During the festive season we have been bombarded with images of log fires, families celebrating and laughing together and presents being opened by excited children. For the growing number of elderly and single people living in the UK, though, this can be an acutely lonely and depressing time. This Christmas may have been particularly bleak for those who live on their own and who have lost their jobs in the recession.
Local churches and voluntary groups do their best to address this problem over the Christmas period. But loneliness and the breakdown of community bonds are not just a problem at Christmas. And the costs of this social ‘atomisation’ are broader than simple loneliness. Lack of support in the home, and the health and psychological costs of loneliness, are burdens not easily borne by local authorities, weighed down as they are by the bureaucracy of the assessment of needs and means.
When it comes down to it, local government cannot hope to replace the bonds of family and community which have been allowed to decay. We need to find ways to support local voluntary groups, and communities themselves, in rebuilding those networks.
There are some points of hope. One particular, simple but effective scheme has been sponsored by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat council in the London Borough of Southwark. The Southwark Circle is a membership-based mutual support group for the over-60s: members pay a small fee to access services from the helpers in the scheme ranging from helping out with the shopping, to keeping a garden in order, to help with paperwork or putting up a set of shelves. Members become helpers themselves, where they are able.
The scheme introduces local residents to each other and encourages the important role of volunteering at a local level. Services are provided which the local authority might have needed to provided at far greater cost. Where manpower or cost can be freed from the local authority, those resources can be lent out to the group. Members are no longer passive recipients of council services, but active participants in a self-supporting community.
Value for money, and the need to tackle the mountain of government debt, are at the forefront of all our minds in the current climate. The good news for the Southwark scheme and others like it is the possible financial saving that it may bring: Southwark Council is hoping for a saving of £5 for every £1 it puts into the scheme.
This is a scheme which has won plaudits across the political spectrum. David Cameron praised schemes like this in his Spring Conference speech, when he said that, "a new social enterprise called Southwark Circle is delivering vastly improved care services for less money designed by elderly people for elderly people using local social networks to bring real improvements to people’s lives". Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian had described it as "an idea too good to be left on its own, getting lonely".
Cllr Lewis Robinson, Conservative Group leader in Southwark mentioned the scheme in this article on ConservativeHome a few months and reports this week that “the scheme continues to go from strength to strength”. Good stuff indeed. Though only a trial, the Southwark Circle is a model which could be promoted across the country.
Anything that encourages volunteering in this way should secure our support. I was a small cog in the large wheel that was the Centre for Social Justice’s report into Breakdown Britain, and I contributed on the voluntary sector chapter of the report. The vital role that local voluntary organisations play in our society and the need to encourage and support them further is a theme which I am delighted that we as a party support. Volunteering provides an opportunity for those looking for a job to demonstrate their skills, provides services in the community, and improves the self-esteem of volunteers in the process.
What has blossomed from the scheme in Southwark is a social network; friendships have formed and social groups have followed. Looking at the video clips on the Southwark Circle website, the sense of achievement and contribution that the volunteers describe shines through. The benefits of volunteering in this way cannot be underestimated, and the flexibility to offer from one hour a month to 10 hours a week is a clear way to keep volunteers on board.
Of course, the Southwark model may not work in every corner of the land and the scheme is still in the early days. However, if we can help the vulnerable and lonely in our communities and support volunteering, all at a saving to the public purse, this has to be a scheme worth exploring.