An interview with Professor Steve Maddern, Director of Public Health, Swindon Borough Council.
Evidence suggests that in many ways the health of Swindon’s population is similar to England as a whole. The town includes areas of deprivation and has a highly diverse population with multiple languages. Employment is high and, overall, the town is economically strong. However, people have less disposable income, and there are cost of living repercussions for everyone.
Planning and coordination
Swindon’s response to the rising cost of living builds on the work it undertook during the pandemic, in particular the strong relationships established with the voluntary and community sector and directly with communities themselves.
Two groups oversee the response.
- A multi-officer council group to develop, oversee and drive forward the council’s cost of living action plan.
- A partnership group with stakeholders including the NHS, Fire Service, Police, the voluntary and community sector to share insight, plan and oversee joint action.
The DPH volunteered to become responsible director for the council because the public health remit is a cross-cutting theme across all council areas which have a role to support those impacted by the cost of living pressures. He also chairs the partnership group, meaning that council and partnership activity and resources are coordinated. Public health has allocated some of its funding from the Shared Prosperity Fund to cost of living support.
A dashboard with a range of data sources was established in December to provide as much real-time data as possible to target messaging and action. This includes measures such as use of Swindon’s Emergency Assistance Fund and the Household Support Fund, access to benefits, and children in low-income households. Intelligence and insights from residents are also essential. For example, Citizen’s Advice Swindon undertook a benchmarking exercise to identify cost of living impact on communities which is hoped to be repeated in the New Year.
Cost of living support
Swindon’s ‘19 top tips’ set out the support available to residents to manage in the crisis. These include maximising income through benefits and other support schemes, making homes more energy efficient to reduce energy bills, and applying for various council payments if eligible. The top tips are on the council website and are also being shared through a borough-wide campaign through social media, leaflets, local media, council officers and wider partners.
Partners are keen to encourage people to take up all the benefits to which they are entitled. The Financial First Aiders programme builds on Swindon’s Making Every Contact Count approach and uses the principle that ‘finance is everybody’s business’. Training for front-line staff in brief interventions and signposting to further support is provided by Citizens Advice Swindon. Through inequality funding made available from the Bath and Northeast Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire ICB, organisations like Citizens Advice and others can develop their work to support tackling health inequalities associated with the cost of living.
Local communities have a ‘can do’ attitude and people in Swindon are keen to help each other. Several community initiatives set up during the pandemic are helping.. The ‘Local Heroes programme’ focuses on connecting individuals and communities; local heroes have, for example, knitted blankets and draft excluders to be distributed.
The Community Connections group, which includes community leaders, elected members and faith leaders, were keen to get involved in cost of living support. This group meets to share local intelligence and hear from organisations about what is on offer to support local people.
So far, 30 community centres, libraries, churches and commercial businesses have signed up as warm and welcome spaces and it is likely that more will join. Public health provides a small amount of start-up funding for the spaces which offer other support including financial information and signposting. As visitors do not need to tell anyone why they are there, one of the challenges will be monitoring usage – all venues have been asked to provide approximate footfall which will be used for monitoring and future decisions.
The Feeding Swindon Partnership, affiliated to the Feeding Britain Network, was set up as a legacy of the collaborative work done throughout the pandemic to ensure the people of Swindon had access to food and support. The Feeding Swindon Partnership meets regularly to discuss demand, problem solve and co-ordinate the distribution of food and the associated financial and mental health support available across the town.
One of the partners is Swindon Food Collective, who are an independent, referral-based food bank that feeds nearly 7,500 people per year. The collective has added three distribution centres since the summer. Other organisations provide food, including a range of food pantries that do not require referrals. Over the summer the council trialled giving 60 lower income families energy efficient slow cookers – the pilot proved successful and further approaches to low-cost cooking are being developed.
Impact on future plans
The cost of living pressures may last around 18 months and will be a ‘turbulent time’. It is important that this year’s lessons are learned and applied in 2023-24. Taking care of staff and building resilience across the health and social care system is vital – this is the second emergency in three years.
The crisis will have an unequal impact on health and will increase health inequalities. The theme of this year’s Swindon public health annual report is levelling up – considering education, housing and employment through a public health lens. A priority will be to work with colleagues on the wider determinants relating to education, including educational attainment. Other areas of focus for the council and the ICS will be on improving healthy life expectancy and continuing to support communities to develop resilience.
National change that could make a difference
- Additional funding to local government and flexibility over how to use it to the best needs of local residents; this includes the future protection of public health funding.
The rising cost of living is an issue that all parts of the council need to work on together. To address this at the most senior level, we have appointed a cabinet member with responsibility for cost of living, health inequalities and housing. The role of the DPH is to lead and facilitate the response across the council and with partners, with much of the direct work being carried out by others. For example, the council’s communications team has had a very significant role in developing clear information and messaging that target people who need help most. The voluntary and community sector, working alongside the council, plays a vital role in providing assistance in local communities.
We need to monitor the length and impact of the crisis and make sure there is an exit strategy from short-term, interventions like our warm and welcome spaces so that people no longer need to leave their homes to get warm. We are already carrying out a programme to improve energy efficiency in borough housing stock. We aim to increase the focus on education for young people to help them raise their aspirations and increase opportunities for well-paid employment.
Councillor David Renard, Leader, Swindon Borough Council