Getting healthier and wealthier

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal, where our Chief Executive, Sarah Longlands, writes a regular viewpoint column.

I had the opportunity to spend time in Birmingham recently as part of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies’ (CLES) work with the Birmingham Anchor Network. Post-pandemic, the Integrated Care System (ICS) in the city has completely revitalised its recruitment approach – tearing up its 17-page application form in the process.

This new approach to recruitment puts the onus on the organisation rather than individuals, and has enabled people – particularly those with transferable skills but a lack of opportunities in the beleaguered hospitality industry – to come and work in health and social care.

The outcomes to date are impressive, with more than 300 previously unemployed residents receiving job offers – a high proportion of whom are from minority ethnic communities.

This is just one example of where an ICS is working with intent to support economic and social outcomes in their place, as well as addressing the chronic recruitment challenge affecting health and social care providers across the UK.

“economic and social development has now become one of four core purposes of ICSs”

A commitment to economic and social development has now become one of four core purposes of ICSs and this is something my colleague Tom Lloyd Goodwin will be exploring in a forthcoming paper from CLES.

The commitment on ICSs is a welcome recognition that the NHS’s mission goes beyond treating us when we are ill and is, as well, about helping create the conditions which prevent poor health in the first place: decent pay and conditions, training and skills, liveable communities with well-maintained homes and access to green spaces.

There are 42 ICSs across England, covering populations which range from 500,000 to three million people, so the potential to harness their economic heft and level up in our neighbourhoods is enormous.

Our experience to date suggests that progress on this agenda is often due to a few wilful individuals who see the potential and are willing to stick their head above the parapet and work with partners to co-create something new.

“more important is the quality of economic activity being generated”

This is not just about seeing the NHS as a driver of economic growth. What the NHS can bring to the debate is a recognition that what is more important is the quality of economic activity being generated. Take the procurement and commissioning of public services. Often this is a process which favours the biggest providers, who are geared up to tender for large-scale public contracts, but which may have little or no relationship with place. When the delivery of public services, such as health and social care systems, become divorced from their local context there is an opportunity cost. Not only do we lose the potential economic multiplier effect of investing in local businesses, community and voluntary organisations as well as jobs for residents, we potentially undervalue the importance of local knowledge in the delivery of services.

But this is not just an argument about costs. There are significant benefits to be reaped for the economy if you know where to look. The potential to use NHS processes and data to help support new business innovation in health and social care products and services, for example. By combining the clinical expertise of NHS practitioners with that of tech and data entrepreneurs, we can develop new ways of understanding and learning about population health.

“we need economies which deliver good quality lives”

We know that even when our economy has been growing in recent years, there are many communities where rates of poor health, mediocre housing and salaries have remained unchanged. Going for growth is not good enough – we need economies which deliver good quality lives, not just GDP.

Just as I have seen what is happening in Birmingham, I am excited by the idea that our ICSs can play a key role in helping bring emphasis on quality back into our local economic debate. I think we will all be healthier and wealthier as a result.

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