Last week I suggested that we must tackle the causes of social isolation by fundamentally rethinking how Britain works, our cities, our schools, our businesses, everything, everywhere. I left you imagining a place where meaningful relationships run through everything we do.
What might change?
This week I want to start to talk about what might change in those places and to organise the conversation around 6 principles. Maybe there are more but it’s a helpful place to start. The principles aren’t rocket science. Human beings have been learning how to live with one another since life began but if the basics haven’t changed the context has and so must the interpretation:
• Having fun together builds strong relationships. Build the bridges.
• Some places enable relationships to thrive, some don’t. Design and manage for social connection.
• The human touch is irreplaceable. Sweat the small stuff.
• We all need help at some point in our lives. Some need more help now.
• It is easiest to form relationships with people who are near to us. Focus on the local.
• Digital connections shouldn’t be the enemy of real relationships. They should be the beginning.
1) Having fun together builds strong relationships.
This one is so obvious that it won’t be new to anyone but it is also so important that I think it should be said again. Real. and sustainable relationships are more likely to flourish around a shared interest and communal participation than an. act of charity. Formal and informal associations like the allotment group, the choir or the sports club may not explicitly prioritise the building of relationships but they do. Sociologists call this the “bridging capital” that has such a huge influence on the health and well being of the whole community. Driving down social isolation through investment in this soft infrastructure, improving the old bridges and building new ones, isn’t an alternative to a big vision about reducing crime or improving health or revitalising the economy. It is the making of it.
What would change?
· Simple though it is, support for and investment in local and communal leisure time activity would be a priority for independent sponsors and state funding. This could be ambitious and intensive like the Participatory City programme planned for Barking and Dagenham or a simple grant aid scheme. Three £5k awards in every one of the 649 small wards in London would cost less than a third of the annual price of mental ill health in the city. In the next few years a further £3bn will be flowing into the social sector from unclaimed assets, potentially more in due course. This modest injection could be focused on stimulating such shared activities.
· The sport and art sectors are potentially important but sometimes regarded as closed and elitist. Some of this new money would focus on opening up the organisations and the infrastructure that already exists in much the same way as access training provides a pathway into further education.
· A new “Right to Space” would require local authorities to provide, or pay for, space for any community activity where members can demonstrate a level of interest and an open door. A right, not a gift, would signal the importance of strong communities by fundamentally rebalancing the relationship between communities and the state. A version of this policy works in Denmark.
2) Some places enable relationships to thrive, some don’t. Design and manage for social connection.
Most parents knows that their local networks improve when they join the school gate fraternity but some improve more than others. A welcoming playground, a covered waiting area, seats all make a difference. Just as the playground brings together people with common interest and concerns so too do the other formal and informal bumping places – allotments, places of worship, shops, markets, cul de sacs , even shared dustbins. We can design social interaction into the places where we live or we can design it out.
What would change?
· Planning regulations would include a “Common Ground Test” requiring planners to design for effective social connection in every development. Similar emphasis on the social plumbing works well in many other countries. Ignoring it here should be just as unthinkable, and just as illegal, as ignoring the need for water pipes and sewage mains.
· It needn’t be elaborate. As the Young Foundation have shown, the humble bench, the most basic bumping place, strategically positioned, facilitates connection but is rapidly disappearing from the urban landscape.
· The high street shops may not compete for price or convenience with online suppliers but they can offer an alternative, shared experience, particularly when they work together. Stratford’s Old Market and Westfield are very different but both are successful because they offer play areas, events, seats, an entire shopping experience that is distinctive and, importantly, explicitly social. The big brands and the small shop keeper have a shared interest in reinventing the high street less as purely transactional more as modern, collective and relational.
· Public services would be located in one neighbourhood building serving everyone – library, council services, police, children’s centre, GPs, dentist etc. We may not need them often but we would get to know the staff and our neighbours far better if they were located together around a café and a meeting place.
3) The human touch is irreplaceable. Sweat the small stuff.
To be capable of empathy and warmth is what it is to be human. We need to learn to relate well, and create opportunities to relate better, face to face, one to one, through out our lives.
What would change?
· Buddy Schemes – pairing children and training them to provide mutual support – already works well in some schools from nursery to 6th form. The children help one another now and they learn for life. This isn’t an Ofsted thing – you can’t inspect for good relationships, but with the right encouragement the Buddy Scheme could become as much a part of growing up in Britain as school dinners and playground games.
· “Hello my name is…” is supposed to an “always event” in the health service, it should become an always event in every service, public, private, voluntary. It isn’t just a nice thing to do – the evidence shows that we behave differently when we use names.
What else? Next week I will start to talk about the other three principles and then, in week four, I will start to feed back on the suggestions from others and. what I have learnt so far. Do please contribute to the conversation.