Cllr Andrew Kennedy is councillor on Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council and a campaigning consultant. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com
If you have ever stood in front of a proud and dignified 86-year-old and watched them weep, you will know what a humbling experience it is.
As well as advancing years, Betty (not her real name) is in declining health. She has bronchitis and macular degeneration, too. Her husband died eight years ago, they had no children and her only sister had also died. Her only living relative is a niece, but she lives 80 miles away in Hampshire.
Two weeks ago, Betty did what that generation always do, she accepted without question the instructions of the Prime Minister and locked her front door. Over the next ten days, she emptied her fridge and freezer of food. With no car to reach the supermarket six miles away, no family and with too much consideration to ask her neighbours (they all have problems of their own without worrying about me) Betty was about to go hungry. The night before I appeared on her doorstep with a fish pie her meal had been tinned vegetables and Jacobs crackers.
So why was I on her doorstep with a fish pie, the act which had reduced Betty to tears? Because I, and dozens like me, had decided to step up and do something.
A few days earlier, I read that David, a friend of mine who runs the pub and restaurant in the neighbouring village, had decided to turn his hand to takeaway food when he had to close his business. He was also producing and, with the help of volunteers, delivering a nutritious meal to every vulnerable older person who phoned to ask for one – at no charge whatsoever.
Spotting a need in my own council ward (which has the highest percentage of retired people in West Kent) I asked if he would extend the service into these villages too. He readily agreed but said he couldn’t afford to finance it personally and we settled a price per meal which covered the costs.
Next, I launched a financial appeal and contributed my councillor’s allowance to kick it off. The Parish Council chipped in, as did family, friends, local businesses, and total strangers. Almost £2,000 was raised in a week. The next challenge was to identify and communicate with those who needed help; this was done through posters, by word of mouth, via churches, and finally going through the electoral register and picking out all the Ethels, Bettys, Harolds, Gilberts, and Lillians et al. It was an inexact science but I am confident we have reached most who might need us.
Now – ten days later, we are producing and delivering over 60 meals a day to people like Betty.
Elsewhere in my four rural villages, support groups have sprung into life. Each is organic and slightly different. One village with a strong cohort of school-gate mums has delivered leaflets and posters to every house and set up a support network of carers with designated rolls – grocery shoppers, prescription collectors, and even a rota of friendly voices answering phones to help and support those feeling isolated or in need of a chat. In another village, I helped establish “road champions” to support vulnerable neighbours.
I worked out today that across the area (two council wards with a combined population of 10,000) we have 80 volunteers working for the good of others. These people were not asked, they were not told, and they have not been paid; they stepped forward out of a sense of duty, a sense of compassion, a sense of community. For almost ten years David Cameron talked of The Big Society, but never quite managed to define what it was. Here it is, in all its chaotic glory.
So if you are a vulnerable person in Aylesford you will have the opportunity of a free hot meal delivered to your door, you will have a support network to do your essential shopping, collect your drugs, and even have someone at the end of a phone to chat with and support you.
But I am conscious that this level of support isn’t available elsewhere.
We were lucky, we had a group of active, fit and confident community leaders with the skills and determination to do what was needed. Elsewhere the “community leaders” are themselves now self-isolating and in need of help, and in our more urban communities there is too often little sense of community or belonging that we enjoy in our parishes and villages.
What I find most remarkable about this is that everything has had to be done from the bottom-up. In an era when local government is required to have plans and strategies for every aspect of life; (a Local Plan for housing development, an Infrastructure Plan for roads, an Economic Development Plan for jobs and growth, a Carbon Neutral Strategy to offset Global Warming and Flood Action Plan if your district has a river), nowhere do we seem to have developed a Community Resilience Plan to identify, guide and support local communities when faced with a crisis like this.
I hope and pray another crisis like this won’t happen for a generation, but if and when it does, I fear the institutional memories of those who came forward this time will have been lost and little battalions of volunteers will have to start all over again.
This is not meant to be a criticism of districts or counties. I suspect with their statutory obligations and budgetary constraints they have neither the money nor the bandwidth to help, but the reality that is it has been the much-maligned, and often-derided Parish Councils who stepped forward with funding, offers of free printing, and willing co-sponsorship of activities to provide insurance and public liability cover for volunteers. And thank goodness we have them.
So once this ghastly time is over, I hope the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government demands each Council to turn its attention to producing a Community Resilience Plan. That should record what was needed, what was achieved, what could have been done better and most importantly, where those who step forward to help can turn to for the guidance and support they need.
And next time we are asked to “clap the carers” perhaps give a few extra claps at the end for tens of thousands of community volunteers who raised their hand when needed. Never have the words of George Bush rung so true, they really are… “a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.”