Voluntary and community organisations have joined public and private sector bodies from across North Yorkshire to consider ways of creating and strengthening connections within the county’s communities.
Neighbourly Communities was the theme of the 15th Wider Partnership Conference hosted by North Yorkshire County Council at the Pavilions of Harrogate on Friday (26 October).
The conference, which was attended by more than 200 delegates, comes less than two weeks after Prime Minister Theresa May launched the Government’s first loneliness strategy.
The main speaker at Friday’s conference was Kim Leadbeater, an ambassador for the Jo Cox Foundation, which was set up after the murder of her sister, MP Jo Cox, in June 2016. Kim chairs the West Yorkshire More In Common volunteer group and is spokesperson for the Great Get Together, an annual weekend of community events across the UK. She champions the importance of strong communities, where everyone has a sense of belonging, inspired by Jo’s words: “We have far more in common than that which divides us.”
At the launch of the Government’s strategy, Kim said: “It is excellent to see that loneliness is now firmly on the Government’s agenda. The important thing now is to turn the dialogue and strategy into action; that is undoubtedly what Jo would want, and for every life that is made less lonely as a result of the work she started and that we have all continued, we will take great comfort.”
She told the conference about the work of the Foundation, which has among its priorities loneliness and building stronger communities, and about the Great Get Together.
“I realised really quickly that the way to succeed in our local area was by reaching out across the public, private and voluntary sector and working together. Because we had no agenda, that was relatively easy. I know it isn’t always that easy, particularly when it comes to funding and bids and that sort of stuff. But we transcended that and asked what is the best way to make a difference. We sat down with businesses and with the local voluntary groups, all the schools, the colleges, the council.”
She spoke of the amazing work being done by the Foundation and the enthusiasm for the Great Get Together that was bringing together people and communities that may not usually meet.
“We don’t have all the answers,” she said. “What we have done is very much based on emotion and instinct and the desire to do something good, but the results have been fantastic. I guess the challenge is how do you replicate that sort of stuff without the starting point that we had. We are very good as human beings at responding when things go wrong, we are good at dealing with tragedy and coming together, but how can we create that naturally? We should be like that all the time. That is one of our challenges going forward.”
North Yorkshire is a large rural county with a growing older population and social isolation can be an issue, although loneliness is not confined to older people. Evidence shows that the impact of loneliness and isolation on mortality exceeds that of well-known risk factors such as obesity and is similar to cigarette smoking, which in turn contribute to this effect. Loneliness is not only experienced by older people. There is evidence that it is a greater concern among young people.
The conference allowed delegates to explore these issues, learn from successful projects and consider how they could help to make North Yorkshire more connected and neighbourly. Issues discussed included the role of technology in tackling loneliness, how where people live can have an impact and the role of health and social care.
Councillor Carl Les, Leader of the County Council, said: “I think it’s very important that we have an occasion where our partners and ourselves can come together, where we can share our experiences, our thoughts and build the bonds between us so that we can work together even better than we do.
“Having grown up in North Yorkshire and having lived here nearly all my life, I realise the value of the voluntary sector to the county. I don’t think the County Council could continue to run the county the way that we do without the input from the voluntary sector. It is just so critical to everything that we do.
“If there’s a message I’d like people to take away from this conference it is the fact that the County Council is here, we appreciate what people do and we are a friend, we are an enabler, not a barrier.”
The conference also heard from Dr Lincoln Sargeant, Director of Public Health for North Yorkshire, who used the occasion to launch his annual report, entitled Back to the Future.
He said: “People in North Yorkshire are generally healthy, but where you live or which group you belong to can make a great difference to how healthy you are and how long you will live. In my report this year I am recommending that we redouble our focus on improving the health of groups that experience poor physical and mental health compared to others in the county. A key action to achieve this is to promote strong personal and community networks, which are important for positive mental health and wellbeing throughout life, as well as enabling people to remain independent for longer as they get older.”
Delegates also heard from Trevor Hopkins, of Asset Based Consulting, who for more than ten years has been championing the use of asset-based approaches to improve health, resilience and wellbeing and to challenge inequalities for individuals, families and communities.
Trevor told the conference: “This community-led way of working is underpinned by principles. The main one, I would suggest, is that we don’t start with the problems, we start with what people care about and also that networks and friendships, particularly friendships, are good for our health.
“We need to support and identify the assets in a community that would make life better. We need to see citizens and communities as co-producers of sustainable outcomes, rather than just recipients of services.
“I think people look to services initially as being the answer to the issues they are dealing with, whereas in fact these answers are often within communities themselves and we need to find ways to work with those communities to bring out the resources, the strengths and the capabilities these communities have.”