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11 November 2015

As we lose our community centres to cuts, we are losing our humanity as a nation

As Haringey Council in London's community centres are just the latest to be threatened by cuts, are we facing a future without community or compassion?

By Rhiannon Cosslett

This evening, Haringey Council is set to vote on a series of day centre closures in the northeast London borough, the impact of which, if the closures go ahead, will be devastating to local people.

The Grange, which provides specialist day care to 28 patients with dementia, is set to close. The Roundway, a day centre for autistic adults, and the Birkbeck Road and Always Day Centres, which provide support for adults with severe learning difficulties, will also close. The Ermine Road Day Centre, which supports 61 of the borough’s most vulnerable adults, will be transferred to an alternative service provider. However, two-thirds of its current service users (many non-verbal) will no longer be able to attend. They will no longer be able to see their friends, some of whom they will have been in touch with for over two decades.

What is happening in Haringey is symbolic of the swingeing cuts to local services that are being seen up and down the country, which not only see vulnerable people left with nowhere to go, but remove something that is vital to all our lives: a sense of community that is very much needed. As MP David Lammy, who is opposed to the cuts, has written: “the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens”.

My own experience with autism teaches me that there is often an assumption that autistic people are not interested in the company of others, or that they do not need friends. This could not be further from the truth – to lose contact with one’s friends is devastating for anyone, but autistic people are particularly vulnerable to the mental health issues that come from isolation and a lack of acceptance. 

Such centres provide a base for relationships to form up and down the country. To lose these bonds in addition to the safe, structured environment that is particularly essential to anyone with autistic spectrum disorder is likely to not only be mentally distressing but to exacerbate challenging behaviour. In a climate where the police are facing a depletion of their own resources, this is extremely bad news. 

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We must, of course, also think of the people caring for these vulnerable people, some of whom are elderly and coping with physical disabilities themselves. I have met a group of them: they are frightened about the future and deeply concerned for the mental health of their children, and themselves. Day centres across the nation provide much-needed respite to carers who are exhausted, underpaid and under-appreciated. Research by Carers UK earlier this year found that eight out of ten carers have felt lonely or isolated as a result of looking after a loved one. With no day centres to help share the burden, carers are likely to become even more isolated and worry how they will cope. This isn’t just about Haringey – this will continue to happen on a national scale.

All of this makes me wonder what kind of society the government is envisaging for the Britain of the future. Its supposed dedication to “hardworking families” is tied to conservative notions of the nuclear family and little beyond: working tax credits cuts, for instance, are likely to hit many single parent families harder.

But it’s not just about blood ties – many of the people that you meet in your local community, with whom you share news, a game of chess or a cup of tea, or a jigsaw puzzle, become like your family. Local services are particularly important to vulnerable people, yes: day centres and respite services provide a home away from home for many elderly and disabled people; homeless hostels are a hub for those sleeping rough on the streets; women’s refuges provide a safe space for the distressed victims of domestic abuse; playgroups allow parents and their children to interact and support one another. These are specialist services that have adapted and developed strategies that are directly tailored to their local communities. 

This breakdown in local services is not just about vulnerable people; it is about everyone. Across the UK, the hearts of our communities are being ripped out as libraries and sure start centres close. To cite an example: as of January, Leeds had seen seven care homes, 12 day centres, 14 libraries and two leisure centres closed since 2010.

The localism that should be a source of pride for us as a nation is being abandoned. People no longer really go to church, while pubs are being torn down or turned into expensive apartment blocks on an almost daily basis. Where are people to go? Are we all to sit separately in our expensive houses, basking in the glow of our screens?

The annual John Lewis Christmas advert is frequently judged based on its ability to make people cry. “I’m in bits after watching this,” people tweet, as they share it on social media. This year’s effort was geared towards highlighting the plight of lonely, isolated older people, as you’ve no doubt seen by now. An old man on the moon looks down towards earth as an Oasis cover croons that he’s “half the world away”.

But who is crying for the actual people who are left confused and isolated in our atomised communities, torn away from the friends they know and love? The daughter of the woman with severe dementia who is wondering where her friendly face and cup of tea have gone to, perhaps, or the single father of a severely autistic son who is banging his head against the wall and wailing because his routine is all fucked up and his mates are stuck at home? Who else is crying for them? 

The biggest gutpunch comes not from the multimillion-pound tearjerker on our TV screens, but from what is happening on our doorsteps. Just try and imagine how losing all your friends in one fell swoop would feel, and spare a thought not just for those in Haringey but for those lonely people all over this country. As a nation, we’re not just losing our services. We are losing our humanity. 

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