An arts centre has teamed up with a social housing group to help South London’s old people

The Albany Theatre, Lewisham. Image: Getty.

In July 2015, the Albany, an arts centre in Deptford, teamed up with Lewisham Homes on a unique partnership intended to reduce social isolation and encourage community cohesion in south east London through arts activities.

Lewisham is one of the 25 local authority areas in England where poverty and deprivation are at their greatest. Lewisham Homes manage 18,000 council homes in the borough. The partnership with the Albany was formed as part of a major investment programme to improve homes and local communities.

Both organisations share a passion for the area that far exceeds our remits; to provide housing or put on shows. Contributing to and creating better communities – better places for people to live and work – is at the heart of our ambitions.

The partnership’s activities span five projects: access to green space and gardening activities for all; cheap or free access to shows and events; activities to reduce isolation in vulnerable and lonely older people; training and development for 16 to 25 year olds; and participation in dance and other art forms for eight to 18 year olds.   

Why does this matter? Unsurprisingly, those on the tightest budgets and the most vulnerable often have least access to opportunities in Lewisham, as elsewhere. Isolated older people are a key constituent of those with the least support or opportunities.  Last year there were half a million people aged 90 and over living in the UK. People are living longer – but 40 per cent of older people attending GP surgeries, and 60 per cent of those living in residential institutions are reported to have a mental health problem.

All sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds can become increasingly cut off from the community, or lonely as they age and develop mental health problems: bereavement, long illnesses and the loss of independence are just a few common causes.

In short, we must find ways to support older people to live well, not just for longer. If we don’t, we’ll find that too many of our generation and the next will also face living out our final years in loneliness.

So Meet Me at Lewisham Homes is one project within the partnership that we think has the potential to grow exponentially – well beyond our organisations, or even our city. Run by the Albany, Entelechy Arts and the London Borough of Lewisham, it aims to help vulnerable older people to create and experience art. It provides a regular creative meeting place for formerly isolated and lonely older people and a space to socialise and work creatively alongside professional artists.

The project began with weekly sessions at the Albany three years ago and has grown to encompass dance projects, a film club and cultural trips all over the capital. It aims to reframe the idea of older people as a problem, and asks instead what they can contribute to their local communities. Participants are now a driving force of the project, taking forward their own ideas and setting up fundraising drives. Just this week, the project won the first Hearts for the Arts Award from the National Campaign for the Arts for its success in encouraging community cohesion.

The Albany-Lewisham Homes partnership has meant the club can pop-up in Lewisham Homes residential sites throughout the borough. That’s important, because just going out can present huge challenges for older people who may have mental and physical health conditions. Meet Me at Lewisham Homes breaks down that barrier by taking place in the heart of some of the most marginalised communities. The lounges of some of Lewisham Homes sheltered housing sites have been transformed into social and cultural hubs in their own right as a result.

 We piloted the project in one residential site in 2016. It started quietly and grew: attendees began to appear regularly, a trailblazer brought family photos into the previously undecorated communal lounge, and others began to populate it with personal belongings and imagery. Laughter, and the sounds of living, grew in the environment. Over the months, a sense of community built and both isolation and stress were reduced.

It’s not the weekly sessions that really changed things, though: it was the way that residents chose to form a community outside the sessions and to make changes in their own lives.  

As one participant put it: “When you sit at home doing nothing, when you are indoors alone, you feel very low. You start thinking back about the problems that you have been through and all of the problems you are in at the moment. That makes you worried and sad. But when you come here you feel happy. Talking to other people, seeing them, watching what they are doing – it’s good for your health. It makes you feel so much better.”

As a result of the success of the pilot, Meet Me at Lewisham Homes began popping up at six additional sheltered accommodation sites in late 2016 and will grow further this year.

The support to become active and regain agency within their own communities has proved life changing for a handful of people already. But we believe it has radical reach. Our small project evidences how a creative approach and cross sector collaboration can positively affect the ability to age well – something we should all aspire to. 

Gavin Barlow is chief executive of the Albany.



Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.