An interview with Stephen Gunther, Director of Public Health, Walsall Council.
Walsall is a diverse borough and includes areas that are among the most deprived in England as well as more affluent areas. It is also culturally diverse, with minority ethnic groups accounting for nearly a third of the population. People experiencing the greatest impact from the rising cost of living are more likely to live in the west of the Borough.
Planning and coordination
Walsall’s cost of living response builds on the partnerships, approaches and initiatives developed during the pandemic. It is coordinated through Walsall Proud, a strategic partnership involving the NHS, fire and rescue service, university, voluntary and community groups and the largest social housing provider, Walsall Housing Group. The partnership undertakes coordinated action where this would make the greatest impact and also make organisational contributions, such as Walsall Housing Group committing to no evictions during the crisis.
Cost of living support
During the pandemic, an important approach was to put resources into communities, and this has been replicated during the rising cost of living. Walsall community associations are a key development partner, with many operating in buildings from the Council’s estate as part of the Council’s voluntary and community offer. Community associations provide a range of cost of living support including warm spaces, information and advice, and helping tackle social isolation. The Warm Walsall initiative has been set up by Walsall Community Network with £10,000 initial council crisis support funding for 17 community hubs across the borough.
There are a range of foodbanks across the borough, and developments are planned, such as establishing a cooperative supermarket.
A campaign of social media posts has directed audiences to the council’s comprehensive cost of living information pages on its website. The council also operates an ‘advice from next door’ approach, recognising that some people need support closer to home. Support and advice has moved from a one stop shop in the town centre to seven local libraries and 18 community hubs, through the Walsall Connected approach. Partners encourage residents to maximise the benefits that they are entitled to. Walsall Connected also helps people learn how to use the internet and online services.
Public health had already invested £1m over three years in community mental wellbeing services, offering information, advice and support using the eight ways to wellbeing model and the ‘no wrong door’ approach. The service provides mobile wellbeing bus support as well as operating in community associations.
Impact on future plans
The impact of the pandemic and cost of living pressures is likely to increase health inequalities. Over the next few years, public health and its partners will seek to mitigate the impact as much as possible, and tough decisions will need to be made.
The DPH heads the council’s corporate policy and strategy and business insights unit which covers cross-council data and intelligence, benchmarking, monitoring, strategic audit and production of strategies and action plans, including the Council Plan 2022-25 and the long-term plan ‘We are Walsall 2040’.
Health, wellbeing and prosperity are at the heart of Walsall’s strategic planning function. In the medium-term public health will be supporting the development of the economic strategy. The strong connection between work, health and prosperity is ‘hardwired’ into the how the council operates. An important area will be for local partners in Walsall Together to continue to invest in local communities to increase resilience – a key issue identified in the independent review of the response to the pandemic undertaken by the University of Wolverhampton.
The corporate strategy unit is currently working on We are Walsall 2040, listening to hopes and aspirations of residents, businesses and partners about how they want to see the borough develop. The strategy will embody Marmot principles.
National changes that could make a difference
- Putting wellbeing at the heart of national decision making – investing in skills and talents, good infrastructure and a sustainable and good standard of living for all.
- Freedom and flexibilities for local government with licensing and planning so better local decisions can be made.
- A government funding settlement of at least five years.
The domain of public health is far reaching, affecting all areas of the council’s work and peoples’ everyday lives. An important role of the DPH is to find synergies between services, reduce duplication and silo-working and join the dots. The pandemic showed that strong partnerships are essential to make a difference. The DPH is responsible for strengthening relationships with the NHS and local communities and is central to coordinating and supporting the cost of living response.
Since the pandemic, friends and neighbours are more likely to take care of each other, checking on how vulnerable people are doing. It is important to nurture and support this. We are listening to what people are saying; for instance, there is interest in getting help with cooking on a budget, such as cooking with air fryers. Walsall continues to invest in communities, for example, the recently launched Positive Outcomes Programme (POP) for 16-25-year-olds, which has a mobile service and a community-based hub, with five more planned.
We are also linking health and prosperity in our Walsall Proud approach which includes measures such as keeping jobs and procurement local, and in levelling-up investments such as town-centre regeneration.
Councillor Gary Flint, Portfolio Holder for Health and Wellbeing