Exeter: the value of roots in the community, when engaging around wellbeing

Exeter City Council has created Wellbeing Exeter, a strategic alliance with Devon County Council and Sport England, which aims to link up community, healthcare and wellbeing services, and to reinforce local assets which might strengthen wellbeing outcomes. The result of this holistic approach has been to create deeper roots in the community and a more co-produced approach to local services. This has included collaboration with residents in one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, around the design and construction of a new community wellbeing hub.

The challenge

Exeter City Council has long recognised the importance of properly integrated health and wellbeing services. Through the creation of the Wellbeing Exeter programme, the authority had designed a partnership programme to improve services.  The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic put these provisions under strain, making face-to-face interactions impossible, increasing social isolation and reducing the number of opportunities for physical exercise. Through Wellbeing Exeter, Exeter City Council and Devon County Council wanted to minimise the negative impact of the pandemic on wellbeing. They did not want COVID-19 to add to health inequalities.  

The pandemic also exposed differences in support networks across communities. Some neighbourhoods had a much stronger social fabric than others, as well as more community assets. One very deprived ward in Exeter, Wonford, experiences particularly poor health outcomes. These have been heightened during the pandemic. The neighbourhood has some of the city’s highest levels of physical inactivity. The authority is keen to ensure that Wonford has the facilities and support it needs.

The solution

Wellbeing Exeter has been established for several years in the city. It is jointly resourced by a board of organisations and agencies, including, Exeter City Council, Devon County Council, the NHS and Sport England. Wellbeing Exeter combines two elements.

The first is a network of 17 Community Connectors, linked to GP catchments, which refer residents to different types of health and wellbeing support, including forms of social prescribing. The second is a group of 13 Community Builders, one for each ward, who are supported by the voluntary sector and whose role is to identify local assets. The aim of the Connectors is to forge links between agencies and groups, helping residents who have been referred by the NHS to navigate the system. The aim of the Community Builders is to cultivate opportunities for wellbeing in every community, reducing health inequalities between areas.

These two elements were central in the development of a flagship community wellbeing hub in Wonford. Engagement about the hub began just before the pandemic and feedback provided by the Community Connectors helped to identify the initial need. Relationships forged by the Community Builders enabled the council to create a ‘Community Sounding Board’ panel of residents, who were able to reach those most in need.

The co-production work around the hub began in late 2019 and continued via electronic engagement once COVID-19 struck. It identified a ‘wish list’ of outcomes that people wanted to see from the project. These were developed and refined through the engagement process. The sounding boards were supplemented by quantitative research, about the role which the wellbeing hub should play and who it should be for.

The impact

The site for the hub sits on the edge of a large expanse of green space, covering Wonford Playing Fields, the Ludwell Valley Park and the wider city Green Circle walking route. One of the key findings from the engagement was that the building, which originally occupied the space earmarked for the hub, was acting as a barrier between the community and this open space. Some barely knew that the space was there, and few were using it to socialise or exercise.

Residents wanted the new community hub to act as a bridge to the great outdoors – not a barrier.  The resulting vision for the area, ‘What Wonford Wants’, was based on turning the site into a gateway to the great outdoors, with outward facing architecture and an airy, glass design reflecting this.

The council has now recommended a £750,000 spending package to take the programme through formal design, feasibility and planning. The council will be co-designing this phase with residents, supported by investigations and surveys of the existing buildings.

Lessons learnt

The success of the engagement process around the hub benefitted from the groundwork that had been laid, through the previous Community Connector and Community Builder schemes. These schemes created links between service users and decision-makers, which are the basis for constructive engagement and positive conversations.

The involvement of Wonford residents at an early stage meant that community needs were clearly identified, which informed the ‘What Wonford Wants’ co-production process. This helped the council to develop a vision and narrative for people to rally around.