Alison Stenning and Sarah Marie Hall
On October 15th 2018, Theresa May and her minister for loneliness, Tracey Crouch, launched the government’s ‘strategy for tackling loneliness’. This was the culmination of a growing debate over the prevalence and impacts of loneliness in Britain today, which has included ongoing work by the many partners within the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and a large-scale BBC survey, The Anatomy of Loneliness. Others have debated whether there is currently an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness, or whether we are just talking about it more.
In this piece, we add our voices to these critical debates. Reflecting our ongoing work on the psychosocial and relational geographies of austerity, we want to raise two particular questions about the framing and context of the government’s strategy, which we argue amount to a depoliticisation of the debate around loneliness.
Firstly, we want to argue that the strategy appears to be written as if the last ten years of austerity haven’t happened and, moreover, reduces ‘social change’ to very particular social shifts whilst also imagining them as both incontestable and as apolitical.
It should not surprise us that there is no mention of austerity. But more than this, the strategy studiously ignores the contradiction at the heart of many of the recommendations. The strategy highlights the value of, inter alia, libraries, museums, public transport, parks, and high streets in combating loneliness. Yet, in the course of the last 10 years, almost 500 libraries have been closed, 64 museums, 134 million miles of bus routes have been lost, parks budgets have been reduced by an average of 40%, and more than 12,000 high street outlets have closed. Further cuts have also decimated children’s centres, youth services, day care centres for the elderly, community centres, and support programmes for young parents, carers, those with mental health issues, addicts, and survivors of domestic abuse amongst many others.
This is the impoverished landscape that the government’s strategy not only refuses to acknowledge, but also expects to offer the spaces in which individuals and communities ‘take action’ (p.7) to tackle loneliness. Challenged by the BBC’s Claudia Hammond on this very issue, Tracey Crouch responded:
“I’m not going to pretend that those things [cuts] didn’t happen, and yes, we did make those changes. One of the things that we have outlined in the strategy is looking at a sort of policy test for loneliness … it’s not to say that those cuts wouldn’t happen but at least there would be an understanding of the consequence of those cuts … Yes, the past has happened, those changes are not going to be reversed but let’s make sure we don’t necessarily make the same mistakes going forward.”
Whilst there appears to be an acknowledgement here that mistakes have been with the government’s programme of cuts, it is also clear that the minister is not ruling out further detrimental cuts, and this points to a larger political argument.
Austerity, it has been argued, is part of a longer-term project of neoliberalism oriented towards eroding the public sector, undermining the quality and security of work and pay and individualising responsibility. The strategy recognises that “society is changing rapidly” (p.6) but focuses much more on the growth of online and digital interactions than on, for example, the rise of zero-hours contracts, the privatisation of public space, or the marketization of health and social care. It clearly states that the “strategy doesn’t attempt to resist how society is changing or to try to turn back time” (p.6). In place then of challenging major social shifts that exacerbate loneliness and the quality of relationships in our everyday lives, the strategy seeks only to mitigate their effects, with most responsibility attributed, as we might expect, to individuals, families and communities as “the most effective answer” (p.16) to loneliness. A depoliticised analysis of the rise of loneliness and its relationship to neoliberalism allows for a strategy that tinkers around the edges and refuses to acknowledge what a profoundly political issue loneliness is.
For a more political analysis of loneliness in the UK in the context of an austere society and economy, we need, secondly, to also be aware of what actions are anticipated, and by whom. To a considerable extent, the report focuses significantly on groups who will be receiving rather than giving support to combat loneliness, but we can consider this extract relating to the work of the “Building Connections Fund” (p.53 – emphasis added):
“The fund will support a wide range of existing projects for individuals and communities, with the aim of:
- reducing and/or preventing loneliness by helping people feel more connected
- supporting organisations to increase their impact by scaling up or joining with other local provisions to reach more people and improve the system-wide offer and
- improving the evidence base and consolidating learning to inform longer-term policy and funding decisions”
Helping, scaling up, joining with, reaching, improving, consolidating: there is a lot of work and active ‘doing’ involved in addressing loneliness. For us, the report therefore raises significant questions about the labour – physical and emotional – of ‘reaching out’ across and within communities in order to combat loneliness, of what the Prime Minister in her foreword identifies as “simple acts of kindness” (p.2). This underplaying of the work involved in ‘building connections’ reinforces our concerns about depoliticisation. Whilst the reiterated claim that “loneliness doesn’t discriminate” (p.3) may hold some truth, in that people from all sections from society can feel lonely, it does little to represent how unevenly the work of addressing loneliness falls, and how unequal the opportunities to escape loneliness are likely to be.
For a start, the weight of austerity, poverty, and the negotiation of cuts and benefit reforms (such as Universal Credit) mean that poorer communities are already struggling with, at the very least, a weariness that undermines the capacity for labour. There is no mention of poverty in the government’s loneliness strategy. There is a widespread acknowledgement in popular media and academia that austerity is gendered. And recent research by the Women’s Budget Group and Runnymede has highlighted that Black and Minority Ethnic women fair worse from austerity cuts, in a whole manner of ways. All the evidence suggests that the impacts of austerity are not even. The context of austerity suggests, therefore, that the challenges of confronting and addressing loneliness are similarly gendered and racialised, particularly if the emphasis is placed on social care, voluntary labour and community spaces to provide the solution. Austerity chips away at those who are already exhausted and disenfranchised, compounding experiences of poverty, isolation and hardship. Placing responsibility back on these same communities to solve problems that were not of their own making will simply pile more on pressures.
Although the report does mention ‘community infrastructure’ (p.10), this is reduced to community buildings and transport. The creation and maintenance of community doesn’t happen on its own, or only with money and bricks. It takes time, space, energy, skills, and patience. It requires investments that are beyond the physical and financial, what others have termed ‘social infrastructure’. While we think the report is right to see communities as infrastructure – and a valuable one at that – we also wish to ask: why, then, has community been so easily eroded in recent years? Was community not already a valuable infrastructure when people were being dealt benefit cuts, having to move to home because of real rent increases or the bedroom tax, or losing their public-sector jobs? Asking these questions helps to bring politics back to the centre of discussion.
We have argued that the government’s strategy to tackle loneliness is a depoliticised one. But, of course, it is profoundly political. By refusing to acknowledge the role of austerity in exacerbating loneliness, by expecting already-pressed communities and infrastructures to disproportionately take on the burden of combating the problem, and by seeing the solution as beyond governmental duty, the strategy posits a very particular perspective. In many ways, the strategy espouses similar values to, and resonates with, earlier ideas about the Big Society, placing responsibility back into communities because, after all, ‘we’re all in it together’.
The power and value of communities is immense, and many of the projects cited in the strategy are wonderful examples of radical and exciting initiatives which nurture communities and connections. But the responsibility for alleviating loneliness should not fall primarily on them. We must challenge the government to reconsider the role of austerity in undermining social infrastructures, creating new forms of poverty, weariness and exclusion, and, in these ways, exacerbating loneliness.
Alison Stenning is Professor of Social and Economic Geography at Newcastle University. Her research has been focused around domestic, emotional, embodied and psychosocial geographies, with a particular emphasis on the experience of living with austerity and, more recently, play on residential streets. She blogs here and tweets @alisonstenning. Sarah Marie Hall is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and Morgan Centre member at the University of Manchester. Her research sits in the broad field of feminist political economy: understanding how socio-economic processes are shaped by lived experiences, social differences and gender relations.