A new survey has revealed that one in five people in the UK have never spoken to their neighbours.
And a fifth have no-one in their neighbourhoods, outside their immediate family, they could call on if they needed help or support.
With research showing that loneliness and isolation is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, for our own health it’s imperative that change happens.
For the last 10 years, The Big Lunch organiser, the EdenProject in Cornwall, has been trying to do just that.
And it has gone some way to doing so, creating 38 million new connections since it launched in 2009.
However, a recent survey commissioned by the Big Lunch shows much more still needs to be done.
Closing the Distance Between Us reviewed all the existing evidence and insights on relationships between people in their communities, the trends over the last 60 years and the impact of those changes.
We spoke to Peter Stewart, Eden Project’s director, about the survey results released last week.
He said: “Disconnection is accelerating at an alarming rate, stunting productivity, shortening lives and costing the UK £32 billion a year.
“As a result, the UK scores worse than any other country in the EU when feelings of social isolation and neighbourhood belonging are combined.
“However, there is a desire and need for change – in the poll, more than three quarters said it would be better for our communities if we were closer to our neighbours.”
And that’s where The Big Lunch, being staged this year on June 1 and 2, really comes into its own.
It calls on neighbours across the UK to stage a Big Lunch – inviting as many or as few people as they like.
Peter said: “These days, we can connect to someone in Australia or New Zealand in a nanosecond but we don’t make human connections over the garden fence – and I think we’re worse off for that.
“In the last ten years, The Big Lunch has created 38 million new connections.
“In the first year, 380,000 people took part; last year, six million joined us.
“But that still isn’t anywhere near enough to arrest the worrying trends in our report. As the Big Lunch has grown, so have the issues.
“It’s like trying to move forward on an escalator going in the other direction.
“That’s why this year, for our tenth anniversary, we’re calling on everyone across the UK to get involved.
“Mobile phones are a fantastic invention but The Big Lunch is an intervention; a face-to-face Facebook.
“We all saw last year how a crisis like the Beast from the East brought communities together. That was a crisis intervention.
“We want The Big Lunch to do the same, minus the crisis. It can be as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.
“It can be three neighbours sitting on the beach or a big street party for all your neighbours.
“The most important thing is that the event helps people to make those vital connections locally.”
As for the future, the Eden Project has ambitious plans.
Peter said: “It’s a bit like a swimming pool – no-one wants to be the first to jump in. But we have six million people taking the plunge now and saying its lovely.
“Within the next two years, we’d like The Big Lunch to be officially printed on calendars – so neighbours own that weekend.
“To do that, though, we would need 20 or 30 million people to take part.
“That’s our ambition – we want to spread this friendly virus because it works. It won’t solve all the problems we have but we’d be better placed to take them on.
“There were 68,000 events last year – what would it be like if we convinced half the population of the UK to join The Big Lunch?
“We cannot afford to let the distance between us open up any further.
“Now’s the time for a significant step-change – we have the opportunity to change things for the better.
“We can make The Big Lunch a national shared annual moment that unites us, our neighbourhoods and communities.”
Peter has organised a Big Lunch in his hometown in Cornwall since 2009. So he truly knows what a difference it can make.
He added: “In the last ten years, we’ve watched young children grow up and, as I live next to a nursing home, we’ve lost some people over that period too.
“At one particular lunch, we’d lost a very big character in the street.
“We sent an invite to his wife to come to the lunch six weeks after he died. It was very emotional for everyone, and really tough for her, but she knew she wasn’t alone.
“There was a really tight-knit group around her that had not been there before The Big Lunch.
“That was pretty powerful and there are these amazing stories around every single event that’s held.”
Comedian Jo Brand is a passionate ambassador for The Big Lunch.
Despite happily admitting to being antisocial, she is planning to stage a Big Lunch in her South East London neighbourhood this year.
And she is hoping readers will follow her example.
Jo said: “It saddens me to think that one in five of us don’t feel we could call on a neighbour if we needed help.
“At a time when the country is so divided, it seems more important than ever to remember the importance of community spirit.
“If we’re not careful, we’re all going to end up inside our homes, not seeing anyone on a daily basis.
“And it’s not just the elderly that this affects. Children are spending hours in bedrooms, communicating with others, but not in person.
“Mums and dads are working too so don’t have the chance to chat over the garden fence like they did 30 or 40 years ago.
“I can be quite antisocial and it takes an effort to connect with people but we’re not built to be on our own.
“And making those connections can make such a big difference to our mental health.
“I’d encourage those who are nervous about it to start small and work together.
“Dip a toe into The Big Lunch this year, but not the soup – that would be painful!”
Workshops and walk to entice more Scots to join in
Up until last year, one woman co-ordinated The Big Lunch movement in Scotland.
But thanks to National Lottery funding, there is now a team of staff working to promote the event north of the border.
Leading the charge is Sandra Brown, Scottish manager of Eden Project Communities.
Sandra and her hard-working team have already been on the road, spreading The Big Lunch message at workshops in Dundee, Portobello, Inverness, Forres, Thurso and Kirkwall. And several more will also be held, as follows:
March 21, Alloa, Ludgate House Resource Centre; March 27, Kirkcaldy, Bennochy Parish Church; March 29, Irvine, Legion Scotland; April 2, Galashiels, Old Gala House; and April 5, Stornoway, Bridge Community Centre. Workshops run from 11am to 2pm and everyone is invited to go along.
Sandra said: “We can’t do anything by ourselves so my key role is building relationships and encouraging people to take part in The Big Lunch.
“For example, this year many councils, including Glasgow Life, are taking part and the Church of Scotland is also supporting the event.
“A number of businesses are also on board and are planning to stage events this year.
“But individual communities are equally important to us which is why we’ve already held some workshops, with several more planned.
“Up until the start of last year, one wonderful lady co-ordinated The Big Lunch in Scotland.
“But thanks to National Lottery funding, there’s now a team of four of us spreading the word so we’re hoping to make a big impact on uptake this year.”
For more workshop details, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the two weeks leading up to the Big Lunch weekend, the Scottish team will also be staging a Big Walk.
Sandra added: “We’ll be taking a team of walkers around the country, visiting people and groups in communities who are doing great things to bring folk together and create positive change locally.
“We had planned to run workshops in Lanarkshire and Aberdeenshire but were unable to due to capacity issues.
“So we will definitely be visiting those areas as part of the Big Lunch Community Walk.
“We’re still working out the route at the moment but the walk will be taking place from May 17 to 31 and we’ll be visiting lots of towns across Scotland.”
As well as bringing communities together, The Big Lunch enables UK communities to fundraise for things that matter to them, with £8 million raised in 2018, more than £6 million of which was donated to local causes.
Free Big Lunch starter packs, packed with tips and ideas, can be found at www.edenprojectcommunities.com/thebiglunchhomepage or call 0845 850 8181 to speak to the team. The Big Lunch can also be found @edencommunities on Facebook and Twitter.