A wellbeing council

Imagine this...driving recovery the wellbeing council way

This imagined communication, by Laura Catchpole, from a local government leader discussing the merits of a wellbeing council is one of the scenarios that we are exploring as part of the new municipalism pillar of our Post-Covid Councils project looking at the future of local government.

From: Councillor Belle Wing, Leader Fiction Council

To: Executive members and management team

Subject: Covid-19 recovery: a wellbeing council?

It is an under-statement to say that in all my 10 years as a councillor, I have never had to deal with a situation that has had both a global and local impact, at a community and individual level. For all who have lived through this year, and, of course, not forgetting those who very sadly died from Covid-19, it will forever be etched in our hearts and minds and I do not want to dwell on how things happened or how they are being implemented, as I’ve been there and done that.

As we move into a new year, I want to consider, how do we move on? How do we recover? How can we make people’s lives better than before Covid-19? I am motivated to find whatever opportunity we can from these bleak and terrible times, that have exposed so much inequality, to believe that out of it we can achieve something better for this borough, these communities, these individuals. And we mustn’t forget the overarching challenges around climate change and sustainability.

The pandemic has touched on so many things – health, mental health, economics, employment, education, liberty, the environment, social networks, culture, technology, systems (health, welfare, transport), politics and more. In fact I would be confident in surmising that there is not an area of our lives that has not been affected by the pandemic, one way or another. What stands out for me is that a lot of this has one key component – wellbeing.

I want to consider therefore, how ‘wellbeing’ can be brought front and centre and actually shape how this council responds to recovering from the pandemic. We need to take stock and contemplate, we need to be bold and brave, we need to be creative, we need to listen and learn. I truly believe our council has the potential to be groundbreaking and make real differences to people’s lives. It could become a wellbeing council.

Wellbeing, what does it actually mean?

Wellbeing is nothing new as a concept goes, but is one that is sometimes hard to define.

What Works Wellbeing suggests that wellbeing “encompasses the environmental factors that affect us, and the experiences we have throughout our lives”. Some of these can fall into traditional policy areas, we are familiar with: economy; health; education; housing etc. But in addition, wellbeing also encapsulates the aspects of our lives that we determine ourselves: “through our own capabilities as individuals; how we feel about ourselves; the quality of the relationships that we have with other people; and our sense of purpose.”

I like how What Works Wellbeing also sums up wellbeing as “personal and subjective, but also universally relevant,” where people intuitively understand the value of happiness and wellbeing and how important it is, wherever they are and whatever cultural background or personal circumstances they have.

They do point out though, that on the flip side this can make it difficult to share a common understanding of what exactly wellbeing is, which is perhaps why there has been a slow burn to adopt wellbeing approaches into policy-making. For example, while Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWB) have been around a long time, is wellbeing the poor relation to health? I suspect it is, with the pressure on Health and Wellbeing Boards to support further integration and partnerships, integrated commissioning, the ambitions of the NHS Long Term Plan, as well as getting the job done for the health and care needs for a local area, wellbeing could easily become lost.

However, the point about individual wellbeing being “universally relevant” is of particular interest to me and how this translates into a sense of community wellbeing. What Works Wellbeing has also explored this taking into account two considerations: the way in which we live together (crime rates, heritage, high streets, parks and open spaces etc), affects our own personal wellbeing; and the wellbeing of the community itself. They define community wellbeing as “the combination of social, economic, environmental, cultural, and political conditions identified by individuals and their communities as essential for them to flourish and fulfil their potential.” Isn’t that exciting! That just about sums up why I became a councillor and I’m sure shares a few words with many council visions and missions.

Of course, as I’ve already said wellbeing in policy-making is not new, but its popularity has been slow to mature. Launched by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) introduced a Measuring National Wellbeing programme, to inform national decision-making a decade ago to “start measuring our progress as a country, not just by how our economy is growing, but by how our lives are improving; not just by our standard of living, but by our quality of life”.

The latest available national data is pre-pandemic, but measures aspects of wellbeing including – personal wellbeing, relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, economy, education and skills, governance and the environment. Yet, while it is absolutely fantastic that this data is collected, it does seem to stop short of informing policy development and change. It is true that some policy steps have been taken on specific issues (mental health and loneliness come to mind), I would like to see greater steps nationally to respond to what the data collected tells us and embed wellbeing in policy development across government. Measurement should surely not just be the end goal. This is clearly now even more critical with the impact of the pandemic – and we are getting more information all the time, especially how Covid-19 has worsened existing inequalities, including health inequalities.

So we have national measures, what about locally? Certainly councils are collecting data on a range of indicators to inform many areas of service delivery, but not necessarily for the purposes of measuring local wellbeing. But fear not! What Works Wellbeing (yes them again) have mapped some out, in collaboration with the ONS and Public Health England (PHE) and Happy City (a planning and design consultancy). Published in 2017, the Local Wellbeing Indicator Set, is a researched and evidenced-based framework, similar to the national indicators with domains of personal wellbeing, social relationships, health, place, economy, education and childhood, and equality. They are pragmatic on the detail and split indicators into an ‘ideal set’ and ‘currently available set’ in recognition that while some of this information is already collected, others would need new methods of collection, eg: social networks and personal relationships

Ideal set: % who agree with statement “If I needed help, there are people who would be there for me” and % who meet socially with friends, relatives or work colleagues at least once a week.

