LGiU and Southwark Council’s fringe event at the Labour Party Conference revealed just how broad the topic of ‘public health’ is. Public health encompasses a much wider range of issues than health and social care. While the precise meaning of the phrase may be unclear, its importance is indisputable.
As local councils are handed greater responsibility for public health, authorities need to define what they aim to tackle. Alan Higgins, the Director of Public Health for Oldham Council, argued that local governments must raise the minimum wage; introduce minimum unit prices for alcohol, and ban advertising of high fat foods. Luciana Berger, Shadow Minister for Public Health, pointed out that providing job guarantees and reducing domestic violence are also public health concerns. Indeed, local councils need to recognise that mental and physical health are inextricable issues, influenced by a broad spectrum of socio-economic factors.
So, what are the key issues facing councils as they assume greater responsibility for public health? All four of our speakers highlighted gross health inequality across the UK. The country exhibits startling variations in life expectancy, and lifestyle-dependent illnesses are a root cause of the disparity.
Local authorities are adopting a range of measures to tackle preventable illnesses, including heart disease and certain cancers. For example, Southwark Council, in 2010, introduced free school meals for all primary school children. Uptake was between 96% and 97%. Some may argue that providing food for children from comfortable economic backgrounds is dead weight. It is, however, important to encourage close interaction between people from all socio-economic backgrounds. Ensuring that children sit down together to eat a nutritious meal encourages social and cultural interchange at the same time as reducing childhood obesity, improving both mental and physical wellbeing.
Providing quality local services is at the core of reducing public health inequalities. Though, as Alan Higgins observed, high levels of state-service dependence can lead a widespread sense of a loss of control amongst citizens, which is in turn a significant contributor to mental health issues. When talking about local government innovation, we need to avoid paternalism. Local councils should not simply assume the responsibility of rolling out blanket services for their citizens. Luciana Berger’s attempt, for example, to offset criticism of the Labour ‘nanny state’ by rebranding it as the ‘mummy state’ raises some concerns.
The real challenge is to empower local populations in developing effective public health initiatives.