ISngland has lost a decade, ”said Sir Michael Marmot this week as he presented his 10-year review of his 2010 seminal analysis of health inequalities. “I have evidence to support this claim,” he added. And it certainly did. From stalled life expectancy – worsening for the poorest women – to an increasing number of children living in poverty, the University College London professor and unparalleled expert in inequality research has launched a series of data that show how England has become more polarized by health in a decade. It was “highly probable” that major austerity policies were the root cause, he concluded, while in the rest of the UK “damage to health and well-being is similarly unprecedented”.
A lower, but equally worrying profile was a report from the Office for National Statistics last week suggesting that we are becoming a more fragmented society: we have less “positive engagement” with neighbors, we exchange favors or we stop to chat and we admit that we are losing our sense of belonging to a neighborhood; we are doing less to help older or disabled people in the community and even to help our parents or adult children; and we are joining fewer clubs and companies, instead of connecting online through the isolation of our living rooms. Through 25 “social capital” measures, many key indicators are alarming.
What can be done to reverse these health inequalities and the apparent loss of our (non-digital) social glue? How about, to begin with, setting up a national center where activists from some of the poorest communities could go to gain the trust and skills to help their neighbors fight social, financial and environmental exclusion?
Indeed, such a center was opened in 1995. Since then, over 4,000 people have attended Trafford Hall, near Chester, and benefited from its residential courses, bringing back to their residential complexes the means to challenge authority and – in jargon – empower their friends and neighbors. But 12 months ago the center suddenly closed, suffering from cash flow problems caused by austerity cuts in the budgets of the real estate agencies and charities that financed the training. Staff 25, who also hosted weddings and other income events in the former 18th-century country house, were fired.
Trafford Hall is an emblem of the history of public services in the past 30 years: conceived in the late 80s in the social policy greenhouse of the London School of Economics and made real largely by the drive and determination of Anne Power, head of the Group of research LSE Housing and Communities, thrived under the Blair and Brown Labor governments but also benefited from charitable and corporate support. Architect Richard Rogers was a committed supporter from the start, Prince Charles opened important doors and performed the opening ceremony, while the Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) purchased the house and the builders John Laing converted it at cost price.
Touchingly, one of the last housing construction events held at Trafford Hall before its closure was organized to reflect on the lessons of the 2017 Grenfell fire and to fuel the public inquiry into the tragedy. One of his conclusions was: “Tenants have the right to have a say in the safety, maintenance and general condition of their blocks. They often know more than the staff about who lives in blocks and previous jobs, as they have often been around longer than the staff in the homes. “
Hearing the voice of the UK’s 9 million social tenants will be a central and lasting message from the investigation. And in Trafford Hall, ministers have a singular and symbolic opportunity to demonstrate that they do not intend only to listen, but to help articulate and amplify that voice, while at the same time building social capital and addressing inequalities. The National Resources Resource Center, the charity behind Trafford Hall, hopes to reopen it this spring. It’s still a fundraiser and it’s estimated to be around £ 70,000 short of what is needed in the first place, but the government could facilitate the process immeasurably by promising support. In the early 1990s, a Tory administration intervened to help meet the cost of setting up Trafford Hall. Today, his successors shouldn’t do less.
• David Brindle is the editor of the Guardian’s public servicesr