Councils have a critical role in ensuring the economic recovery also works to improve health.

The latest restrictions on our everyday lives have served as an important reminder that COVID-19 remains a dual threat to our health and the economy.

The choices facing the government are sometimes presented as pro-health (restrictions on everyday life) or pro-economy (easing of restrictions) but the reality is not so black and white. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the country’s health and its economic prosperity are inextricably linked.

Times of crisis offer opportunities as well as risks. As we seek to rebuild the economy following the pandemic and ‘level up’ UK regions, there is an opportunity to create more inclusive economies geared towards reducing inequalities and improving health. In turn, a healthier population should increase resilience to future economic and health shocks.

The Health Foundation has been examining how local government leaders can use the pandemic recovery to shape their economies in ways which improve health and reduce health inequalities. Some of the greatest influences on our health are the social, economic and environmental conditions that we live in – for example, access to employment and good quality work or access to education.

Good health is, of course, valuable to individuals but it is also a societal asset which helps people and places to flourish. Viewed in this way, a healthy population is an important aspect of social infrastructure – a vital input into a strong economy that improves people’s wellbeing, their productivity and ability to participate in society. Poor health has been estimated to cost the UK economy £100bn per year in lost productivity.

Currently, good health is not shared evenly across the population. Men living in the most deprived 10th of areas in England can expect to live 18.9 fewer years in good health than men living in the least deprived, and between March and July, those living in the most deprived areas of England were 2.2 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those in the least deprived areas. This level of inequality in part represents a failure of successive governments to maximise the social and economic potential of the population. Health must now be a critical dimension of the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda when we move into the recovery phase of the pandemic response.

From the ashes of the pandemic, there will be opportunities to re-design the way our economy works. This moment should be seized. The phrase ‘build back better’ has become something of a slogan – but what does it really mean? How do we ensure that we build back better in a way that improves the quality of people’s lives and reduces health inequalities?

National and local governments, and the partners they work with, can make conscious choices about the type of economy they promote. These choices will materially affect long-term health outcomes for their populations. Our report, Using economic development to improve health and reduce health inequalities, produced jointly with the RSA and Demos Helsinki, draws upon UK and international case studies and highlights learning from countries, cities and regions that have done this well (see box below).

Here are six things that local areas can do to build more inclusive, health-promoting economies. They all build on real examples of places which have done this well:

• Build a thorough understanding of local issues with robust analysis as demonstrated by the inclusive growth diagnostic tool from Scotland’s Centre for Regional Inclusive Growth

• Develop long-term visions for local economies that are good for people’s health, as demonstrated by Plymouth City Council’s Plymouth Plan 2014–2034

• Engage with citizens to build momentum for action, as demonstrated by community involvement in the work and priorities of the Clyde Gateway regeneration programme in Glasgow

• Capitalise on existing local assets and use existing powers more actively, as demonstrated by Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership’s work to stimulate innovation in medical technology innovation

• Cultivate close working between public health and economic development professionals, as demonstrated by the joint posts in economic development and health across various levels of government in Scotland

• Provide services that meet people’s health and economic needs together, as demonstrated by Finland’s one-stop guidance centres, where people under 30 can access help on issues related to work, health, education and everyday life.

It is clear that local authorities have a critical role to play. As the government decides how to build back better, local authorities must have a seat at the table and be given support and autonomy. The roadmap to economic recovery must include local places.

As we grapple with uncertainty in the aftermath of the pandemic, the government has the opportunity to create more inclusive economies that are geared towards improving health and reducing health inequalities. There must be measures to assess progress in levelling up across the country. That means moving beyond simple measures of success such as GDP and job numbers. Promoting more inclusive and socially cohesive policies is a vital part of building back better.

COVID-19 has been a major economic shock as well as a health crisis. But it has also shone a spotlight on the major inequalities that characterise our society. Given the long-term economic, environmental and societal challenges ahead, these inequalities need to be a central part of the recovery plan. Building back better must include long term changes that enhance everyone’s health and better protect us from future crises.

Emma Spencelayh (@ESpencelayh) is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation.

This article originally appeared in LGC.

Further reading

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Using economic development to improve health and reduce health inequalities

September 2020
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