This post originally appeared on the ILC-UK blog.
Many older people have told us that they want to feel a sense of pride in their local area. While there are many things they love about their area, they also know what needs to be fixed. Physical barriers such as a lack of public transport, uneven pavements or poor access to public toilets are stopping people in later life from getting out and about. An age-friendly neighbourhood may be the key factor that enables someone to go on living in their home. But to date there has been a failure to take this vision of a better/age-friendly/lifetime neighbourhood, from strategy to the streets. Will a new focus on community empowerment turn this around.
The localism agenda has certainly reinforced the importance of communities taking responsibility for the future of their local neighbourhoods and service provision. For instance the community rights in the localism bill present an opportunity to set neighbourhood plans, to own community assets and hold local referendums. All represent powers that with the right ambition could help communities create their own age-friendly neighbourhoods. Yet this localist shift has high expectations for what a community can deliver. In a recent ILC report it was suggested that the success of the localism bill depended on three features existing in the local community: i) equitable access to cross-generational social networks; ii) interpersonal, intergenerational and political interest and trust; iii) substantial levels of community engagement. It seems that while many communities will thrive on this new localist approach, this isn’t a done deal.
This isn’t to say that localism cannot work, but the limitations need to be taken into account. Localism should also recognise that communities and local authorities can work together, providing mutual support and driving change. Age UK believes that, in addition to provisions the government sets in the Localism Bill, local councillors in partnership with local older residents are in a unique position to make change in their neighbourhood happen. Councillors are in a position to bring together an understanding of the specific needs of older residents in their ward together with a working knowledge of the decision making process of the council and local partners.
Unfortunately, new research conducted by TNS on behalf of Age UK shows that half of people over 60 have never had any contact with their local councillor. This highlights the huge challenge councillors face to reach out and make contact with older people. On the other hand, when they do make contact, older people are more likely than younger people to feel the councillor did a good job. The apparent mismatch between levels of contact and satisfaction presents an opportunity to encourage councillors to play their part.
Age UK is inviting councillors to become Pride of Place advocates and work with older people in their ward on an on-going basis to improve neighbourhoods. This is already happening in some areas, with tangible results. In Stockton Borough Council, Councillors Jim Beall and Barbara Inman do regular ‘ward walkabouts’ with council officers and others. The walkabouts are an opportunity to share local intelligence and to identify problems. As much as possible, they aim to solve problems on the spot – making a note of broken pavements and kerbs that need repairing, for example. Cllr Beall is keen to stress that what they are doing is nothing new. ‘It’s not rocket science – it just seems like common sense’, he said. A resident in the ward commented: ‘A lot of people won’t go to the council, so the walkabouts are a good way for the councillors to find out where the problems are.’
As our society ages, our communities will rely increasingly on the activity of older people. We need to invest now in neighbourhoods that will enable us all to go on being active as possible as we grow older.