Older people want purpose but society needs to provide opportunities - Austin Mitchell

AS one of the 16 per cent of the British people over 65 (a long way over), I have a complaint. Not about money: I’m gibberingly grateful for the extra 25 pence a month we’ve just got on our pensions – if I save it up for a year, I’ll be able to buy two copies of The Yorkshire Post.

Skircoat Green Allotments, Halifax. Former Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell says that there are fewer allotments than in the past.

It’s about lack of purpose, usefulness and opportunity for the old. We should use our remaining time to enjoy, educate and improve ourselves. Instead, we’re expected to sit at home watching endless repeats of Midsomer Murders or sell our treasures on Flog It if we can’t afford to go on cruises with other oldies or buy villas in Spain to get us out of the way.

There are more senior citizens every year and we’re living longer. That means even more time without purpose as the opportunities to get one are diminishing fast. Evening classes, the Workers’ Education Association and leisure courses in colleges have mostly been scrapped, there are fewer part-time jobs. Or allotments.

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Social service provision has been cut with austerity and pubs, clubs and libraries are closing. A nation which aspires to be better educated and skilled to open opportunities for all seems happy to put an ever-larger section on an ever-larger scrap heap.

Youth wouldn’t put up with it. Oldies shouldn’t. The only mitigation is things pensioners do for themselves. Some show their determination to work by running charity shops, heritage railways, little museums and reading groups. Some join the University of the Third Age, even the Open University or the network of clubs, classes, choirs, pilates, cooking, dancing and bridge classes which exist in most cities.

But all of it involves only a small minority on a part-time basis and much of it has been closed during the pandemic.

The need was brought home to me when the Grimsby fishing industry ran down. Thousands of fishermen were thrown out. Some went to Spain to carry on fishing, a few started small businesses. Several began to do paintings of fishing vessels, seascapes and Grimsby. It was all amateurish stuff, indeed at times I seemed to be their only customer, but a few would have become brilliant with professional tuition.

So imagine the energy which could be unleashed, and the new interest and sense of purpose which could be developed, if society provided structures, incentives, help and opportunities for all pensioners?

We need a new deal for the old, and though I’ve not got space for everything that needs to be done, I can describe some thing to provide a backbone for life for this new deal.

In the early Sixties, Andre Malraux, France’s Minister of Culture, persuaded President Charles de Gaulle to set up a network of Maisons de Culture all round France.

Intended to propagate “French culture” which is a pretty highfalutin role, they also provided a forum for concerts, drama, readings and painting and became local assets. So why not develop an improved and more populist version of the same idea for Britain? Not culture centres but “people’s palaces” providing a platform for adult education, choirs, drama, dancing, book clubs, and all the other things which can enliven age.

People take a joy and interest in work. That need not stop if we create a parallel system of Occupational Colleges sustaining skills and providing the equipment for pottery, jewellery, woodwork, a chat room and a forum for computing, photography film and video production.

Many are proud of their skills. Others will wish to develop new skills make items for families and friends, develop hobbies, find new ones or just enjoy themselves

These two separate frameworks would provide a new interest, and new opportunities to open a whole new world for our senior citizens and for communities because though intended primarily for the old they should be open to all. There’s no problem about premises. All round Britain there are empty department stores, abandoned churches and offices so suitable premises can be mobilized, restructured and re-equipped to benefit all, especially senior citizens.

They should be run by councils but financed by central government. They’ll cost money, but the cost will be less than HS2 (which will be too expensive for pensioners to travel on) for a far more useful purpose.

Austin Mitchell was Labour MP for Great Grimsby from 1977-2015. He is a former presenter of Calendar.