Currently Available set: % of adult social care users who DO have as much social contact as they would like.

It’s not perfect as there are lots of ‘ideal set’ indicators required to make this work in greater depth, but it shows that measurement has been thought about and is possible. And if measurement is possible, then maybe we can re-orientate to focus on the wellbeing of our citizens and communities.

The wellbeing council – what does it look like?

One of the most exciting steps towards a wellbeing-driven council in the past couple of years has come from Barking and Dagenham Council in their health and wellbeing strategy. It places a significant focus on wellbeing, rather than it being the poor relation of health. The components of the strategy focus on are ‘best start in life’, ‘early diagnosis and intervention’ and ‘building resilience’– it’s this latter one that has piqued my interest. The aim of this theme is to ‘enable our residents to not just survive, but to thrive across the life course’ and there is a delightful visualisation of how this works across individuals, family and community and connects this with wellbeing, social capital and what they call structural factors (employment, education, housing, community, health, crime and safety, the environment, arts and culture, fairness). Do take a look on page 19!

This focus on resilience is such a good fit for the wellbeing agenda and links neatly with the What Works Wellbeing definition “wellbeing also encapsulates the aspects of our lives that we determine ourselves: “through our own capabilities as individuals…”

This is obviously just one strategy though and while a really good one in my view, I do hope it reflects across their council plan, other strategies and budgets. Of course, all councils have their health and wellbeing strategies, but I think that having a strong health and wellbeing strategy could be the central plank for a wellbeing council. But it would need to overarching, with other service strategies linked to it and importantly, have the money behind it. Again, this is more crucial now, but perhaps more difficult, given increasing financial pressures.

Which leads me to the approach of North Ayrshire Council, who earlier this year launched their new Community Wealth Building Strategy – the first council in Scotland to adopt this approach to economic development. As part of this they have joined the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, a global organisation dedicated to supporting the development of ‘wellbeing’ economies with a focus on social justice and environmental change. This is exciting stuff as the aims are very noble and if I assume correctly it will enable them to put a wellbeing lens across every aspect of work that they do – definitely one to watch.

Reflecting on these two examples, leads me to ponder:

  • How about setting a wellbeing budget? New Zealand has done it nationally (see below); it would be great to see this achieved locally – maybe the next step North Ayrshire?
  • How about fiscal or other incentives, linked to wellbeing impact assessments? Equality impact assessments are familiar; I’d like to see a wellbeing element to these or a wellbeing version. I’m no economist, but fiscal incentives would be that next step to get more of what would be good for a local area. When my daughter was small we used to go a baby and child friendly café, a private-run business aimed at parents with small children. It provided a safe space for new mums to breastfeed comfortably, new parents could enjoy a coffee and lunch with others, it had a sensory area and a space upstairs use by other local businesses for parent and baby fitness or baby focussed learning sessions. Unfortunately it closed down due to personal reasons and it was such a big loss to the network of new mums I knew at the time. What if that idea could be replicated by the third sector or a social enterprise led by the community? Such an a good opportunity if the right support and incentives were available and definite big tick on the wellbeing agenda for a community.
  • How about talking about wellbeing and finding out what it means to our citizens, framed around community recovery from Covid-19? Is a focus on resilience key? Barking and Dagenham held community conversations in the development of their strategy, which is surely is a gold standard to achieve.   Particularly when we move forward from this pandemic, we need to hear from and listen to our communities, so focus it on their wellbeing?
  • How about building on private investment through corporate social responsibility and their own employee wellbeing strategies? During the pandemic many larger businesses have been investing in wellbeing support for employees to help them through these challenging times. One would hope this support will continue post-pandemic and it would be good to capitalise on this and encourage businesses to take wellbeing support outside their doors into their communities. Just prior to the pandemic I took my daughter to a newly built playground in my home town – every piece of equipment was sponsored by a different local business. The playground was very busy – the kids loved the equipment, the parent saw who provided it.
  • How about ensuring our local growth strategies put wellbeing at their core – is community wealth building just a slogan or a realistic approach? Obviously I wait to see what happens in North Ayrshire, but a local growth strategy with wellbeing at its core would be very exciting!
  • How about fixing a wellbeing lens on health, housing and social care? We know these three areas are interlinked; wellbeing could be the glue to make these systems work more seamlessly together.
  • How about mapping our cities and towns and explore their wellbeing potential – high streets, public and green space, arts, culture, sport and heritage offers? I expect if you looked at most local communities there are many areas within them that have a positive impact on wellbeing. Scrutiny at a spatial level as much as anything could identify gaps, where opportunities may then follow.
  • How about engaging with and empowering our third sector partners to help us? Our partners in the third sector most likely have their beneficiaries wellbeing at the heart of their agenda – so let’s start conversations with them about wellbeing, again opportunities may then follow.
  • Can local government do this alone or do we need national government to lead by example or incentivise?

