Like other councillors in Greenwich, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year knocking on doors. In fact, I’ve spent most of the seven years I’ve been involved in Greenwich politics doing this, pretty continuously and across the borough, in the course of six election campaigns in that time.
During each of those campaigns – and through my casework and at our weekly surgeries – I have often been struck by how many people I speak to who are either clearly experiencing loneliness, or indeed tell me they are.
One lady I spoke to in Mottingham back in March, in particular, really made me think about this. It was a very long, very sad conversation. She told me that after her husband passed away, she could go for days – even weeks – without seeing or talking to anyone at all. She told me it could happen to anyone – and “you just wait until you are so starved of human contact that you go to the supermarket, and pretend not to be able to reach a shelf, just to get someone to talk to you.”
She moved in to the borough to be closer to family – who she now sees more often, which has helped. But not everyone has family members they can see, or are able to move closer to the family they do have.
Too many people in our community – and not just older people, but people of all ages and circumstances – are experiencing the crushing feeling of being all one.
That’s why before the local elections in May, we included a commitment to campaign for action on loneliness in the Greenwich Conservatives 2018 manifesto. Since the election I’ve been working with colleagues to get this work started.
What do the figures say?
Looking into the issue, the figures back up the anecdotal evidence. More than 2,800 older people in Greenwich are estimated to feel lonely “all or most of the time”, according to the Campaign to End Loneliness.
Fewer than half – just 42% – of adult social care users surveyed in Greenwich in 2016/17 said they feel they has as much social contact as they would like. For carers, the figure is even more troubling – only 26% of carers in our borough feel they have as much social contact as they would like – placing us 30th out of the 32 London boroughs. The figure for carers in Bromley is more than double ours, at 55%.
By far the most interesting and useful research I’ve found is from Age UK’s heatmapping data. This shows that 27 local neighbourhoods – groups of streets – in our borough have a “very high risk” of loneliness.
Loneliness can affect anyone, of any age, anywhere, but it’s instructive to look at this heatmap data to understand more about the problem. These 27 neighbourhoods are located in 13 wards stretching right across the borough – including one my ward of Coldharbour and New Eltham – as it happens, it’s includes the street where I met the lady I mentioned earlier.
So what can we do about it?
It’s firstly important to note that there is good and important work already underway – nationally and here in the borough – to tackle social isolation and loneliness.
Nationally, in January the government accepted all the recommendations of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness – set up in memory of Jo Cox’s passionate campaigning on this in Parliament – including appointing a new dedicated Minister for Loneliness, the excellent Tracey Crouch, for the first time. There’s currently a consultation on a new cross government-strategy on tackling loneliness, to take these recommendations forward.
Locally, this work to tackle loneliness is being undertaken in our local voluntary sector – not least by Age UK Bromley & Greenwich, Greenwich Carers Centre, Goodgym, Greenwich Pensioners Forum and the Dementia Carers Group – as well as by many faith groups and local community organisations.
It is being undertaken by Greenwich Council, too – including the Social Isolation Strategy Group, set up in 2015 and chaired by GAVS, which brings together all these organisations with the public sector. The Group has had a particular success through the Forever Young Festival at the Stables, which saw 250 people attend last year – and is returning for as second year this September.
All this work is important, and welcome – but there’s much more that could be done to tackle loneliness in our borough. That’s why I’m putting a proposal for a new campaign – Greenwich Against Loneliness – to a vote at the Town Hall next Wednesday.
Greenwich Against Loneliness proposal
You can read the motion we’ve submitted to next Wednesday’s Council meeting in full here. It proposes a new campaign to put a rocket up the work that’s already going on – and address three areas in particular where I think we can do even more:
Firstly, Greenwich Against Loneliness would raise awareness of the issue across the borough – and mobilise local residents to support efforts to tackle it, both on a day-to-day level by reaching out to their neighbours – and by volunteering their time for local projects such as Age UK Bromley and Greenwich’s Befriending Scheme. So far a lot of the work that has been undertaken revolves around ‘getting people to go to stuff’ – like the Forever Young Festival – and while that’s a great solution for many people, we need more one-to-one engagement, too, and through this campaign the council can use its leadership role in the community to bring that about.
On a similar note, the campaign would secondly develop plans for a ‘Great Greenwich Door Knock’ to target some of those 27 loneliness hotspots that Age UK research has identified, through door-to-door outreach and signposting. This has been tried elsewhere with significant success – over three days, this targeted approach in the Wirral – the Great Wirral Door Knock – saw volunteers knock on 1,064 doors, have 273 conversations and make 79 referrals to sources of support. We could make that happen here – and I’m sure that ward councillors across the borough would be keen to lead the way.
Thirdly, the campaign would give a focal point for loneliness as an issue across all of the council’s work – and make sure that no opportunities to tackle loneliness are missed in delivering policy and services elsewhere. I’d like to see this include the soon-to-be-renewed Ward Budget scheme – which could be a great vehicle to help tackle loneliness in those 27 hotspots, and elsewhere.
This needn’t be an expensive campaign – in fact, in could very low-cost way of adding real value to what is already going on in the voluntary sector, and in the council.
Over to my fellow councillors…
Every once in a while at the Town Hall we find something we can agree on – I really hope that this will be one of those times. I’ve shared this idea with Labour Cabinet Member Averil Lekau and the new Council Leader, Danny Thorpe, in advance – and they’re considering whether they and colleagues can join the nine members of my Group in supporting it. I’ll have my fingers crossed!
In the wake of the report of the Jo Cox Commission – which acknowledges the need for local authorities to do more – there’s never been a better time to focus our efforts on this huge problem.
You can tune in to the Council Meeting here next Wednesday (17th July) at 7pm.