Can a wellbeing approach help towns to flourish?

September 2, 2020

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by Liz Zeidler, Chief Executive of Centre for Thriving Places

Two in five people in the UK live in towns yet all too often funding and attention goes to larger, more metropolitan areas or regions. Discussion on towns seem to focus primarily on decline – rather than looking ahead to the role that towns could play in shaping the  future and in supporting their residents to thrive.

The Covid crisis has prompted a wide spread call to reshape our economy to deliver what really matters to people – health, wellbeing, equality and community. This task is too important to be determined by volatile market forces or a national focus on growth which overlooks the unique aspects of different localities.

Some influential organisations, including the Carnegie UK Trust and Power to Change, are rightly standing up for the future of towns and tackling the specific challenges that the pandemic risks accelerating – including the emptying out of high streets and local businesses and decreasing opportunities for employment as cities suck up jobs and innovation. Many of these problems are symptoms of an economy with growth as its only indicator of success, that has scant regard for the human or environmental cost of that growth, or the equitable spread of the wealth it creates.

To address these problems we need to set improving wellbeing as the goal for societies and communities. If the primary goal of the economy was to grow wellbeing, and local places were designed around their capacity to create the conditions for such growth, how differently would policy and investments look for towns, and the citizens who live there?

Centre for Thriving Places has teamed up with the Carnegie UK Trust and Power to Change to deliver an innovative pilot programme in two English towns – Grimsby and Wigan. It aims to adapt the well regarded wellbeing economy framework, the Thriving Places Index (already available for all Local Authority areas in England and Wales), to work at a town level, and co-create with those towns the support needed to help embed a very different approach to ‘building back a better economy’ from the bottom up.

As pioneering nations such as New Zealand, Iceland and Scotland have shown, putting wellbeing at the heart of policy can influence almost all aspects of decision making – and this can happen at town level too. When economic activity is reconfigured to produce wellbeing, instead of wealth, and of local business, policy and civil society are aligned and working together towards this goal, radical change can happen quickly.

This project will deliver bespoke portraits of each place – building on the understanding delivered by the Thriving Places Index, and working with local people to adapt and augment it with local knowledge, priorities and data. With this collective picture of where a place is and where it wants to go, this very different measure of progress can be a powerful tool for instigating a shift in thinking and action. It brings into focus the key priorities for each place and helps shape the local economy as a driver for both material and immaterial value.

If the Covid crisis is leading to calls for a better future for all, local towns across the country, with their closer ties to communities, can lead the way in delivering a fairer, happier, healthier economy fit for the 21st century. Centre for Thriving Places is bringing its 10 years of experience in doing just that to this project and to places around the UK, to help ensure the new economy that emerges is built on strong, sustainable and equitable foundations.