Metro mayors have key role in health and wealth

By Ben Lucas and Duncan Selbie

This article originally appeared in the Municipal Journal.

Metro mayors now cover 20% of the English population and they are changing the governance and policy landscape.

That is why we have teamed up to set out the opportunity that devolution has opened up to integrate health and wellbeing into an inclusive growth agenda.

Improving people’s health and promoting economic growth may not traditionally have been seen to have much in common.

But health and wealth are flip sides of the same coin.

Developing national and local understanding of the connection between better health and the potential for productivity growth is a key priority for Public Health England (PHE).

Without a healthy workforce, inclusive economic growth will not be possible.

We cannot have one without the other.

With this in mind, PHE commissioned advisory firm Metro Dynamics to produce a report to help achieve a deeper understanding of the complex links between health and wealth.

The role that the new metro mayors can play in this agenda is a particular focus, along with some of the opportunities that devolution presents to take action at scale to drive population health improvement.

There is a fundamental link between improving health and realising a community’s potential for economic growth and regeneration.

Poor health results in productivity losses of up to £33bn nationally every year and means public services like the NHS spend £17bn a year dealing with the consequences.

One in three current UK employees have a long-term health condition and one in eight current employees report having a mental health condition.

Some 42% of employees with a health condition felt their condition affected their work a ‘great deal’ or to ‘some extent’.

It is clear that improving health could, over time, significantly reduce costs for the local NHS and pressure on services while also improving local economic performance and spreading wealth more equitably – addressing some of the inequalities in health that blight some of our communities.

This means preventing illnesses and promoting good health.

While health services treat illness, local government has a central role to play in improving people’s health: helping people to stop smoking; encouraging exercise and healthy eating; the quality of residents’ housing and the area they live in; whether people can make social contacts; ensuring every child has the best start in life; and how clean or polluted the air is outside.

Above all, having a job is one of the most effective ways to stay healthy.

Councils already live and breathe the principle of health in all policies.

The latest wave of devolution offers a huge opportunity to go further.

Metro mayors have control over new long-term budgets from central government.

They have more control over roads and transport, housing, strategic planning and skills and training.

Their influence is also wider than just their formal responsibilities and they can set the focus for their whole region.

Mayoral combined authorities are already working on health and economic development.

The question is how we support mayors and lever in each region’s wider public sector’s assets in partnership with local business for this joint work to enable our most hard-pressed communities to thrive.

As the recently published White Paper on the industrial strategy makes clear, mayoral combined authorities will have a lead role in developing local industrial strategy deals that will foster higher productivity, advanced skills development, better in-work progression and greater economic progression.

Action to improve people’s health across their lives should be integrated into this economic and industrial strategy so that they feed and support each other.

PHE can help by offering its health intelligence capacity to help target action and monitor impact, and by bringing our understanding of effective practice that improves health.

Our locally-based centres know their patches so are able to tailor this support to each metro area and its priorities. 

But we would like to go further than this.

The report makes a number of recommendations for action, including making health and wellbeing a priority for the new single investment funds, adopting a health in all policies approach and using mayoral leadership to promote health and lever local expertise.

One of the recommendations is also the establishment of a health and wealth network of mayoral combined authorities to share emerging good practice, develop a common economic case for investing in wellbeing and to scope future policy options for further devolution.

The new year offers many opportunities for the metro mayors and their communities, and we look forward to helping them maximise the potential of this exciting health and wealth agenda.

Read the full report here.

Duncan Selbie is chief executive of Public Health England and Ben Lucas is Founding Director of Metro Dynamics.