How do we ensure places are geared towards our good health?

June 5, 2018   By Molly Jarritt, External Affairs Officer, NLGN

On 23rd March 2018, NLGN, supported by The Ramblers, convened a roundtable on public health, held in Salford and attended by partners from across Greater Manchester. This blog launches the event report published today as part of NLGN’s Dialogue Series

‘If physical activity were a pill, we would all take it’.
GP, Roundtable Participant

It is hard to disagree with the above statement. But our health cannot be improved by a simple action. No single factor determines our health and no single entity can take responsibility for its improvement. It is widely acknowledged that factors from employment status, transport options, quality of housing and access to green space all affect our wellbeing. It is clear good public health is dependent on healthy places. So how do we ensure places are geared towards our good health?

NLGN’s latest report suggests strong collaboration between the key players, which includes central government departments and private sector organisations, in the wider determinants of health is essential. The report proposes there are four key areas of focus for collaboration – economic development, new infrastructure, public engagement and leadership – and that, by capitalising on these, local partners can improve public health from the ground up.

Firstly, in addition to the moral argument for better health, there is a strong business case. Health is an economic asset that boosts workforce productivity and our nation’s growth. There is clear cost for lack of investment in health – it costs health services billions each year. There are ways local authorities can recognise the intricate connection between health and economic growth. For example, council staff from public health and economic development teams can work more closely together. Only by widespread perception of good health as an economic asset and opportunity at local and national level will improved public health become a sustainable goal.

Secondly, new housing and transport infrastructure presents a significant opportunity with the potential to meet economic, social and environmental outcomes together. This will only be the case if it ensures wider quality of life outcomes are enhanced. In this vein, new housing developments should have the principles of healthy living at their core. Our report provides practical recommendations as to how councils can prioritise green space and ensure housing is conducive to local infrastructure. Ultimately, by promoting principles of good urban design, councils have a vital opportunity to improve public health.

Thirdly, we need to galvanise public engagement and support behind public health initiatives. But how we encourage broad behavioural change, leading to increased public pressure for policy reform? While no easy task, councils and their partners can build public momentum for change. For instance, they can identify and better understand the assets that already exist to encourage health living: for example, by tapping into existing community networks, such as local walking groups, and supporting them to develop. Policymakers will need to be innovative in their attempts to both influence and respond to public awareness and appetite for change.

Finally, effective leadership is essential to improving people’s health outcomes. Leaders can normalise healthy behaviours, drive placed-based strategies, and advocate for changes in national policy. At a local level, leaders can combat physical inactivity by advocating for placed-based strategies and providing long-term support to see them to fruition. By working together, local authorities can also share valuable examples of best practice. At national level, Whitehall can strengthen its links with local health partners and shift its approach to a long-term funding model – giving councils and their partners the certainty they need to invest in people’s health for prevention, alleviating pressures on crisis acute services. Our report stresses that leaders across institutions play a critical role; collaborative leadership, couple with clear strategy, can drive through the creation of healthy places.

With funding for public health coming under increasing strain, ensuring health and place priorities are built into strategic planning has never been more important. While there are many key players in the wider determinants of health seeking different outcomes, they must be united in their goal of improving residents’ wellbeing and consider this a priority. Ultimately, strong collaboration can help drive the shift to a preventative model of public health.

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