Health inequalities are widening and society is fractured

The government needs to invest in the social glue that binds us if we are to live better and longer again

This is an edited version of an article first published by The Guardian

“England has lost a decade,” Sir Michael Marmot said this week, as he presented his 10-year review of his seminal 2010 analysis of health inequalities.

“I have evidence to support that assertion,” he added. And he surely did. From stalled life expectancy – worsening for the poorest women – to growing numbers of children living in poverty, the University College London professor, and unrivalled expert in inequalities’ research, fired off a battery of data showing how England has grown more polarised by health over the last a decade.

It was “highly likely” that austerity policies were the principal cause, he concluded while, in the rest of the UK, “the damage to health and wellbeing is similarly unprecedented”.

Less high profile, but equally concerning, was a report last week by the Office for National Statistics suggesting we are becoming a more fractured society; we have less ‘positive engagement’ with neighbours – swapping favours, or stopping to chat – and admit that we are losing our sense of belonging to a neighbourhood. We are doing less to help elderly or disabled people in the community and even to help our own parents or adult children, and we are joining fewer clubs and societies, instead networking online from the isolation of our living rooms. Across 25 measures of ‘social capital’, many key indicators are alarmingly down.

What can be done to reverse these widening health inequalities and the seeming loss of our (non-digital) social glue? How about, for starters, establishing a national centre where activists from some of the poorest communities could go to gain the confidence and skills they need to help their neighbours fight against social, financial and environmental social exclusion?

A victims of cashflow problems

As it happens, just such a centre was opened in 1995. More than 4,000 people have since attended Trafford Hall, near Chester, and benefited from its residential courses, taking back to their housing estates the wherewithal to challenge authority and – in the jargon – empower their friends and neighbours.

But 12 months ago the centre suddenly closed, a victim of cashflow problems brought on by austerity cuts to the budgets of the housing agencies and charities that funded the training. The 25 staff, who also hosted weddings and other revenue-earning events at the listed, 18th-century former country house, were made redundant.

Trafford Hall is an emblem of the story of public services over the past 30 years. Conceived in the late 1980s in the social policy hothouse of the London School of Economics, and made real largely by the drive and determination of Anne Power, head of the LSE housing and communities research group, it thrived under the Blair and Brown Labour governments but benefited also from charitable and corporate support. Architect Richard Rogers was a committed supporter from the off, Prince Charles opened important doors and performed the opening ceremony, while Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) bought the house, and builders John Laing converted it at cost price.

A poignant swan song

Poignantly, one of the last housing sector events held at Trafford Hall before its closure was organised to reflect on lessons of the 2017 Grenfell fire, and to feed into the public inquiry into the tragedy.

One of its conclusions was, ‘Tenants are entitled to have a voice in the safety, maintenance and general condition of their blocks. They often know more than staff about who lives in blocks, and about earlier works, as they have often been around longer than housing staff.’

Hearing the voice of the UK’s 9 million social tenants will be a central and lasting message from the inquiry and, in Trafford Hall, ministers have a singular and symbolic opportunity to demonstrate that they intend not just to listen, but also to help articulate and amplify that voice while, at the same time, building social capital and tackling inequalities.

The National Communities Resource Centre, the charity behind Trafford Hall, hopes to reopen it this spring. It is still fundraising and reckons to be about £70,000 short of what is needed in the first instance, but the government could ease the process immeasurably by pledging support.

In the early 1990s a Tory administration chipped in to help meet set-up costs at Trafford Hall. Today, its successors should do no less.

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