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Housing is key to tackling the UK’s loneliness epidemic

This year’s Loneliness Awareness Week could not have come at a more important time. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the UK had a loneliness epidemic. But the outbreak has drastically worsened and brought into sharper focus the feelings of loneliness felt by people of different ages. The latest figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the equivalent of 7.4 million people across Great Britain said their wellbeing had been affected by feeling lonely in the previous seven days.

Despite this, the last few months have also given us many inspiring moments of social connection, even at a time of physical distancing. The coronavirus crisis has brought communities together and shown our capacity to reach out across social and generational divides. From mutual aid groups to young people sending letters and poems to older care home residents, we seem to have realised what is really important to us: connection and belonging.

Our politicians must act quickly to build on this momentum and create a more socially connected country for the long-term. Housing policy has a key role to play. If we don’t feel comfortable and safe in the home we live in, or have a neighbourhood which provides spaces in which to interact with others, then our hopes for more togetherness and less loneliness will be dashed.

Tackling loneliness through housing: the story so far

Fortunately, the Government doesn’t have to start from scratch. In 2018 its official Loneliness Strategy was published, including a number of ideas for housing and planning to strengthen social connections. These included placing community at the heart of planning and design frameworks, funding research into community-led housing initiatives such as co-housing, and ensuring the wider urban design of towns and cities encourages social interaction through thriving high streets, parks, and other communal spaces. Adding loneliness to the portfolio of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) helped cement this focus.

Since then, the Government has released its follow-up annual report on tackling loneliness, published in January 2020. Progress has been made, it said, by including loneliness measures in the English Housing Survey, giving £125,000 towards co-housing research and exploring the role of design in tackling loneliness at various conferences. With all due respect to these measures, they are not going to suffice in the post-coronavirus world. Rather than light-touch nods to loneliness – a piece of research here and a few conference presentations there – the Government need to put social connection at the front and centre of housing policy, and treat it as seriously as the issue deserves.

Tackling loneliness should not be some after-thought; a soft, woolly topic to be explored once all the important issues have been sorted out. Loneliness is as bad for you as 15 cigarettes a day. It kills people.

What more must be done?

Tackling loneliness has got to be made an explicit priority in the planning system, nationally and locally. Though promoting social interaction is mentioned once in the 61-page National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), tackling loneliness as a specific aim is nowhere to be seen. Next time the framework is updated – which may be some years away – the section on ‘promoting healthy and safe communities’ should be updated to include a focus on reducing loneliness. More achievable in the short-term is updated ministerial guidance on the framework, setting out how local authorities can plan for developments which foster social bonds across ages. Local authorities should not only be nudged to think about loneliness in their local plans, but required to do so.

This general emphasis has got to be accompanied by specific examples of schemes which have shown promise. The Government is right to highlight co-housing as one model which can bring people together. Residents often play an integral role in the initial design of the community, which typically consist of private properties with pooled funds for communal resources and facilities. Intergenerational living is increasingly high on the agenda, for instance through integrating general needs housing with housing for older people, retirement villages acting as hubs for the whole community, properties designed for multi-generational living, and simple yet effective design tweaks such as having interconnected gardens between properties, or building windows that look out on to communal courtyards.

It is the design not only of housing but of the wider village, town or city which can make all the difference in bringing people of all ages together. Are there enough good-quality communal spaces such as parks and squares to encourage social interaction? Are there enough benches for people to sit down on and chat? How about level pavements and fewer trip hazards so that older people can walk into town?

Tackling loneliness is not only linked to bridging generational divides, but reducing ethnic and income segregation, too. It’s no good fostering close connections between some groups if others are left out – or worse, stigmatised. Last year’s south London scandal over a private playground that barred poorer children entering from the socially-rented block of flats opposite was a case in point. Thankfully, Henley Homes reversed the policy once their disgraceful approach was splashed across national newspaper pages.

Connecting the economic to the social  

The Henley Homes example points to a broader point: you cannot disentangle the economics of housing from the social connections you may seek to create through it. That is why progressive housing policy will win out when it comes to tackling loneliness. We already know that those on lower incomes are more likely to be lonely. Good-quality social housing can help massively, providing homes people can be proud of and live comfortably in, so they are happy living in their community. Gentrifying developments which reduce the number of socially-rented homes in favour of expensive private flats, forcing people with roots in the local area to leave, are only making matters considerably worse. 

Providing better conditions for private renters is crucial, too – another group more prone to loneliness. The Government should prioritise the development of its framework for longer tenancies for private renters, so they feel more secure in their property and have a better chance to build connections with neighbours in the long run.  

Time for action

The coronavirus crisis has illuminated both the tragic scale of the UK’s loneliness epidemic, and the desire of the young, old and everyone in between to overcome it through stronger social connection. If our streets, neighbourhoods, towns and cities don’t foster feelings of togetherness, then we have no hope.

It’s time for housing policy to respond.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Sam Dalton</span></strong>
Sam Dalton

Sam is a policy and public affairs professional with expertise in housing, social care, social connection and loneliness. He led an inquiry on strengthening ties between young and old alongside the parliamentary group on social integration, and authored its ‘Healing the Generational Divide’ report published last year.

Sam has written for The Fabian Society and Left Foot Forward, as well as think tanks, social ventures and charities. He led policy workshops for young people at last year’s Millennifest events in London and Bristol.

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