Northumberland County Council: Heart of Blyth

This case study forms part of Shaping Places for Healthier Lives, a grant programme funding five council-led partnerships across England to build places that support good health for all. The programme is funded by the Health Foundation, delivered in partnership with the Local Government Association, and supported in delivery and learning by the Design Council and Cordis Bright/PPL. 

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Blyth is the largest town in Northumberland, with a population of approximately 39,000. This coastal town has a strong industrial heritage – its economy was built on exporting coal, shipbuilding, and offshore oil and gas.  

While this industrial activity has declined, there is a vision for Blyth to become a centre for renewable energy and advanced manufacturing, alongside a £70 million regeneration programme to transform Blyth town.  

Blyth is a lively community with assets that are valued by local residents, including its beaches and open spaces. There are some challenges to overcome, such as anti-social behaviour (ASB) and low-level crime in the town centre, which is impacting on Blyth’s reputation and people’s sense of safety. People living in some central wards experience poorer health outcomes and health inequalities compared with other parts of Northumberland.  

Northumberland County Council’s SPHL project, ‘Heart of Blyth’, is working alongside the ambitious regeneration programme to make Blyth feel like a better, safer, happier, more connected and healthier place to live in. At the heart of this work is Blyth’s greatest asset – its people. The project is harnessing their passion, ideas, commitment and energy to strengthen community cohesion and build a renewed sense of pride in place. 


A community-centred approach

During the application stage, the project team organised a series of community conversations, which revealed that residents were concerned about fear of crime, ASB, socio-economic inequalities, job losses, and the physical environment (particularly in the town centre). These factors were leading to a lack of community cohesion and impacting on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of local people.  

Residents said this could be improved through opportunities to come together, increase community pride, work towards a common aim and be involved creatively in decisions affecting them.  

In response, Heart of Blyth was designed as an asset-based, community-centred approach to addressing fear of crime and improving health and wellbeing, particularly in those communities adjacent to the town centre that are most affected by health inequality. The goals include:  

  • strengthening relationships by bringing diverse groups together, building connections and sharing skills/knowledge to improve the area. 
  • making the most of Blyth’s strengths by building on and celebrating what is already there.
  • building on the ideas and contributions of residents, and working with local organisations to provide opportunities to develop those ideas.
  • developing a positive reputation and identity for Blyth which can be promoted within the town and to visitors.

Lessons learned

Heart of Blyth is putting initiatives in place to explore different ways of addressing some of the specific challenges. These initiatives are part of a planned programme of activity informed by understanding the complex systems at play and the areas where action is needed.  

System-wide change resulting from this action will inform future activities, both during the three-year SPHL programme and beyond. At the halfway point, the team have shared some of the learning so far.  

People are Blyth’s most valuable asset  

During the research stage, it was clear that Blyth’s greatest strength is its people. People are passionate about the town and value its assets. There was a desire to come together, celebrate Blyth and work towards a common goal. One key element of the project involves building on residents’ ideas that will help to improve the physical appearance of their area or strengthen community pride.  

The Heart of Blyth coordinator is Ade Keogh. Working as a systems convener she has oversight of how all the ideas and initiatives can play a part in achieving the project goals. The coordinator’s role includes:  

  • bringing residents together to develop their ideas 
  • connecting residents and community groups/organisations that could work together to develop these ideas 
  • identifying sources of funding which could support these ideas to grow 
  • linking residents with other council departments that can help with their requests, such as the Northumberland Communities Together community support team, housing and planning.   

Residents want to take ownership of community change  

Heart of Blyth provides ‘microgrants’ of up to £3,000 to develop residents’ ideas which meet its overall aims. There was an open invitation for residents to join a new Heart of Blyth residents panel, which now has 15 members. This has helped to ensure a sense of community ownership of the project. Their role is to:  

  • provide their experience of living in Blyth to help shape the direction of the project 
  • assess microgrant applications and decide which ones will be awarded funding   
  • promote the project and the microgrants to the people of Blyth.  

CVA Blyth Valley, a key stakeholder, helped to develop a training package for the residents’ panel members. An evaluation tool (supplied by the Design Council) is used at every meeting. Members have said they value having an impact, finding out about different groups and activities in the town, and discussing the ideas with applicants.   

Practical support and encouragement is provided for microgrant applicants. If an application is rejected, the team helps them to source alternative funding or develop the idea differently. Feedback from grant holders is now being evaluated.  

Ade Keogh said:

“The microgrants have been an amazing tool to get people involved. Because the decisions are made by residents, even if an application is rejected most applicants will reapply. The residents are in a process of learning – and we are learning from them as well.” 

The project team is helping residents to influence wider factors in Blyth which will form an important part of the systemic change they are is seeking to achieve. For example:  

  • Working with the Forget-Me-Nots Residents Association, based in an estate near the town centre, the team has, liaised with the council’s housing team and other stakeholders to progress community ideas; and worked with the transport team to enhance the local cycle sharing scheme.   
  • The project team has worked with the Improving Croft and Cowpen Quay (ICCQ) Partnership, a group of statutory and voluntary organisations doing community work in the central Blyth area (12 streets that back onto the market square), to empower the community to take action and change things from the inside. There are now sub-groups on housing, ASB, retail crime, and drug and alcohol misuse.
  • The project team has organising asset-based community development training for ICCQ Partnership member organisations with provider Nurture Developing.  

People want to celebrate Blyth  

Residents told the project team that they value opportunities to celebrate Blyth’s culture and heritage. Heart of Blyth has provided financial or practical support for events that bring people together.  

This includes existing events such as Blyth Fest, an annual fortnight of cultural events organised by the Blyth Culture Network. In 2023 the event received a microgrant and logistical support. Heart of Blyth produced and distributed a leaflet highlighting the work done by all the participating organisations.  

A microgrant was awarded to the organisers of Blyth Carnival, Leading Link, for supporting materials to enable schools and nurseries to take part. Heart of Blyth promoted the carnival and encouraged some community groups to take part for the first time. The team also attends or supports lots of smaller community events, including some funded by microgrants.  

Empowering residents to share success stories   

Heart of Blyth is working in partnership with Northumbria University to develop the ‘Our Stories of Blyth’ group. This is comprised of two parts:  

  • A shared documentation, evaluation and creative methods project to help organisations working to improve health and wellbeing in Blyth capture the impact of their work.  
  • A creative storytelling project, working with residents to document the changes that are happening in the town.  

The storytelling project is empowering community members to share positive stories about the impact of arts and culture projects. Dr Ian Robson, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing, worked with a small group of Blyth residents who are now documenting the work of local organisations. These stories will be shared to promote groups/activities, encourage others to join in, and celebrate creative activity of all types that can help make people’s lives better.  

Next steps

The challenges facing Blyth have been recognised nationally, and the area is set to receive tens of millions of pounds in Government levelling-up investment. As these regeneration plans progress, Heart of Blyth is empowering residents to make positive change in their communities which improves people’s mental and physical health and wellbeing.  

By bringing lots of different initiatives together, the project will have an impact much greater than the sum of its parts. Going forward, the team will continue to assess the wider impact of an increasingly engaged community, and will begin to look at how Heart of Blyth can leave a lasting legacy here. 


For further information contact the project team: [email protected]