Threadbare Britain – why our communities need our effort

Mary-Ann Ochota

neighbours 300x168 Threadbare Britain   why our communities need our effortFigures revealed in this evening’s ITV1 Tonight programme Do You Know Your Neighbours? show just how sickly British communities are.  Almost a quarter of us haven’t spoken to any of our neighbours in the past month. 42% of us know fewer than five people who live on the same street, and 20% wouldn’t recognise their neighbours in the local supermarket – if they don’t happen to be walking down the drive at the same time as you, there’s little chance of knowing who they are.

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, one in ten over 65s report that they are often very lonely or always lonely.  Not just lonely on bad days, or on long winter evenings when no-one calls, but from morning to evening, every day, without let up.  Reviewing more than 140 studies in the US, researchers showed that having a small number of social ties radically increases mortality – being lonely is about as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Humans are hardwired social animals – we’re not designed to be alone, we’re designed to seek out meaningful face-to-face interactions, and build mutually satisfying reltionships with other people.  It’s why we use solitary confinement as a punishment.  Loneliness, social isolation and thin, flimsy communities are becoming the norm.

There are a number of reasons why.

Britain is a nation of individuals – our society values personal, economic success over the success of family or ‘tribe’.  The future seems to be in the hands of independent, strong individuals who are free to take the opportunities the world has to offer them. The individual is king.  Being homely and dutiful is boring, parochial, out of step with the modern.  Local councillors aren’t often celebrated for their commitment to the bonds of community and kinship, more often they’re caricatured as narrow-minded, meddling busybodies.

Many households have all the adults working away from home, leaving them less time to spend in the local community.  Most of us have a car that means we can move easily, quickly and privately out of the local area.

In profound ways, we no longer need our local communities – even a generation ago it’s more likely that your job, the kids’ school and childcare, where you did your shopping, who you relied on for safety were tied into the local neighbourhood.  If you didn’t toe the line, act friendly and do your bit, you had an awful lot more to lose. Now, we can afford to be different, to dissent, to do our own thing.  We can afford to be selfish.

But the tide is turning – there’s a sense that we’ve lost something and we want to get it back.  ITV’s survey reveals that more than half of us would like to know our neighbours better, and 62% would like to feel part of a community.

With a shrinking welfare state and increased threat of extremism from within the country, it’s even more important for us to start building strong, resilient, communities.

The ‘Big Society’ ideal demands that we shoulder more of the responsibility for caring for vulnerable people, keeping an eye on the neighbours, improving the local environment, and getting together to maintain community assets we care about – this year Big Society Capital and the Big Lottery Fund will give £250 Million to communities who want to buy and run profit-making businesses like corner shops and pubs.

There’s certainly a role for traditional community institutions like the Post Office, parish church and local pub – they should be focal points for friendly interaction and shared local interests – but they must work hard to make themselves relevant.

We’re time-poor, and the question is often, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Traditional institutions need to provide a service, a reason for people to get involved that overcomes initial inertia and British inhibition, and crucially, offer a place that fosters trust and sense of permanence.  Community relationships are a type of reciprocal gift exchange – you help now, you support even if it’s not convenient or you don’t want to. In time, the return benefit will come your way – each member of the community needs to trust that they’ll get something back and the relationship is equal, fair, and fulfilling.  Post offices, pubs and places of worship can act as the focus for shared goals and communal effort.

Of course, there are plenty of services a community requires that aren’t as much fun as running the local pub, or setting up a crèche for the village kids.  Services that won’t turn a profit, that are challenging and difficult, are also needed and that’s surely where the collective might of the country, in the form of state provision, must come in.

Nonetheless, the responsibility to stop vulnerable people falling through the threadbare fabric of society must be shouldered by us all.  We should know enough about our neighbours to know when something’s amiss.

We’re at a point now where we have to choose what kind of communities we want – the fabric needs repairing, strengthening.  We need to decide how tight-knit, or loose-weave we want it to be.

We need communities strong enough to protect our vulnerable, help each other, keep us safe and raise our happiness and health levels. They must be communities flexible, vibrant and tolerant enough to weave together the richly diverse people of Britain.

Do You Know Your Neighbours? is tonight at 7.30pm on ITV1

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