Belfast City Council is set to consider a new ‘Happy to Chat’ bench initiative across the city, after a proposal by Alliance Councillor Carole Howard moved to the next stage.
Starting with repurposing a bench in the grounds of City Hall, the scheme aims to combat loneliness by providing a place for people to come together and have a chat and will now be debated by the body’s Strategic, Policy and Resources Committee.
Councillor Howard also secured support for Council to press on the Minister for Health the need to initiate the development of a Northern Ireland Loneliness Strategy, in partnerships with the relevant Departments.
She added: “Loneliness affects people of all ages and from all backgrounds. Being lonely or socially isolated can become a serious problem when it becomes chronic – as many people will have discovered during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Isolation and loneliness is dangerous for health and wellbeing and can result in higher rates of heart disease, dementia, cognitive decline, and mental ill health and these are just some examples. The Campaign to end Loneliness notes that the lack of social connections significantly increases the likelihood of mortality by possibly 26%. All these facts point to increased pressures on our health service as a result of more GP and hospital appointments.
“That is why a Happy to Chat bench can really make a difference and while Covid delayed my plans to bring it before Council, I’m heartened to see so many other Councils across Northern Ireland have already began to roll out this scheme.
“We now have the opportunity to do something to tackle the growing issue of loneliness in Belfast and it is my vision that once we have a bench established at City Hall that we then look to progress this scheme across all areas of Belfast.
“One bench in every park would be great. I really believe this is a simple measure we could take which could have immense benefits for some people.”