What kind of society do we live in where half of all older people say the television is their main company?
The roots of the scourge of isolation and loneliness afflicting millions run deep and are manifold, but undeniably one of the biggest barriers to social contact is lack of transport. The Campaign to End Loneliness is calling for local authorities to make reducing loneliness a key target in their attempts to improve health and wellbeing.
A key part of tackling the problem will lie in improving public transport, and reversing the damage done by cuts to bus services as a result of the squeeze on public spending. The Transport Select Committee’s (TSC) inquiry into Passenger Transport in Isolated Communities, published last week, found compelling evidence of the extent to which many vulnerable groups heavily depend on public transport and are disproportionately affected by cuts.
Older people are among those most seriously affected by cuts to local bus services. Some 70% of single pensioners have no access to a car. And as groups such as Age UK and Royal Voluntary Service rightly argue, it is vital that society does more to free itself of car dependency. Many older people will move to a situation of not driving or not having access to a car in later life.
In Making our Communities Ready for Ageing ILC-UK and Age UK call for a step change in our approach to planning for ageing. Our communities should be a place of fun for everyone, and a key part of that involves the ability to get out and about.
Not only is good public transport critical in overcoming social isolation, but it facilitates a whole range of vital linkages. On the same day that the TSC published its report the FT reported that bus cuts are threatening the economy. The article referred to research by the University of Leeds showing that bus users make up nearly a third of all city centre spending.
In spite of the vital role buses play in facilitating economic activity last year councils cut funding for bus services by £17 million. Whilst the TSC welcomed the protection given to Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) in the Spending Review 2013, it also emphasised that the 2013 freeze will not address the gaps in provision caused by the 20% decrease introduced in 2012.
Provision of accessible affordable public transport must be a priority – not only to support vulnerable groups and tackle the epidemic of loneliness and isolation, but also to facilitate essential economic activity.