Yes, what about national government?

I do want to pick up on this last rhetorical question in more detail. As noted the UK government has taken small steps in this direction by at least starting to measure wellbeing nationally and acted on some wellbeing policy areas. Interestingly there was a House of Lords debate earlier this year on the subject and there is an All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Wellbeing Economics, who have long-called for wellbeing to be an overarching policy objective that combines economic and non-economic objectives into a single framework. However it unfortunately feels a long way from ever being implemented nationally.

I can’t write about national government and wellbeing without a nod to New Zealand. In 2019, New Zealand’s government made its first “wellbeing budget”, using an evidence-based approach to focus on what could make the greatest difference to the wellbeing of New Zealanders – resulting in five priorities: mental health (particularly for young people, improving child wellbeing, supporting Māori and Pasifika aspirations, building a productive nation and transforming the economy (including to a sustainable and low emissions economy). This is linked to a Living Standards Framework, with 12 domains of wellbeing (subjective wellbeing, housing, health, jobs, social connections etc – and interestingly time use). All government departments have been analysed for their contributions to societal wellbeing and all bids for funding have to factor in their wellbeing contribution.

It’s not entirely clear how this wellbeing responsibility translates to local authorities in New Zealand, as the structure of local government is different with democratic district health boards and regional development agencies also in the mix. But there is no denying it is a bold approach and one that I really hope makes great strides in addressing those priority areas and improving the overall wellbeing of New Zealanders. Clearly Covid-19 will have upset the apple-cart somewhat, but I’ll be watching to see how our New Zealand friends recover and retain that wellbeing focus.

Finally, this idea of a wellbeing budget has seeds sprouting closer to home, in Scotland. In April 2020, the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery was established, with an aim “to ensure an economic recovery that will increase wellbeing, fairness and inclusivity, and makes the most of opportunities towards a greener, net-zero society”. Responding to the group’s findings the Scottish Government have committed to a “wellbeing economy. While the sentiments are good indicators of direction, there is a lot of talk about business and industry rather than about people, so I’ll wait to see how this develops to see if it is actually about wellbeing.

So what are we waiting for?

Covid-19 has held up a spotlight on all manner of inequalities and in many cases exacerbated them. Recovery at the moment, even with a vaccine, seems so far away. But we must have hope and we must think and plan for a time beyond Covid. I think there is an opportunity for councils to take a lead in this recovery and this could be done with wellbeing at the heart.

I want us – councillors and lead officers – to think through how this kind of focus would affect our existing strategies, policies and also our day to day service delivery. What are the tensions it could raise about current priorities? Do we see the council as the lead or the first among many? Would a wellbeing budget inevitably mean cuts in services that have already seen heavy reductions?

Finally, and crucially, is the appetite there? Yes I think so. The ideas are there, the indicators are there, there are people talking about it and in some cases putting it into action. Can it be done without a national government lead? Yes I think it can, but as with everything it would help if there was support and long-term funding to make it a reality.

I have my sights set on a wellbeing-focused future.

Cllr Belle Wing, Fiction Borough Council

Further reading

'Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review' – the pandemic, socioeconomic and health inequalities in England

‘Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review’ – the pandemic, socioeconomic and health inequalities in England

Health inequalities widening  In February 2020, the Institute for Health Equity and the Health Foundation published the follow-up report to Marmot’s 2010 seminal review of health inequalities, Fair society, healthy lives: Health equity in England ten years on but it was overtaken by the pandemic and has not yet received the attention it warrants. In […]

Read more on ‘Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review’ – the pandemic, socioeconomic and health inequalities in England
More than pounds and pence – a national framework for valuing Scotland’s land

More than pounds and pence – a national framework for valuing Scotland’s land

“Getting the measure right is crucially important. If we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing. If our measures tell us everything is fine when it really isn’t, we will be complacent.”  – Joseph Stiglitz (Economist) Organisations and local and national governments around the world are rethinking how they measure economic success […]

Read more on More than pounds and pence – a national framework for valuing Scotland’s land
Leaving no one behind: why local government should take an intersectional response to Covid-19

Leaving no one behind: why local government should take an intersectional response to Covid-19

This article is part of our work on Post-Covid Councils: Place and Community. “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” the feminist Audre Lorde famously said, back in 1982. Covid-19 has reaffirmed this assertion. By now, the disproportionate impact of the pandemic, and the corresponding social […]

Read more on Leaving no one behind: why local government should take an intersectional response to Covid-19

Measuring local wellbeing – what data matters?

A new set of indicators aims to give local authorities a more sophisticated picture of the wellbeing – or otherwise – of their communities than has previously been possible using more traditional data sets. Patricia Curmi explains. Most local authorities know they need to approach decision-making differently in an increasingly complex and changing world. They know we need […]

Read more on Measuring local wellbeing – what data matters?