Charity shops like this are kept alive by armies of volunteers. Any social policy must empower and fund the volunteers who keep our society vibrant
Over the past few days at the NACAS Conference I have been inspired by so many stories about good things that are happening to look after people the length and breadth of the Country.
Of course, we need big policies and strategies. Of course, we need money to make those strategies work. However, there was a huge amount of evidence put forward that those strategies should not be directive i.e. telling people and councils what to do but empowering i.e. allowing them and encouraging them to do things.
I thought that throughout the conference but particularly so at the session I both chaired and spoke at this morning which was about policies and strategies to combat loneliness. I gave three examples of this from my own Church Ward:
- The lady who said that the best thing that ever happened to her was breaking her leg! This meant that the family from three doors up had noticed her; talked to her; and helped her for the first time. This was a great match. Her children and grandchildren are many miles away. Their Grandmas are many miles away. Hey presto an instant grandma for 3 youngsters and a real sense of purpose for the honorary Gran!
- I talked about Calderstones Park and the physical exercise which the walkers; the dog walkers and the children get. I talked about mental serenity caused by a calm, quiet green space and the Japanese and English Gardens.
- I talked about the community on wheels that some people call a bus. How, in Liverpool people talk to each on the bus. Complete strangers swap view on the weather, football and everything under the sun.
Then the floodgates opened. Councillors and officers from all over the Country wanted to speak about the good things that are happening in their own communities:
- The firefighters who ‘buddy up’ to older men and encourage them to take up hobbies and pastimes and go with them a couple of times until they make friends.
- The Facetime chat scheme where people, especially in rural areas are encouraged to network via social media.
- The village wardens who have a list of people who need to be checked on. Not obtrusively, but where someone will knock if no-one has been seen for some time.
- The refuse collectors who, provided they are always given the same collection route, keep an eye out for people who are not using or bringing out their bins and will knock to see what is going on.
- Example after example of staff going more than an extra mile. Example after example of people behaving like decent folk and neighbours and doing things within their communities.
- There were not only public sector workers. A lovely example was the delivery man from a large supermarket who always made the last delivery on a Friday to a 91 year old lady and brought with him fish and chips for them both. This act of simple humanity was the high point of that lady’s week but I can guarantee would have been frowned on by his superiors had they known.
- The question for policy makers is, “How do we understand the way that simple actions like this can add up to a wider strategy”. How do they create the space in which communities can flourish and staff can go the extra mile?
Looking into two of these examples we can see that it is not quite so easy as it might appear when it comes to evaluating cause and effect and costing it against other alternatives.
To run Calderstones Park costs about £250,000 a year. That’s the cost of 50 bed nights in a hospital. How do we show that the Park prevents xx number of hospital admissions, xx visits to hard-pressed GPs, xx less visits to the chemists for drugs? We can be absolutely certain that this is true but how do we show this to the NHS. How do we get them to move expenditure from the clinical and medical to the preventive?
What is the value of the refuse collector who took time out of their round to talk to the elderly who they hadn’t seen. In pure financial terms this would have damaged productivity based on bins emptied per minute. But what did it save the rest of the public sector in terms of early warnings for the system and contentment of an individual. How can we empower front line staff for one service to be front line staff for the whole of the public sector? What are the costs of this and what are the savings?
In many places in the Country councillors are given small amounts of money to use on small activities in their ward/division. I think this is the best value expenditure that we can make because it unlocks so much more. This year Cllr Makinson and I have funded half a new water system for a community kitchen; new planters for an amenity group and new railings for a church at the end of Penny Lane. Tiny amounts of money from us help unlock hours of voluntary activity and real visible benefits for our constituents.
When David Cameron tried to establish his ill-fated Big Society it failed not because it was not, per se, a good idea but because it was a good idea that is already being undertaken. Almost everyone I know who has stopped work for a living is now working harder than ever in their retirement. Sometimes this is as a grandparent or a carer. But the National Trust; most heritage charities; boards of charities; school governors, charity shops, faith groups et al are kept alive by an army of volunteers buoyed up by oceans of tea and weighed down by huge chunks of cake!
So let’s all lobby the Government for more money. Let’s press for new programmes and policies and strategies. Then let’s look around our communities and our people and add up all the little things and work out how we can support and empower even more people to do the little things which take the pressure off the acute services like hospitals and social care.