When post offices in rural communities were shut down, it was not just the inconvenience that residents complained about. People who lived in the affected villages regularly reported that the “heart had been ripped out of their community.”
The housing estates being built in the Diocese of Oxford have never had post offices. Known as new communities (euphemistically perhaps), they don’t even have post boxes at first. Most don’t have pubs, shops, community centres, doctors’ surgeries or schools either.
Research has shown that when people have spaces in which to meet, friendships and social networks are sustained. People living in Manhattan, New York, for example, experience it as an urban village even though half of them live in lone households. This is because there are cafés and alternative places to hang out. When people have nowhere to go, they experience a void rather than a heart. There’s a sense of isolation that generates a particular kind of feeling alone.
And these places in which people are vulnerable to loneliness, are being built right across the wider Thames Valley. In the Oxford Diocese, there are 38 new communities being created in ten Oxford deaneries affecting 48 parishes. Bicester will double in size, so will Aylesbury. Milton Keynes will get considerably larger.
The role of the church combating loneliness in new communities
Within these estates, the church has a significant role to play. “Developers build houses, but churches seek to engage communities,” says Peter Morgan, New Communities Development Officer, Diocese of Oxford. By moving in, baking cakes as welcome gifts, writing newsletters, holding street parties and setting up mother and toddler groups, the church can help create places where people can flourish.
It can also act as a bridge between the developers and those who live on the estate. Developers have to provide schools and community centres but not before people have moved in and not necessarily in the way they need. There is a role for the church in forming relationships with planners and builders to help ensure the appropriate community facilities are written into plans and delivered on time. “There is no other resource on the estate,” said Captain John Bentley, New Community Minister, Kingsmere, Bicester. “We have created a means by which people can find out what’s happening, where to go and be a community.”
 The Network Change Programme was announced by the UK Government in May 2007 in response to declining use of post offices which was leading to unplanned closure of branches.
 Post Office Closures: Impact of the Network Change Programme, Consumer Focus Wales (2010)
 Weiss, R. Loneliness: The Experience of Emotional and Social Isolation Cambridge. MA: The MIT Press (1975)
 New Communities Group, Summary of Large-Scale Housing Development, Diocese of Oxford (2015)
The role of Facebook in developing new communities
- A residents Facebook page can be a way of letting people know about activities. A survey in Great Western Park showed it was far more effective than newsletters or word of mouth.
- Residents can use the page as a way of sharing information and advice.
- Many residents find Facebook a natural way to find others on the estate and suggest meeting up.
- A Facebook page can be used to conduct surveys on residents’ hopes and experience of facilities which can be used as data to present to developers.
- Not all estates have the broadband infrastructure meaning some residents can’t easily get online.
- Sometimes residents use Facebook to communicate where a face-to-face conversation would work better – such as complaining about the way a neighbour has parked a car.
Fact file on new communities in the Diocese of Oxford
- There is pressure on government to build houses. In 2004, the Barker Report recommended building 245,000 private sector homes per year. This target has never been met. In England, 118,760 homes were completed in the 12 months to December 2014, which is 8 per cent higher than the previous year.
- The wider Oxford Diocese is a popular place to live because it offers employment. For example, the Thames Valley, Berkshire is the most profitable part of the country aside from London. It has the fourth highest proportion of adults educated to degree level or above and the fifth lowest unemployment rates in the UK.
- Between 2001 and 2011, parts of the Oxford Diocese had some of the largest population increases in the country – Milton Keynes (17 per cent), Slough (16.3 per cent), Oxford (12.1 per cent). By comparison the population across the whole of England and Wales increased by just 7 per cent.
- It’s estimated that between 2015 and 2020, the population of Slough will have increased by 14.7 per cent, West Berkshire by 7.9 per cent, Reading by 6.4 per cent and Alyesbury Vale by 5.4 per cent. By 2030, the population of Slough will have increased by 35. 3 per cent, West Berkshire by 22 per cent, Reading by 18.8 per cent and Alyesbury Vale by 14.7 per cent. 
 Barker K, Review of Housing Supply Final Report – Recommendations Delivering Stability: Securing our Future Housing Needs: HM Treasury (2004)
 House Building: December Quarter 2014, England: Department for Communities and Local Government (2015)
 Housing Supply: Opportunities for Economic Growth: Barton Willmore p3 (2013)
 Population and Household Estimates for England and Wales: Office for National Statistics (2012)
 Subnational Population Projections, 2012-based projection: Office for National Statistics (2014)
This is the fifth of a series of posts on loneliness. It is based on Loneliness Accident or Injustice by Jo Ind, a joint publication from the Diocese of Oxford (Board of Mission) and the Archway Foundation.