Published: 17:30, 23 October 2018
Getting to know your neighbour could help solve a public health crisis.
According to research by Kent County Council, a lack of community spirit could be causing chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes due to social isolation and loneliness.
This comes as a national survey by Neighbourhood Watch and The Co-op revealed only around a quarter of residents know all their neighbours.
The survey also found 85% of people have never invited their neighbour into their home and 24% believe they are a good neighbour by keeping to themselves.
Yet more than half of homeowners say they know the people living nearby by name but almost a third want to be friendlier.
According to this study, the vast majority of adults don’t know the names of people in their community outside of their close group of neighbours.
While this could be a sign of the times as people are leading increasingly busy lives and communicate in different ways, this is also a sign more people are becoming socially isolated.
To find solutions to this epidemic, a cross-party group of councillors at KCC have been tasked with determining the root causes of social isolation and loneliness in the county.
Member of the group, Cllr Matthew Balfour (Con), believes communities getting together is a better solution to the problem than creating a “dependency culture attitude” where people rely on voluntary groups and the council.
Cllr Balfour (Con) said: “A lot of the problems are societal, they are to do with not talking to your neighbour or not helping the lady three doors down who can’t drive any more to go and get her prescription.
“The societal elements of joining people up so they are not isolated and not lonely should not be down to a series of professionals but instead KCC should somehow change the attitude of people so we reform communities as they have fallen apart.”
Cllr David Brazier (Con) claims families turning their backs on their elderly parents leaves them reliant on council services.
He said: “It seems that a lot of society is prepared to abandon a parent without the support of the family and a weekly phone call will not do.
“People have a responsibility to have oversight of the care of their elderly parents and to be available but this society puts personal ambition and convenience and a whole variety of other factors before their first responsibility of looking after one’s family.
“A lot of the problems are societal, they are to do with not talking to your neighbour..." Cllr Matthew Balfour
“It then makes the elderly reliant, as a necessity, on the social provisions from KCC, which would not have to be there in that strength if we, as a society, did not neglect our own relations.”
However Cllr Karen Constantine (Lab) argued families often do not have much opportunity to help their elderly loved ones as the work is not flexible.
She said: “When people have a particular problem with an older parent, relative or elderly neighbour it is often difficult for them to get time off work to go and attend that person.
“Because it’s elder care and a crisis, you can’t predict how long you will need to sort out a particular situation.
“A lot of working people are under pressure as we have a very long-hours culture, often fragmented workforce and employers who are often less kind, sometimes, about allowing staff to have decent time off to go and resolve problems.
“We have a situation where we don’t empower people to go and do that.”
She also added the crisis “comes out of the blue” as the elderly person is “quite private and proud about not wanting to impact on the younger generation”.
While Cllr Tony Hills (Con) agrees with his colleagues about the power of community, he claims it has not “fallen apart” but instead evolved in a different way online.
He said: “Community strength is growing again in some strange way as on Facebook if a person is attacked on the next street, there would be 200 people on the case.
“They don’t even have to leave their house and that’s really changing how people think about these things.”
As a part of an initiative to support the community, the council has hired 128 wardens to encourage people to look out for one another.
The cabinet member for community at KCC, Cllr Mike Hill told the select committee how these wardens were originally “a low-level law and order service” to assist the police but are now crucial in the community.
Cllr Hill said: “Community wardens are the help in all possible ways; they are the one person in that community, paid as a job, to help and everything is their business.
“They may not always be able to help people directly themselves but they will know someone who can.
“Their job is to be aware of people in communities that are isolated and vulnerable and make sure they are looked after.”
The council train volunteers to support these wardens for around 20 hours a week.
To join the team that aim to help build stronger neighbourhoods contact the service on 03000 413455.
A draft report of the findings of the select committee is set to be written at the end of this year and the final copy of their policy suggestions will be completed at the beginning 2019.
More by this authorCaitlin Webb, local democracy reporter