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Planning for a healthier life

FT Podcast News in Focus

Christian Norris, head economist at PA Consulting, is interviewed by Darren Dodd, health editor, in a Financial Times podcast on planning for a healthier life.

The podcast discusses how an experiment in urban planning – Healthy New Towns – backed by the UK's health service can have a positive impact on the health of communities. The podcast also features some of the other project’s backers: Emily Hough from NHS England, and Ellen Halstead of Peabody Housing Association. 

Darren asks Christian about what lessons can be learnt from the project so far. Christian says: “I think we’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the results of the impact assessment work we did. PA did an independent report assessment of each of the demonstrator’s sites to really understand whether they are adding the value and helping people in the ways in which we might expect. The summary of all of that work is that for every £1 spent on healthy new towns, there’s a whole plethora of benefits which make up to about £2.50 across the system. That could be from reducing A&E visits or from reducing reliance upon social care, as well as all of the benefits for the system and the people in the healthy new towns as well.” 

Christian acknowledges the programme not only has clear economic value but also social benefits. He explains that it doesn't always have to be years before these benefits are realised. “When we think about mental health, if we get people to be more active and engaged within the community, we see quite quick benefits for people with mental health challenges”, he says.

Christian goes on to talk about an example of Bicester, which is one of the demonstrator sites. He explains: “They’ve got fabulous blue lines painted around the town to try to incentivise people towards jogging or walking around the lines. What you see is that in one of those blue lines, they have a 27% increase in the amount of activity. The positive benefit of this is it can help to reduce things such as obesity or diabetes over time, which then has benefits both in terms of reducing the burden on the NHS as well as helping to get people back to work.”

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On the impact of healthy new towns on housing demand Christian explains: “I think there is greater demand in general for housing which is sustainable and able to deliver some of the attributes that we’re talking about within Healthy New Towns. A part of our impact assessment also looked at whether there was an increase in demand associated with having the brand of being a healthy new town and starting to put some of these initiatives into place. We found that there was a significant increase in housing demand in those areas."

"This is really interesting because ultimately this will only work if we have a win-win for all of the different stakeholders who need to be involved, whether that's the NHS, social care, citizens and people themselves, but also the developers. As we’ve done the impact assessment work, what’s been quite positive and surprising is that you’ve got benefits accruing to all these different parties, meaning that everybody should have an aligned incentive.”

The Healthy New Towns programme is attracting interest from overseas, such as Singapore. Christian is not surprised by this trend and explains: “We have a situation where a lot of developed countries are beginning to have slow rates of growth and life expectancy. Thinking much broader about the wider determinants of healthcare and trying to tackle that through the physical infrastructure and getting people activated is one of the ways in which we can kick-start some of these improvements in life expectancy.” 

Darren goes on to explain that some of the improvements, community networks and spaces such as libraries have been cut back. He asks Christian what he thinks this project can achieve, faced with that kind of economic climate. “I think the first thing to say is that it isn’t all about billion-pound schemes which we’re going to spend years and years implementing. There are a lot of things which can be implemented quickly and at a quite a low cost and have – as we demonstrated in the impact assessment – broad and big benefits for people. I think this is one of the areas we can release some of the pressure from the NHS and social care, but also an area which will start to deliver some of the wider benefits such as life expectancy and health equality.”

Listen to the full podcast on

Read NHS England’s recent report on Healthy New Towns 

Read more about our work on NHS England's Healthy New Towns project

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