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In October 2018 I concluded a report for Sutton Coldfield Town Council, to consider the health and wellbeing needs of its population of around 100,000 and how a community development and engagement approach could help address local priorities. The Town Council was established in 2016 and the report, which can be found at the end of this summary, is one of several that is helping to establish the tone and intentions of this ambitious new council.

Data + listening 

I undertook a review of open data and listened to local voices – the Town Councillors and staff team, public, voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) organisations and the users of their services and activities. The statistical data was social, economic and health focused and geographically identifiable. Once priorities were clear, national data and literature were reviewed to support them and introduce possible approaches that might be adapted for the Town.

Looking at the data first was an important part of the process as it ensured that elected members could be confident with what they, in most cases, instinctively knew of their ward and Town. It will help them to confidently prioritise resources, for example, through its community grants scheme and the role the council will play as a convenor of people and a coordinator of activities. Evidencing why and where money is being spent is, of course, important as much of the work will be resourced through the taxes the council raises locally.

Being confident in the data also helped shape my interviews so that I could then identify related issues and opportunities arising from the priorities. For example, there is a significant elderly population in Sutton Coldfield and speaking with VCSE organisations providing services and activities, I heard a recurring theme around poor nutrition. This was often the result of social isolation (with all of the clinical conditions that can arise from this) or simply living alone. Local groups made sure that activities combined both opportunities for interaction and nutritious meals, but felt that more could be done.

Potential for collaboration

There were other unexpected outcomes of the research. The Town Council is committed to appointing community focused roles, but with finite resources the expectations of a large population across a large geographical area will need to be carefully managed. It became clear, however, that there were already a number of community-focused roles in place or in the pipeline, sponsored by other organisations. This offers the potential for greater reach and collaboration.

In addition, the Council’s community engagement aspirations complement the shift in public health and social care services to a person-centred approaches that is being applied by Birmingham City Council as the statutory commissioner. The Town Council’s intentions created a ripple of excitement about the potential to work together; having people ready to collaborate and champion change from different delivery perspectives is clearly something to be grabbed.

There are a number of recommendations in my final report and a number of them are already being implemented. As a new Council, this is one to watch.

See the full report here: Community development approaches to health and wellbeing