliness reduction strategies that work for everyone.”

Xiaoqi Feng, Thomas Astell-Burt in The Lancet, December 2022

“What is a lonelygenic environment?”

Because I’ve lived in a few of them! Feng & Astell-Burt talked about that too – back in August 2022.

“Having studied the issue, we view loneliness as largely a product of our environment – what we call a “lonelygenic environment” – not a disease or a problem with any particular individual.

“Over decades, our cities have become sprawling low-density agglomerations. Many places are too far to walk from home. Short errands are routinely done by car, erasing opportunities to stop and chat with locals.

“Large-scale felling of street trees has not only obliterated natural shade, but severed our connection with the “more than human” world. Car traffic dominates residential roads, which are also clogged with parked cars.”

Feng & Astell-Burt, The Conversation, Aug 2022

The above speaks very much to our physical environment – and how the growth of the automobile in the 20th Century has correlated with greater distances between, and the decline of a host of social institutions. That’s not to say the car isn’t the only factor. The decline of institutions such as local churches and local working mens’ clubs are highly complex than blaming things like the car, the TV, or ‘the government’ alone.

Going back to Weng & Astell-Burt’s paper, they have this diagram.

Above – from Weng and Astell-Burt, 2022

Given my own circumstances (i.e. CFS diagnosed several weeks ago after a decade of trying!), mental health crises, 2 heart attacks, and not having been in the full-time/permanent workplace since leaving the civil service in 2011 – so in effect having lost the whole of my 30s) I’m particularly interested in the interface between relational and collective – having worked through my own personal issues as far as I can take them in the absence of the comprehensive mental health services our societies desperately need.

Asset-stripping business owners cutting costs to the bone in the precariate/zero hours/minimum wage sectors

A browse through the British Newspaper Archive will show a different world of staff Christmas parties in the interwar and post-war era as local newspapers competed with each other to see which could publish the best photos of the best parties – in particular for large employers and large departmental stores. These were big occasions too. Sadly many of the historic firms were either bought out or ceased to exist one way or another.

In the late 1990s before I left Cambridge for university, our staff party was at a local hotel where we effectively shared the venue with a host of other small firms none of whom we knew, with a shared disco at the end of it – which few stayed on for. Cambridge by the late 1990s was not the same place as it was in the late 1970s. It’s only recently that I’ve started to appreciate the differences. Furthermore, we started seeing the first signs of automation via the internet in the mainstream workplace that enabled efficiencies/job cuts meaning fewer people were needed to maintain existing functions. (Think also of the decline of music record shops (HMV/Our Price) and photo processing shops).

Fast forward to the early 2020s and the multiple hits of leaving the EU, the pandemic (which is still not over), the systematic asset stripping of household names that were then lumbered with debt (Pizza Express was one of the most sobering examples before the pandemic – HTF can a chain of pizza restaurants rack up a debt measured in £billions?!?!) combined with a precariate working in multiple jobs with zero hours, no job security and now being hit with costs of inflation-busting rents in the face of weak regulations on Air BnB, and sky-high energy bills not helped by broken energy markets (Will Hutton describes them here) means that amongst other things, fewer of us have the employers who organise festive parties for their workforces (unless in affluent/wealth-generating sectors), and even if the offer is there, costs and barriers such as lack of public transport/expense of travel means not everyone can take up the offer. (Note the point at the end on public transport regarding the slump in party bookings in London)

“You can’t legislate for Christmas Parties!”

Nor should the state feel the need to. (Note to politicians – just because a problem exists does not automatically mean the solution to it involves 1) new laws, or 2) changes to tax/spend).

These are all symptoms of the wider problems of inequalities in our economies and societies. Furthermore, there is the issue of what civic responsibilities the affluent think/should/do have in our towns and cities – both individuals and institutions. How does this compare with civic responsibilities in the minds of those on median incomes, those on very low incomes, and those like me dependent on the state and/or family? How can people take part in anything if their minds are weighed down by debt and costs of living?

Changes to our built environment, to overhauling how firms are regulated…and what governing structures are like

Which reminds me of the changes happening in Paris.

“In 15-minute cities, each neighbourhood should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying”

How ’15-minute cities’ will change the way we socialise

…which strikes me as the complete opposite to what happens in Monaco.

“[in 2020], 79.3% of Monaco’s private workforce lived in France, with the majority of employees, more than 40,000, living in the Alpes-Maritimes department.”

Monaco Tribune, May 2021

There is a huge risk that Cambridge risks going the way of the latter rather than the former.

