How many of you have visited Fair Close Centre in Newbury? When that question was asked last week at the conference I hosted on Loneliness and Isolation, only a fraction of the eighty people attending raised their hands. Which, surprisingly, was a result for Fair Close who kindly hosted the event as they were delighted to engage with so many newcomers. For me, it encapsulated exactly what this conference was all about. So many good things are happening in our area to counter loneliness and isolation and this conference was all about sharing this information and building connections.
There is a national conversation going on about loneliness. Mims Davies MP, the Minister with responsibility for loneliness, spoke via video at the conference about the Government’s Loneliness Strategy launched last October. She compared the physical and mental health impacts of loneliness to the impacts of smoking and obesity. Between 3% and 18% of adults in the UK are lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’. The framework set by the Government is designed to enable local authorities, businesses, health, the voluntary sector, communities and individuals, to support people’s social well-being. A major expansion of ‘social prescribing’ services is under way, together with significant new funding, over £20 million in total including £11.5 million for the Building Connections Fund supporting projects right across the country.
Last Friday, we heard from Josie Reed, chair of trustees at Fair Close, about the services the centre offers to the over 65s. We also heard about the Befriend West Berkshire and Village Agents schemes run by the Volunteer Centre, and from representatives of the Mortimer Village Partnership, the Bradfield Community Shop and Leckhampstead Village Hall, who spoke movingly about these community hubs and the service they provide in building those all-important social connections. Many of the churches were represented and one church leader said that he had calculated that around 2,500 people from the churches in West Berkshire are involved with volunteering in some capacity every week.
From the Public Health and primary care perspective, loneliness has huge implications and it was good to learn more about the ways in which the local agencies are tackling this issue. Matt Pearce, Public Health lead at West Berkshire Council, used Age UK’s ‘loneliness map’ to highlight the areas in Berkshire statistically at highest risk, assessed on data such as marital status, health, age and household size. The way our neighbourhoods are built and run can influence social connections, from the design of new housing right through to transport links. Surprisingly, the figures show loneliness is higher in urban areas than in rural areas.
As Tim Parry of Connecting Communities in Berkshire put it, there were three points for us all to take away: one, to be alert to signs of loneliness around us; two, to celebrate and highlight the good stuff that is already happening to tackle it; and, three, to reflect and consider how to put this into practice in our own communities. It was a very positive and productive morning and I was grateful to the VCWB and the CCB for their help in organising it. I hope the ‘conversation’ we started will continue. As the Minister said, although it is right that Government leads the way, it is up to each one of us to take it forward in our own communities in order to achieve the longer term social change that we all want to see.