Responding to cost of living challenges: North Yorkshire

An interview with Louise Wallace, Director of Public Health, North Yorkshire Council.

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North Yorkshire covers the largest county footprint in England, and includes rural, coastal and urban areas. The size of the county, combined with dispersed, rural communities, means that fuel costs relating to transport and heating are a particular challenge.

North Yorkshire is changing from a county council with eight districts to a unitary authority in April 2023. This is a time of transition with political, workforce and service reform.

Planning and coordination

The approach in North Yorkshire is to establish fair and equitable support and services across the county while also ensuring a bespoke response to the different local communities. The council is driving its response to cost of living through its senior leadership and management board. Partnerships with the NHS, the voluntary and community sector and other partners like the fire service generally take place at district or community level.

As in the pandemic, the role of communities is central to the cost of living response.

There is great community spirit in the county – people “rally round” and look out for each other. Public health funds the council’s long standing Stronger Communities team which is responsible for working with North Yorkshire’s extensive community and voluntary sector to support communities to play a greater role in the delivery of services, and to identify local solutions and opportunities. Priorities include community libraries, community transport and support for vulnerable people of all ages. There are also 23 community support organisations that co-ordinate volunteer and community support in each area. Stronger Communities and community support organisations helped mobilise support in the pandemic and now during the rising  cost of living .

Cost of living support

Key initiatives include the following:

Fuel poverty was identified by public health as one of the main challenges facing people in the county and it has increased investment in its fuel poverty advice contract with the CAB.

The council has a detailed cost of living resource on its website including council financial assistance, warm and well information, benefits, energy saving, food and community bases support including warm welcome spaces. It also gives links to district councils’ cost of living support activities.

The county-wide approach has been to encourage the use of existing warm places like community libraries and community centres. Community support organisations mapped and registered warm spaces on the national database and districts have compiled more detailed information about the offer at each centre. For example, Scarborough’s warm welcome programme was funded with a pot of £10,000 to provide grants of up to £300 to support the roll-out of warm spaces by, for example, helping voluntary organisations with energy costs. So far 20 have benefited from the grants. In Craven, spaces provide a range of additional options such as arts and crafts, access to community fridges and sessions with the energy ambassador. Food banks are provided across the county, with charities reporting increasing demand.

Impact on future plans

Public health and partners will consider the data from cost of living support services through the winter months and see what response is needed in the new year.

The county includes areas of deprivation where there is a gap in healthy life expectancy. Public health is developing its capacity for influencing the wider determinants of health with a view to tackling health-related issues, such as lack of rural connectivity and coastal deprivation. It will be helping further develop ‘best start’ approaches and influencing work on ‘fair inclusive economy’ and the council’s growth plan.

Public health has recently undertaken a large engagement exercise on the future of health and care as a unitary council. The restructure is seen as having great potential for extending the influence of public health across the wider determinants of health.

National change that could make a difference

  • Greater national appreciation of the connection between public health and public wealth. Prosperity should not just be judged on economic growth but should take other factors like health and wellbeing into account – a Marmot approach to national wellbeing.

Chief Executive perspective

Public health has a key strategic, support and advisory role in shaping the council’s response to cost of living pressures. This builds on the legacy of community support established in the pandemic. North Yorkshire has a committed network of voluntary and community organisations that made a great contribution during COVID-19 and now with cost of living support. Public health has a particular role in supporting and funding the sector to identify and deliver bespoke local solutions.

North Yorkshire is currently transitioning into a unitary council and, with York, has just consulted on a devolution deal. Both changes provide huge opportunities to deliver more local powers and decision making on matters such as new and better paid jobs, affordable low carbon housing, green economic growth – all of which will improve the health and wellbeing of residents.

Richard Flinton, Chief Executive, North Yorkshire Council