I’d hazard a guess that most residents in, and commuters to Cambridge think that this is the fault of Cambridge City Council, or simply “The council”. Or some other quango that no one seems to be able to hold accountable. You only have to look at the polarised debate on the future of Cambridge transport access to see the anger and confusion. Why does this matter? Because if there is public confusion about who is responsible for what, then consultations become meaningless because feedback becomes harder to process. Not helped by the flaws in consultation designs past and present.

“What’s that got to do with loneliness?”

Building capacities – making it easier for people (esp on low incomes) to connect with their fellow human beings. Which is supposed to be one of the positive externalities of a radically-improved bus service. The problem is no one trusts any existing local organisation or bus company to deliver it. I can think of a couple of events I’d like to have gone to of late, but without the reliable public transport in place I never went. And that has been a repeated pattern for me over the past decade. That’s loneliness designed in through cuts to public services – irrespective of whether ministers accounted for this or not.

Going beyond bringing people together ‘for the sake of it’

You’ll find lots of examples of these at this time of year – the run-up to Christmas. Time and again it feels like various well-meaning organisations are like:

“Oooh! Gotta do something for the lonely people for whom this is a sad time!”

The above is with the caveat that I’m referring to systems and institutions, not individuals here. Because organising, staffing, and volunteering at such events is hard work. However, if we do the same things the same way over and over again, can we expect radically-improved results?

There have been attempts to overcome this in the past – and many have failed. We tried the Sunday Assembly model in Cambridge when it trended briefly. CU-TV produced a video about the event at The Junction a decade or so ago.

Above – Sunday Assembly at The Junction in Cambridge

Above – from Twitter on 27 Oct 2013 – spot me in the silver (!) blazer top left at the J2

I wrote a blogpost at the time (See here) – noting that the biggest barrier was finding a suitable, affordable venue that could hold an audience the size of the J2 (over 200 people). An attempt in 2019 was made to revive it but that never happened. It could still work in Cambridge – and it should work in Cambridge. But it hasn’t. And for me those barriers are structural in the way that Xiaoqi Feng and Thomas Astell-Burt identified in their research: Cambridge is becoming a lonelygenic environment that only works for the few, connected people and institutions. As a city we’re repeating the same errors of the 1980s and 1990s – the decades of my childhood and teenage years. Which is one of the reasons it hurts so much to see it happening all over again.

Perhaps innovation can solve the problem!

This relates to the launch of Innovate Cambridge

When I first got news of it, I wasn’t impressed. This from September 2022.

You can read the charter here.

Above – on inclusivity. Is this just words or can signatories deliver on it?

Again, my cynicism comes from a sense of having seen it all before: Big corporates sign up to new think-force that has plus events and keynote speakers but fails to deal with some very difficult structural issues that involve:

  1. standing up to ministers and speaking the truth to power
  2. acknowledging some of their business practices (and in one or two cases, even their very existence) is at odds with the aim of an inclusive city

The second point applies in particular to the property firms and professional service firms. What do you do if you are advising a client who insists on actions that takes wealth out of the city and leaves it with long term problems – contributing to a more polarised city? What actions they can take to change their business practices so that they are contributing meaningfully towards that inclusivity. *Note that doing so may not be possible without making themselves vulnerable to market competitors* – in which case they need to make the case to ministers to *raise the bar*. For example stating that underfunded local councils unable to fund a comprehensive, competent, and outstanding planning service is actually bad for business as it means poor quality planning applications get approved. One result of this is were not getting the community spaces we so desperately need – meaning that too many start-up community groups either fail, or never get going in the first place due to lack of affordable premises. Loneliness as a structural problem? Exactly.

Can Innovate Cambridge’s signatories solve that problem? At present I don’t think they can – but I would love to be proved wrong simply because so many people, especially those in an even worse situation than me, would benefit.

“So, you’re not doing Winterval then?”

Above – Puffles with a scrooge-mood-santa-hat. Religious festivals are not really my thing – neither is the consumerism that goes with them that has gotten more unaffordable for more of us (& the environment) each passing year.

Previous decades had:

  • 1980s – School carol concerts
  • 1990s – Compulsory church (don’t get me started!)
  • 2000s – Ballroom balls
  • 2010s – Music collective concerts – big ones! (See below).

Above – from We Are Sound – yes, we sang this in Icelandic!

The bit you didn’t see in the above video was that the preparations and performance involved a full-on 12 hour day. I no longer have the health or stamina to undertake what was required for such an event. The paradox in my case is in order to build and grow meaningful friendships, I’ve learnt that people have to spend time together over an extended period working on similar things and towards similar goals – and sharing the challenges, the highs, and lows. What do you do if poor health means you can no longer manage that commitment? This is a very real public policy question in the face of Long Covid.

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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