Thursday, 18 December 2008

Enter the official local handyman: but at what cost? When I go on about informal roles in neighbourhoods compared to formal services, I sometimes get the impression that people think I've invented some weird distinction that takes a bit of getting used to. Well here's a nice example. The government is to make over £30m available to local authorities across England to help them develop or expand their local handyman services for older people - where a 'trusted handyman in a van' can be identified and will come round to do odd jobs for a set fee. Press release. This is for things like fitting a grab rail, clearing a gutter, fixing a fence or a bit of stair carpet that catches a trailing foot. It's a lot of money, but it's very laudable to have such a scheme, don't you think? But who was asking how such jobs got done in the past? By members of the family, neighbours, or neighbours' family - Mrs Whatsit's son visits her every other Sunday and he could find ten minutes to pop round and check the fuse on that lamp for you. 'And anything else you want doing while I'm here m'dear?' One of the examples I cited in my book was of mixed gender friendships among lone older people, in which the female neighbour cooked a meal and the male neighbour reciprocated by doing gardening or odd jobs. That was how things got done and how they still get done in many neighbourhoods of course. And it works partly because trust is built-in to the existing relationships, so it doesn't have to be pre-negotiated externally by an official agency, as with this scheme, at far greater cost. There are at least three important elements at play here: reciprocity (including the relation between self-respect and being able to pay someone for a job), trust, and independence. When we introduce a formal service of this kind we might be supporting older people's ability to remain independent, but we shift the reciprocity relationship from a blurred informal arrangement based on an ongoing relationship to an unambiguous economic one; and we require trust to be pre-negotiated by an official agency on the citizen's behalf. Of course, the family and neighbour contacts aren't always there, and there has to be a formal service to compensate where local social networks are inadequate. But before we extend such a compensating device uniformly across society, maybe we should be doing two things thoroughly. First, exploring the ways in which informal support might be strengthened so that formal services are needed less. A good example would be for government to invest in older people's mutual support schemes - it doesn't, presumably because policy makers cannot get their heads round informal roles. £30m would go a long way. Secondly, we should be thinking more deeply about the possible damage a formal scheme like the handyman service might do - eg by leaving neighbourhood roles to atrophy in a stifled ecology of local relations. If you want an example of how...

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