How to build a healthy economy

By Heather Jameson | 08 April 2024

Endless hours of political debate, column inches and public sector man-hours have gone into debating the problems facing adult social care and the rising costs of looking after an ageing population.

Most of local government, from time to time, stops to acknowledge it is a nice problem to have: that our loved ones are living longer, albeit with extra support.

But Stockton-on-Tees BC chief executive Mike Greene says local government often sees health and social care as ‘a millstone, not an opportunity’. He is turning that on its head, creating a health and social care-led regeneration programme to harness the potential of the multi-billion-pound sector.

Greene summarises the place: ‘Stockton is a microcosm of the North of England.’

Built on a collection of towns and villages – Stockton, Norton, Billingham, Thornaby and Yarm – it is a small unitary, with a long history of community pride. ‘People connect with their communities, rather than the boundaries of the borough,’ the chief executive explains.

Situated in the centre of the Tees Valley, the borough is within easy reach of the North East and Yorkshire. ‘The connectivity is great,’ Greene says.

There is a diverse economy – with everything from Quorn to Fuji Film based in the borough – and high levels of educational attainment, with 97% of schools rated outstanding. ‘Productivity is high. By hour worked, it is higher than Manchester or Newcastle,’ he adds.

Stockton-on-Tees is also home to some of the wealthiest parts of the North East, living ‘cheek by jowl with high levels of deprivation’, he explains, and the borough faces some of the biggest gaps in health inequality in the country.

But with financial pressures on budgets, the council is keen to improve outcomes as well as making savings. It sees economic growth as the best route out of financial pressures.

As part of its economic plans, Stockton has concentrated hard on building up its town centre and cutting back on retail space. Part of the plan was to create a more vibrant community.

The monolithic 1970s Castlegate shopping centre that blocked views of the River Tees has been demolished to create the Stockton Waterfront urban park. Three times the size of Trafalgar Square, the park provides a huge community space, linking the town centre back to the riverside.

It is part of the transition for the town from an industrial heartland, with a dirty, working river, to the modern post-retail city it is set to become. The brave decision to buy and scrap the centre is one many councils would not have taken lightly, but Stockton worked with the community to get them on board.

It is the care and health innovation zone – still in its infancy – that will build the future vision for the place, designed as it is to tackle several issues for the council at once.

Rather than viewing care and health as a problem to be solved, in Stockton it is being used as an opportunity to create jobs and training, regenerate the town and increase the health and wellbeing of local people, boosting the life expectancy of those who need it, focusing on early intervention and prevention.

‘We are viewing health and care in an economic sense,’ Greene explains. Rather than a millstone, it has become a unique selling point – and digital health in particular has become a real growth area.

The council aims to build a large-scale care and health cluster at Teeside Business Park and the nearby Tees Marshalling Yards, transforming 110 hectares of brownfield land – mainly from disused rail property.

Under the council’s vision, the site will become home to businesses and research facilities covering care and health. There will be teaching and training, including the existing Stockton Riverside College, as well as housing for those living and working in the area.

It pulls together partners across local government and health, strengthening the integrated care system. Born out of a partnership between the council, Tees Valley Combined Authority; Stockton Riverside College; Teeside University; Tees, Esk and Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust and North Tees and Hartlepool NHS FoundationTrust, it has partnership at its heart.

The ambitious plans of the council – resolving the issues facing the high street, creating economic growth for financial stability, integrating care and health, creating life chances and boosting life expectancy – all put health and wellbeing at their heart.

For Stockton, care and health is an opportunity to grow, not a problem to solve.

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