I attended a day's presentation and workshop for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's "Neighbourhood Approaches to Loneliness". Mostly I went because one of the study areas was the village of Denholme, part of Bingley Rural ward.
The work is interesting and useful. I can commend it's basic idea - that communities can be helped (assuming this is needed at all) to respond to the problems of loneliness. And loneliness, as much as any other so-called public health challenge, is a killer:
Loneliness is a bigger problem than simply an emotional experience. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than well-known risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity.
Put simply, meeting our need for social interaction can help us live longer, healthier lives regardless of the other choices we make about our lifestyles.
Much of the work is about what might be done - not at the grand level of national policy but at the level of the neighbourhood. And in presenting these findings two observations stood out to me: one depressing but not surprised and the other chilling.
The first was:
Regulation kills kindness
People who want to help are put off helping because of the regulations - the safeguarding checks, the insurances, the mandatory training, the forms, the licences, the sheer bureaucracy of trying to do a good deed. This is depressing - and my depression was worsened by advocates of regulation defending the use of regulation. Pleasingly the project head amended her statement to say that regulation and bureaucracy kills kindness.
The second, the chilling one that went almost without notice, was:
We need to give people permission to care
That's right - permission to care. That professionals in the employ of the Council, the NHS or their satellite agencies needed to allow people to look out for their neighbour. In this I saw a dead culture - one murdered by the good intentions of public agencies. That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.
So tell me you caring professionals, what kind of world are you creating where someone needs your permission to be a good neighbour? Chilling indeed.