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Opinion

Social Echo… an idea that’s taking flight

The idea to try and help prevent community breakdown, family breakdown, and prevent homelessness ever happening is more pressing than ever

My most prescient year was 2018. I started it with my new year’s resolution that I offered to all. My local doctor had said if I wanted to help him, could I help him cut the amount of people in his waiting room in half. I said I would do my best.

So I wrote in The Big Issue in the first edition of the year about a ‘self-health pledge’.A pledge to keep yourself as healthy as possible. So that the healthy should stay healthy and therefore give the NHS the well-deserved rest it needs. And allow my GP to see fewer people.

I advocated exercise and cutting out excessive food and drink. I had seen too many people turn themselves unhealthy.

That was at the beginning of this prescient year. The next piece of cleverness was to invent a term called Social Echo. This was to describe what happens when a community starts working together for the benefit of all. The cafe, the estate agent, the housing project, the office block, the hospital, the housing association, the college or school or university; all pulling together.

We launched this initiative in Northampton. We had a splendid conference with several hundred people attending, from a number of the big employers, the hospital, the local authority community officers, the housing associations and the estate agents, et cetera.

It was a very simple idea. Find a way that they could trade with each other. Words about the community working together was all well and good, and it probably brought some advantage. But what if members of the community could trade with each other?

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Therefore the community would enrich itself. The housing association selling its gardening services to the estate agent who had a hundred houses to look after. The cafe doing sandwiches for the local offices of a big business; the hospital buying bread from a local baker.

All putting money into the community and allowing the money to ricochet around the community.

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It was just an idea. An idea about tightening communities, about growing deeper and deeper relationships. Working with the community groups to support the old, the ill, the lonely, the depressed, the poor. Bringing them into a community that was buzzing together, commercially.

The first initiative about self-health fizzled out largely because of criticism in The Guardian. Apparently what I was doing was nothing about helping the NHS to concentrate on keeping as many people out of hospitals as possible, by getting them looking after their own health. Rather I was dividing the deserving healthy from the undeserving healthy. I couldn’t quite get what the fuck they were saying, but it seemed to ‘prove’ that you should not try and get people to stay healthy.

I never imagined that we would be sewing the seeds of a community togetherness, would, beyond an idea, turn into a reality

Now of course if we had had a stronger, less over-used NHS when Covid hit we might have kept more people alive. If in those two years more people had treated their healthy self more healthily, we might have had fewer beds full. Who knows. But now we are determinedly told by all and sundry, from the government to the NHS, to keep ourselves healthy, and stay away from catching Covid, or anything else that will lead us to hospital.

In the meanwhile, the Social Echo may have remained only an idea in Northampton, but it became an inspiration in a community near Peterborough called Yaxley. The Social Echo pilot hub in this village has been providing community support to all, seven days a week. Around food, household help, help accessing employment, and organising volunteers to support the most vulnerable in the community.

Working with government bodies like the DWP, the NHS and the local authority, it has radicalised in North Cambridge and Huntingdon the very idea of a joined-up, linked-up, social-echoing involvement of all for the benefit of all.

The Yaxley Social Echo Hub promotes the idea that if we are to end loneliness and social separation the best thing is to bring everyone together in a giant social echo.

When we had the conference in Northampton in 2018, and a follow-up in 2019, I never imagined that we would be sewing the seeds of a community togetherness, which Yaxley and North Cambridge would, beyond an idea, turn into a reality. If we can get social echoing echoing around the UK we will begin to combat the worst aspects of our divided, at times broken, communities. Bring all together, churches with schools, businesses with small shops, charities with clubs, hospitals with local community providers.

As I tend to see the world as a series of magazine opportunities, I even had a new magazine all ready to jump into action. It was to be called Darning Street, with the subhead: ‘stitching the community together’ (for those who don’t know what ‘darning’ means, it is the sewing and stitching of clothes).

Do look at the renaissance of our communities put forward by Social Echo. It’s a very interesting idea that grew out of the work of The Big Issue to try and help prevent community breakdown, family breakdown, and prevent homelessness ever happening.

As for the ‘self-health pledge’; it still lives and breathes in our need now to stay healthy and keep the NHS healthy for us all. There have been too many who have suffered the tragedies that we surely need to prevent. And a good healthy social echoing community would certainly aid in that.

If you want to contact Social Echo, email hello@socialecho.uk

John Bird is the founder and editor in chiefof The Big Issue.

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