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01.04.16

Healthy towns: looking beyond the bricks and mortar

Source: PSE - April/ May 16

Locality’s CEO Tony Armstrong explains why engaged communities need to be at the heart of NHS England’s ‘healthy towns’ programme to unlock the benefits.

Although NHS England’s ‘healthy towns’ initiative presents a really exciting opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of thousands of people all over England, we need to ensure that strong, engaged communities are at their hearts if Simon Stevens’ vision is to be achieved. 

Simply focusing on the bricks and mortar will not be enough to eliminate growing problems like obesity, sedentary lifestyles and social isolation, but the built environment can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of communities. 

We know that more green spaces and well-designed infrastructure can encourage walking, cycling, interaction between people, and outdoor play for children, but these new towns also need to be built on the strong foundations of community involvement if they truly are to be ‘healthy’. They need resilient community organisations – preferably ones which own or manage their own assets – at their hearts so they can support people to come together and shape the priorities for their local area and to create healthy, thriving communities. Land and buildings owned or managed by community organisations, like Locality’s 600-strong membership, make for more resilient, engaged and healthy communities and provide places for people to meet and decide their futures together. 

All over England, Locality members contribute greatly to the health and wellbeing of the people in their neighbourhoods. They act as ‘anchors’ in their communities, providing services for local people, helping them get training and employment, access health and social care support, debt and financial management advice, children’s and young people’s services – and a whole lot more – based on what local people need and want.

 It’s this joining-up of services and holistic approach – rather than treating people’s problems in isolation – which results in better outcomes and contributes to happy, healthy communities where people have opportunities and feel supported. 

Owning and managing their own assets is typical for Locality members, and helps to ensure organisations are sustainable in the long term and are able to meet the social, economic and environmental needs of their communities – in turn, making them more healthy places to live and work. Community ownership of local assets – like community centres, housing stock, leisure facilities and health centres – means that local people can positively shape their communities, their services and ultimately their own health and wellbeing. 

Community-led housing 

Similarly, communities owning and managing their own housing is also a real opportunity to look at how people can control and shape development in new towns. Community-led housing has the potential to empower local people and to deliver projects which meet local needs and maximise benefits, supporting the wider regeneration of an area and integrating with services to improve and strengthen the vitality of local civil society. 

We are already seeing this working in existing communities. Locality member Witton Lodge Community Association – a community landlord with a stock of almost 200 homes – is pioneering the concept of improving people’s health and wellbeing through an ‘Urban Wellbeing Park’ which it manages on behalf of the community. 

The association hopes that, through participating in a variety of outdoor wellbeing activities, local people will become more active, improving their health and leading to a reduction in social isolation and greater social cohesion as residents from all backgrounds work, learn, play, volunteer and socialise together. Local people will have the opportunity to grow their own food, take part in outdoor activities and access education. The park will also address important environmental issues as residents learn to become more energy efficient, leading to a reduction in household energy and food bills. 

Towneley Park

Our Place programme 

The Our Place programme, which Locality has been delivering on behalf of the DCLG, also provides many examples of pioneering, holistic, joined-up approaches to health and wellbeing which offer important learning for the development of new towns. The programme puts communities at the heart of service delivery in their area and partnerships between communities, voluntary sector groups and statutory bodies seeking to address issues like health in their neighbourhoods have proved incredibly successful. They have supported people with long-term health conditions, provided better education and opportunities for young people to live healthy lifestyles and tackled isolation amongst older people. The programme encourages participants to look at the range of issues that affect people’s health and wellbeing – like money worries or housing problems – and involves communities and community organisations so real innovation can be achieved. 

An Our Place partnership between community organisation Edberts House and St Albans Medical Centre in Gateshead has piloted a project to transform the services through social prescribing. A full-time community link worker listens to patients’ non-medical issues – like concerns about debt and social isolation – and refers them for activities or services within the community that can help. Before the initiative started, the GP practice had reported that a high proportion of its patients were coming to appointments with non-medical needs triggered by problems with debt or housing and which were causing stress or anxiety, but since the initiative launched more people are getting the help they need, meaning that few people need to visit their doctor and GP waiting times have been reduced. 

Looking beyond bricks and mortar 

In planning and developing these new ‘healthy town’ communities, it is vital that we look beyond the bricks and mortar and find innovative ways to enable communities to own and manage land, housing and other key facilities, and enable there to be resilient community anchor organisations at their hearts. 

The people who will be living in these towns must be the focus of any development and they must be given the earliest opportunity to have their say and take control over what happens in their area, so together they can flourish and truly become the country’s beacons for healthy living.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

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