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Carolyn Wilkins: Collaboration with communities improves health

Carolyn Wilkins
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Our vision here in Oldham is of a cooperative borough, where everyone does their bit to create a confident, prosperous and ambitious place to live and work.

Good health is central to this and is grounded in things many of us take for granted: access to good food; a warm home; a job; friends; and opportunities to enjoy activities that contribute to wellbeing and make lasting social connections. Our approach to public health in Oldham is about creating the climate and opportunities for such things to be in place for all and so that communities can thrive.

Across Greater Manchester, a comprehensive strategic framework is in place, focused on driving the fastest and greatest improvement in people’s health, wealth and wellbeing. From Greater Manchester’s ‘Taking Charge’ Strategy and Population Health Plan to Oldham’s Locality Plan, leaders have demonstrated their strong commitment to prevention and early intervention in improving health and wellbeing outcomes. In doing so, they have recognised the interdependencies between a wide range of issues such as employment, housing and social connectedness.

The leadership commitment in setting out this strategic intent, direction and priorities is important but, of course, leadership is much more than this. Leadership is also in the smaller things. It’s in the conversations we have, in the time we take to build relationships; in the things we do when no-one’s looking. It’s in the encouragement we give to people to give something a try and in the support to keep going.

This was certainly brought home to me during two visits we hosted in Oldham last autumn. The first was a visit from Sport England as part of Greater Manchester’s (successful) bid to be a local delivery pilot. On a rainy afternoon in October we met in local community centres to hear from community, voluntary and sport organisations as well as council and NHS staff about how they were coming together, often in quite small ways, to change how people thought about physical activity and to support them to do more. As we met, the roof was being fixed, with hammering interrupting some of the discussions, and the local stroke support group hadn’t been notified of a change of venue so they carried on their meeting, gradually integrating into our presentation and discussions. This wasn’t an unwelcome interruption but a valuable and unexpected addition making the meeting real, grounded and relevant.

The visit was a strong reminder that the places where the work is done are not always neat and tidy. Real change happens in the places where people work and live. We need to be alongside them, listening, learning, supporting, challenging, and encouraging.

This cooperative approach ran through the second visit, this time from Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, sharing Oldham’s strategic focus on healthy food. This started with Get Oldham Growing, a public health-funded programme supporting community ownership and leadership. The Growing Oldham: Feeding Ambition Partnership and the community-led Oldham Food Network work together to coordinate growing and food activity, support local communities and increase food enterprise, education and skills.

Across the borough there is an incredibly vibrant landscape of activity using food, and growing, as vehicles to inspire and engage as well as developing enterprise and employment opportunities through local food production and conscious development of the local food economy. There are many, many initiatives: Chapatti and Chat by Chai Women’s Project; Veg in the Park; Chatty Café; growing hubs in parks and other open spaces and the Real Junk Food Project. Our Growing Entrepreneur Scheme is already in three schools, and we’re working in partnership with Oldham College with more than 40 students on horticultural training programmes.

As well as being the winner of Best City in the Royal Horticultural Society’s North West in Bloom competition for the eighth year running, Oldham won a discretionary award for Growing Communities in Britain in Bloom 2017. This recognised the widespread partnership between schools, communities and the council in involving people in growing initiatives and improving quality of the environment. Public health has also been actively promoting arts and culture and health through initiatives such as #LiveWellMakeArt, and supported the award-winning Warm Homes Oldham.

We are all alive to the relentless pressure on funding, and the particular risk this can pose to the kind of work I’ve described here. Growing a cooperative approach is very much focused on prevention and early intervention through new relationships and ways of working. It’s fantastic to see how much has been achieved by communities coming together and new collaborations developing. The real challenge is to further develop and sustain this approach. An Oldham without this social and civic infrastructure would be a poorer place in so many ways.

Carolyn Wilkins, chief executive, Oldham MBC

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