What do these two graphs have in common?
Above is a demographic diagram of the population of Southwark, London. It shows the population by age divided up into 5 year slices. Below is the same for Suffolk.
Wherever you see the bulges, that’s the age group where the biggest slice of the population is found. And where they go inside the line, it means they are less than the national average. Southwark is like an arrow head, Suffolk more like a vase!
They really are not very similar, are they?
The largest age-group in Southwark is aged between 25 and 35, with fewer and fewer over the age of 50 and upwards. In complete contrast , in Suffolk the 50-64 age group is the biggest age group in the county. A significan proportion of Suffolk residents are over 50.
Whereas the bulk of Suffolk residents have lived in the same place for generations, nearly half of Southwark residents are communities from Africa, the West Indies, Ireland, China, Vietnam, Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and Turkey to name just some. Over 170 languages /dialects are spoken. Life expectancy is substantially lower for people living in more deprived areas in the borough, especially males. Four out of ten people live on their own.
In other words, Southwark is a racially diverse, densely populated, and young urban community with significant social deprivation, where the older people may find neighbours move in and out frequently, have little knowledge of who lives next door – and may not even speak the same language. This is the background against which a social enterprise company (Participle) set up Southwark Circle, ‘a membership organisation that helps older people make the most of their retirement.’ NB the definition of ‘older people’ is 50-plus – the age when the numbers of people in Southwark tail off sharply.
The demographic profile of Southwark does indeed bring with it a risk of social isolation for older people, and you could make a good case for the Southwark Circle being a perfectly good idea.
However, Suffolk couldn’t be more different from Southwark.
Most Suffolk residents have lived here for many years, and many residents for generations. Suffolk is NOT mixed, NOT densely populated, and (whilst there is plenty of social deprivation) NOT deprived in the way Southwark is. Far from being lonely and isolated, the 50-pluses are embedded in the community, running the county – and practically everything else.
Which is why, many months later, I am still pondering why Suffolk County Council thought Southwark such a close match for our county. Why at a time when SCC are cutting staff and frontline services did they decide to spend £680,000 on Participle transferring a Good Neighbours scheme (which you have to pay to join) from isolated inner London to a rural community packed with good neighbours who have a long tradition of helping each other for free.
I am not criticising Southwark here, its just that Southwark and Suffolk are chalk and cheese.
I asked Colin Noble, portfolioholder Adult and Community Services, what he considered to be the key similarities between the two areas. His only reply was “there was a great deal of work done by the people who set up the Southwark Circle as a scoping exercise..”
In response to the same question they tell me ”the research work is a bit too large to email without clogging up yours and my inboxes” and offer to send me a copy.
But surely the scoping exercise could only have been undertaken after Suffolk had decided that the Southwark project had merit and that there were enough similarities between the areas for the same approach to work?
Look again at the graphs. What similarities can you see?
Update 4 April 2012: I have recently been informed that the Suffolk Circle is costing Suffolk taxpayers ‘only’ £680,000 over three years, including £100,00 up front for scoping and planning. As of April this means £350,000 has been spent on the project and this has attracted 362 members,. You couldn’t make it up…