System leadership: Exploring the power of community networks to increase health and wellbeing

A relatively short walk out from the centre of Leeds can take you from gleaming new buildings to some of the most deprived parts of the city. Before we talk about our journey, we wanted to say when we talk about deprivation we use the socio-economic models – we know that many people living in areas we describe as deprived are proud of where they’re from. And we know that the communities people live in have many assets and our system leadership journey has shown us the importance of these assets.

Our journey started in the summer 2019 when we attended the system leadership events, developed for the Leeds health and care system by the Leeds health and care system, with an aim of nurturing system leaders.

This gave us a chance to really understand more about the communities that make up Leeds with a focus on the more deprived communities but within a positively framed context that spoke about maximising the assets, strengths and skills of Leeds citizens and our workforce. We learnt about how one bus journey in Leeds can be used to demonstrate the differences in life expectancies from its start point in Leeds centre, through Harehills and nearby neighbourhoods all the way through to the leafy Wetherby.

During the sessions we were introduced to an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) approach and we thought about what this would mean for us as commissioners with opportunities to commission services in a different way. It’s about keeping the mantra of ‘what’s strong and not what’s wrong’ close to us when we consider how we work with people. We were also inspired by other colleagues who had written blogs such as this one about the power that lies in the heart of our communities. Hearing stories would help us to truly understand more about communities and to encourage us to work in a different way if we are to meet the city’s ambition to be the best city for health and wellbeing.

Following the sessions, as a group we were really energised to live the experience of local communities. A ‘Wortley walk’ was arranged with other partners across the system and we quickly realised we had built our own community with our own strengths. The purpose of the walk was to experience and understand that in Leeds not only are their pockets of wealth but to recognise where there were pockets of deprivation a short distance away.

We met at Starbucks at the train station early one morning in November (free from rain!). From there we walked up Wellington Street noticing the new chains of businesses and luxury flats that were currently being built. It wasn’t until at that point that we recognised all of these new and luxury developments and talked about how these developments would ultimately address the needs of all communities and concluded that this would not be the case.

It was brought to our attention which really struck us, the old railway tower being a divide between some of the poorest areas of Leeds and the more affluent parts. It wasn’t long until we paused at the New Wortley junction and had a discussion about the communities here where there are high rates of suicide particularly in men. One of the main themes was that flats had been built for vulnerable people but soon discovered that people who lived there only had access to their floor so hence experienced social isolation and disconnection from the rest of the community. We reflected on childhood poverty that prevails in this community and what that might means for families managing on a day to day basis.

We visited the New Wortley Community Centre, that opened its doors in 1982, where we were honoured to meet the community builder of the scheme Teresa. We received a warm welcome and had an opportunity to chat and find out more about the centre. Coupled with this we had a tour to gain an understanding of what was currently offered to people in the community such activities included  lunches, general drop ins for chat, general wellbeing groups, support groups where people will receive support on finances, housing and clinics for people with mental health needs run by specialist services. We discovered that a large meeting room was available for booking at a great price too!

This is what was meant by community assets, the buildings, the services and more importantly people like Teresa.

It was a really humbling experience and an experience where we felt a sense of connection and inspiration meeting different people, extremely passionate about the work that they do, often working alone and with limited resources but lots of passion and resourcefulness. The experience overall has added great value to thinking about future approaches to commissioning. We discovered so much being close to the communities working with people to understand what their strengths and assets are and what’s important to them. We want to promote that we involve people at the start of the commissioning cycle whilst being open to what future possibilities might arise.

This city, so many stark contrasts but so much potential in all of our communities – we may talk about deprivation but there’s a richness in our human connections as well as our community assets. It’s our job to build on what we already have and maybe we should all take a short walk. For those at the CCG, why not start with one around WIRA on a Wednesday afternoon.

You may be wondering why it’s taken until now to put this blog together. Well today (4 February 2020) we, budding system leaders, took part in a networking session at Holbeck Social Club. This gave us a chance to reflect on what’s happening across the city. And how we, as a system, think about how we continue to influence and support the good work carried out by people like Teresa and continue to work with our partners in Leeds to reduce the health of the poorest the fastest.

Sinead Stanley, Sue Wilkinson, Michelle Van Toop, Rachel Mooring, Lindsay Springall

Proud Wortley Walkers and colleagues at NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Group