Tony Armstrong 10 March 2016

The strong foundations of community involvement

NHS England’s ‘healthy towns’ initiative, announced last week, is an exciting opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of thousands of people all over England – but we need to ensure that strong, engaged communities are at their heart if they’re to do what it says on the tin.

We know that obesity, sedentary lifestyles and isolation are growing and that the built environment can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of communities; green spaces and well-designed infrastructure can encourage walking, cycling, interaction between people, and outdoor play for children. But these new towns need to be built on the strong foundations of community involvement if they truly are to be ‘healthy’.

They need resilient community organisations with their own assets at their hearts to support people to come together and shape the priorities for their local area and to create healthy, thriving communities.

Community organisations like 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.

Community organisations are typically underpinned by the ownership of important local building and other assets, which help to ensure they are sustainable in the long-term and 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.

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.

If we take the opportunity that the development and planning of these new towns presents to look at innovative ways to enable communities to own and manage land, housing and other key facilities, and really take control over what happens in their area, they could really flourish and truly become the country’s beacons for healthy living.

We already see this working in existing communities. Locality member Witton Lodge Community Association is pioneering the concept of improving people’s health and wellbeing through the enhanced use of an urban green space which it manages on behalf of the community. The organisation is working in partnership with a wide range of public and voluntary sector agencies to improve services and facilities for local people through the creation and community stewardship of an Urban Wellbeing Park, giving the community access to nature on their doorstep.

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.

There are also many examples of pioneering, holistic, joined up approaches to health and wellbeing through the Our Place programme which offer important learning for the development of new towns. The programme - which Locality delivers on behalf of the DCLG - 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.

In Thamesmead in south east London GP surgeries have been collaborating with voluntary sector organisations through the Our Place programme to tackle difficulties people face which can lead to poor health and mental wellbeing. Volunteers from the Positive Steps Thamesmead initiative now signpost people to organisations which can help them with debt advice, stress about housing, fuel poverty and other issues for which they were previously visiting their GP.

Before the initiative started, Lakeside Medical Practice had reported that up to half of its patients were coming to appointments with non-medical needs. Since the initiative launched in April 2015 it has helped more than 500 people access the most appropriate service, meaning that fewer people need to visit their doctor and reducing GP waiting times.

In planning and developing these new ‘healthy town’ communities, it is vital that we don’t just focus on the bricks and mortar, but learn from and build on these successes. All of the stakeholders involved in these developments need to commit to supporting the development of strong community infrastructure through the creation of sustainable community anchor organisations and ensuring that local people are involved in decisions which affect their new neighbourhoods from day one.

Tony Armstrong is chief executive of Locality

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