Transition Culture

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12 May 2014

Frances Northrop on ‘Healthy Town Totnes’

When people talk about ‘green jobs’ the health and care sector is not often on the list. We often think first about green technologies, renewable energy production, retrofitting and food and it was no different when we first sat down to plan the Economic Blueprint work in Totnes. When we agreed the key sectors that play a fundamental role in our community’s sustainability and resilience, and could create new livelihoods, the opportunities to grow the local food, retrofitting and renewables economy were obvious choices. 

But adding in Health and Care? This seemed much less so, at first glance. Its inclusion was even questioned by some people in TTT who couldn’t see the how this should be a prime focus for Transition work. However to me, the person who initially suggested its inclusion, this seemed like a contradiction. I felt that to provide for our local resilience it is essential that the local community is as healthy as possible, both physically and mentally and many others agreed.

Our position was that caring for those that need extra help in our community could bring some new livelihoods and approaches to providing care and highlight the opportunity to find new ways to use other means of exchange to look after each other better, and in a way that went beyond the current ‘one size fits all’, siloed way of delivering services.

Besides the on going public spending cuts, which are leading to increased crisis (or worse, no) intervention due to lack of spending on prevention services, a number of issues threaten to complicate and challenge our future health and wellbeing. These include a growing population that is living longer, but without sufficient pension provision, and with expectations that medicine and care will be provided as needed.

Additionally the dire state of our economy is resulting in growing numbers of unemployed and insecurely employed people, particularly amongst the young, and the resulting stress and poverty is impacting on wellbeing, with serious effects on our mental health, further exacerbated by a lack of good affordable housing and climate change is projected to bring health and social impacts as a result of more floods, heat waves and other extreme weather events, as well as new water or food-borne viruses and diseases. Clearly the current system cannot continue to meet all of our needs, and is already under extreme pressure. 

But there is much we can do in our own communities, using the assets we have and a focus on prevention and early intervention. Coupled with the provision of healthy food and comfortable homes this has the potential to meet our needs in a far better way – using a holistic, place-based approach and this is what we have been pursuing over the year in Totnes. Our starting point was a conversation with several council officers about their concerns regarding the axing of the Social Fund in its current (then) form.

Compounded by the myriad of other cuts and benefit ‘changes’ that were on their way they were all deeply worried about how this would impact on the most vulnerable members of the community and wanted to be able to raise awareness amongst residents and existing health and care agencies. Working together with the three tiers of local government and Totnes Caring, the primary source of support for the care of the vulnerable in Totnes, we started to think about how we could bring people together to discuss the threats we face in a positive, Transition type way which would enable us to commiserate, rage, cry and feel the frustration of being utterly powerless but then take all that energy and focus on how we could turn this on its head, take advantage of our shared knowledge, skills and the compassion we had in bucket loads and do something which would take back the power and create something truly special which met real, not perceived, needs. 

Our first action was to organise a ‘Totnes Welfare Conference’ in October last year which invited statutory and voluntary organisations who support the vulnerable in Totnes to came together to talk about how we might work better, together and how Totnes could build on the strength of its community with many successful voluntary and charitable organisations, and for generally being “a town that cares” to face the major challenges ahead. Most crucially we asked people to step out of their professional roles and the potential for siloed thinking that this could engender and approach the day as an individual who could (and would) become vulnerable at some stage in their life. 

On the day we started with an inspiring presentation from the great Hazel Stuteley then had two breakout sessions, the first on ‘imagining what a truly caring town would look like’ with everyone in groups answering the question: “If, in the two hours you have been in here Totnes had been transformed into the most caring town it could possibly be, how would that look, feel, smell like?” The second session focused on celebrating our already caring town and asked, “What we are proud of that happens here already?”  

A full write up of the day can be found here but the two sessions created an overwhelming sense of opportunity, solidarity and impetus to act which was palpable. There was also an fantastic sense of liberation on the part of the people who were representing statutory services who had been truly inspired by being given the opportunity, in a safe, supportive environment, to talk about how they would ideally provide their service if they weren’t hindered by the increasingly institutionalised nature of public service delivery. 

Everyone (over 50 participants!) left the day signed up to be involved in the next steps and a follow up meeting resulted in the inaugural Totnes Health and Welfare Day. We also agreed that the project needed a name and ‘Caring Town Totnes’ was born! 

The main aim of this day was to enable organisations to meet each other and explore the potential for greater links and for people in the town to “drop in” and see some of the services on offer and share ideas for how to enhance provision in the area. The film below captures the results of the day beautifully, and the response of everyone involved was, again, overwhelmingly positive and engendered further enthusiasm for the next steps. 

Since then we have been busy considering all the feedback and later this month will be setting up a steering group for the project and establishing working groups to look at setting up a community hub, further participatory and networking events, needs analysis and further engagement/consultation with the community and the pilot of a commissioning hub. 

The commissioning hub is an exciting aspect of the work that has emerged through conversations with the Clinical Commissioning Group for the area and Devon County Council. DCC have identified a pot of money for a Community Impact Fund, principally to fund social care social enterprises and are in the process of asset transferring a large community building to us so we can create the community hub and have a base for the commissioning service.

We have been successful in being accepted as an ‘Our Place’ community which will fund some of the co-ordination of this work and we are truly excited about how this will not only create networks of support but also new livelihoods by creating and growing social enterprises and further developing models of social investment through the local credit union, community shares, peer to peer lending, skill sharing and the gift economy, linking in with the wider Reconomy work here in Totnes. 

But the overwhelming positive thing about this work has been the sense of solidarity, goodwill and energy that has emerged. Whenever I talk to people about the project, they are truly delighted by the liberation of the approach and the opportunities it provides, using words like thrilled, brilliant and in the case of the lady who runs the Memory Café just welling up and giving me a huge hug.

Of course I have sleepless nights about ‘enabling’ the austerity agenda but this stuff has a potential that is just too good to pass up on principle, and I hope will join up with other amazing work happening across the country to show that the appropriate response to limited resources is not rhetoric about fecklessness but an acknowledgment that we’re all vulnerable and that together we’re stronger and happier. 

Frances Northrop is Transition in Action Manager with Transition Town Totnes.