Cllr Anna Firth, Chairman of Sevenoaks Conservative Association and the Lead Member for Loneliness on Sevenoaks District Council

Last week’s new #Let’sTalkLoneliness campaign, launched by the Loneliness Minister, Mims Davies MP, and inspired by the third anniversary of Jo Cox’s death, was a very welcome step in the right direction. Central government has a vital role to play in raising awareness and tackling the stigma still attached to loneliness and isolation. The power to prevent it, however, remains firmly in the hands of local government, since the only long-term, sustainable way to address chronic loneliness is to go “upstream” and build more caring, connected communities by design. Only local councils, as the planning authorities, have the power to ensure that all new developments are planned with good mental health and well-being in mind from day one.

It is absolutely shocking that according to the British Red Cross, nearly a sixth of all Britons – nine million people – are chronically lonely and that this is expected to rise by nearly 50 per cent over the next decade. Loneliness also knows no age limits; research shows that 1 in 10 young teens feel lonely, which has a huge impact on their well-being.

Everyone will feel lonely at some point in their lives, but chronic loneliness occurs when, for whatever reason, the individual cannot take steps to address it. At that point, it becomes a serious health issue, as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity, and it shortens lives. As John Steinbeck famously wrote: “a sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker than a germ”.

It also represents a health inequality, since it is experienced far more by some groups then others. Those living or working alone are particularly at risk. As are the elderly, who often lack the mobility and support structures to overcome it.

Up to 85 per cent of young, disabled adults – 18 to 34 year olds – feel lonely.

In rural districts like Sevenoaks, the risk of loneliness is particularly acute due to poor public transport, an ageing population, and pockets of rural and urban deprivation. For example, St Mary’s ward in the town of Swanley falls within the 10% most deprived wards in Kent and the South East. Another vulnerable and increasing group is children living in low-income, rural households. 12 per cent of children under 16 are living in low-income families in Sevenoaks district, where rural deprivation is deemed more isolating than urban poverty. This group is set to increase by 17 per cent over the next 20 years.

The impact of this loneliness epidemic on our already over-stretched NHS is already immense. Lonely people are 3.4 times more likely to suffer depression, 3.5 times more likely to need residential care, and 1.6 times more likely to end up in A&E. Three out of four GPs report seeing between 1 and 5 people a day mainly because they are lonely.

However, with the number of over 85s forecast to rise across Kent by a whopping 97.8% over the next 17 years, elderly people opting to remain in their own homes, coupled with a social care system already in crisis, we have a serious public health storm in the making.

Like many councils up and down the country, Sevenoaks District Council is working hard to tackle the symptoms of loneliness, working in partnership with charities and the voluntary sector. Our Council-led Community Grants Scheme delivers targeted support to schemes supporting social inclusion from youth clubs, community transport; wellbeing walking groups, befriending; pop-up cafés, and access to leisure and open spaces.

Sevenoaks is also one of a number of district councils using public health funding to pay for advisors working in GP surgeries to help tackle the non-medical reasons why people visit their doctor, such as loneliness due to bereavement, or depression caused by debt, or unsuitable housing. Going forward, social prescribing needs to be front and centre of primary care. Sevenoaks District Council also supports a yearly internet safety scheme in primary schools (“the Digital Sunset Challenge”) combating youth loneliness due to overuse of social media, particularly at night, as well as offering a falls prevention home adaptions service to both reduce and prevent hospital admissions.

The role of local government, as acknowledged in the new Health and Social Care Green Paper, in tackling loneliness and isolation is plainly crucial. First and foremost, however, communities need to be more caring and connected by design. High quality, purpose build “dementia friendly” retirement villages and towns, good quality community spaces, investing in community transport, encouraging the elderly to take part in local assemblies, suitably adapted homes, care homes that admit pets, and a clear, local connection for the allocation of affordable housing – these are all things that, properly funded, local government can do to create better connected communities, especially for the elderly.

The good news is that there is already a growing body of evidence demonstrating the clear savings to local health and social care services as a result of loneliness investment. Living Well Cornwall, initiated by Age UK and the NHS Kernow CCG, has shown a 41% reduction in the cost of hospital admissions, while Gloucestershire village and community agents has resulted in savings to health and social care services of a £1.3 million between 2012-2014.

However, we also need to consider the role of families. According to a UK Government survey, in 2017, the UK was the loneliest country in Europe. France, Spain and Italy spend far less on social care, yet they don’t have a social care crisis. Why? France, Spain and Italy they have more preserved family structures. Many older people still live close to or with their sons or daughters. A Conservative government should not be shy at championing the role of the family to help alleviate chronic loneliness and also go a long way to solving the adult social care crisis. Tax breaks, coupled with an extension of permitted development rights for anyone wishing to build a granny annexe or add an room in the roof or in the basement in order to care for a relative or loved one, needs to be considered. Temporary or mobile garden granny lodges should also be encouraged.

In the meantime, we will only truly tackle chronic loneliness in our communities by rediscovering the art of caring for one another. A smile, a wave, pausing to ask someone how they are, picking up the phone rather than messaging – all are crucial. Such actions could change an electronic, transactional conversation into a friendly moment that could be the only human, social contact that a person has had all day, possibly all week. In short, simple, everyday actions really do help.