Celebrating positive action on health

St Helens BC’s drive and adaptability in addressing feedback from the community made it a worthy winner at The MJ Awards, say Katherine Merrifield and Gwen Nightingale.

The MJ Awards are always a highlight in the calendar for our team as it is an opportunity to hear about the fantastic work taking place in councils and its positive impact on the people they support.

By sponsoring the Whole Council Approach to Tackling Health Inequalities Award, the Health Foundation is shining a spotlight on the excellent work that continues to go on in councils despite the very challenging circumstances they operate in, including funding cuts, an exhausted post-pandemic workforce and the cost of living crisis.

Local government has a unique ability to improve health and reduce inequalities by investing in the services and opportunities that keep people healthy, which is why many Health Foundation projects support its work. Councils and the people who work for them have the potential to make positive changes for many of the building blocks needed for good health, things like housing, social care, access to green space, working with businesses, planning and education. In addition, their local knowledge means any investment can be done in a targeted and meaningful way.

We received 13 inspiring nominations from government bodies across the UK and were bowled over by the scale and breadth of the work. The passion, drive and commitment they all showed made it a challenge to select a winner, but in the end, the partnership approach at St Helens impressed the judges the most, and we were delighted to see them take the prize on the night.

To help address the significant inequalities across the borough, they established an inequalities commission to understand the barriers impacting residents, give local people a voice, and learn from expertise and best practice. The priorities for the first year were fuel poverty, food poverty and the best start for children. The work supported specific local actions as well as helping the council be in an excellent position to prepare and provide support for residents as the cost of living crisis grew.

The judging panel was impressed with the council's drive, as well as their commitment and adaptability to address feedback from the community; this approach resulted in increased outreach and an expansion into new areas. It was interesting to hear how, through the work, the framing of their engagement with residents shifted to focus on positive framing and local assets. This approach aligned with our research on how to talk about the building blocks of health, which also found that it was essential to convey a sense of hope and build on positive, practical action.

But it's not all down to councils; we need action to be taken by organisations whose decisions and policies impact citizens. This includes regional and national government and other service providers, like the NHS and schools.

This is why, alongside our work with councils and their local systems, the Health Foundation is investing in combined authorities to support action to reduce inequalities. We are also supporting research to identify the learning about health inequalities from regional devolution. It's not enough to look to the local and regional government, though: we need the national Government to step up and do much more to seize the agenda and embed health in all major policy decisions.

The row back on action from the Government has been very disappointing. This lack of practical activity to deliver the levelling-up ambition should concern us all, given that the nation's health is central to society's strength and growth. In addition to focusing on making better policy, we need the Government to set a timeframe to make local government funding systems fit for the future, aligned to needs and levelling up goals.

Recent Health Foundation-funded research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that the use of old data fuels significant variation in the amount of funding that local authorities receive for services, resulting in some areas with high assessed need receiving less than their fair share. In the future, there needs to be marked improvement in funding allocation, transparency, and support for local areas to address specific needs.

Without this, we will not see reductions in the inequalities across the country that all our policymakers, regardless of party, have committed to tackling.

Katherine Merrifield and Gwen Nightingale are assistant director (job share) for healthy lives, The Health Foundation

To hear more about the Health Foundation's work with local government visit

Best practice - A whole council approach to tackling inequalities

To sign up for a nomination alert for The MJ Awards 2024 visit


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