Charlotte Augst, of National Voices, and Ian Hudspeth, of the Local Government Association, on the importance of communities and social support to wellbeing - and the need to prioritise it accordingly. 

Charlotte Augst 3x2

There will always be a gap between what really matters to people’s wellbeing and quality of life and what national governments of all colours talk about and deliver. The events of the last three years have certainly and substantially widened this gap.

The debate about our country’s future relationship with the European Union has inevitably dominated parliamentary time and the current contest for Number 10 – complete with all national parties articulating their vision for the future – is and maybe has to be the focus. But another truth is that, all the while, people’s need for good houses, good jobs, good places, good neighbourhoods and good opportunities for physical, social and mental wellbeing hasn’t gone away. It’s just hard to be heard during these exceptional times. Meanwhile, health inequalities grow and life expectancy stalls, or even falls.

The long trailed Prevention Green Paper could be an opportunity to put some of this right. If this paper wants to achieve its aim of adding years to people’s lives, and life to people’s years, it needs to address the factors that actually shape people’s health and wellbeing. Many people inside and outside government have quietly worked away at strengthening the narrative in the Green Paper that links health outcomes not just to “personal choices” or “lifestyles”, but the environment we live in, the communities we are a part of, and the inequalities that affect people and places.

A starting point

We understand that a Green Paper is only ever just a starting point and that there are further papers, and importantly, a Spending Review to follow. We also know that the new prime minister will be facing various competing demands and discussions. However, we need him to understand the importance of the social fabric underpinning people’s lives.

We are heartened by the emergence of leadership across the whole health and care system that understands the need to engage with people’s lives more holistically – through population health approaches, social prescribing, and by addressing health inequalities

If we now lose the hard won consensus that cuts to local government funding have long reached the limit of what communities can endure, we risk a further deterioration of the social infrastructure we all rely on. This social fabric goes way further than the services provided under the public health grant, and is largely provided by local government, often in successful partnership with the voluntary and community sector. It is made up of all the things that hard pushed councils have been forced to cut back on, including decommissioning valuable voluntary sector services: parks, housing support, benefits advice, youth clubs, befriending, children’s centres, to name but a few.

National Voices is the umbrella body for charities large and small in health and care. Its 160 members know from their work that these cuts cannot continue without serious repercussions for the people and communities they are committed to supporting. So today – together with all other sector leaders of charities across the health and care landscape – National Voices urges the political leadership of this country to step up; to prioritise and strengthen local councils’ and the VCSE’s ability to build the conditions that help people thrive.

Ian Hudspeth

As the voice of local councils across the country, the Local Government Association is making a similar pitch to government: to recognise the inherent value of local government and fund and empower councils properly so they can make even more progress on growing vibrant communities that work for all residents.

Exactly what happens next remains to be seen. So in the meantime, charities and councils – individually and in partnership – will do what they do best: helping to improve people’s lives and the communities in which they live with limited resources but unlimited dedication from committed staff and volunteers. And this we have in common with the NHS.

Everyone knows that most unmet social needs in the end wash up either in the health or justice systems. So NHS leaders have a big role to play in providing the local and national leadership that is required to address the needs people have in the most appropriate way. And that means investing in places, communities, social infrastructure and the VCSE. We are heartened by the emergence of leadership across the whole health and care system that understands the need to engage with people’s lives more holistically – through population health approaches, social prescribing, and by addressing health inequalities.

We need more of this behaviour from leaders across all sectors – NHS, local government and VCSE: dismantling unhelpful silos, sharing responsibilities for people and places, valuing non-medical support for people with health needs. The Green Paper and ensuing spending decisions can make these shifts easier or harder. Either way, it is high time we rebuild the social fabric that supports good and long lives.