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22 October 2020  |  4 minutes

Why the North should copy New Zealand and set a wellbeing budget

Professor of Sports Engineering

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“I’ve been steadily building up my fitness…I was too fat”, said Boris Johnson after his recovery from Covid-19

A group of people taking part in an exercise class

There have been two consistent messages during the pandemic: firstly, take infection control seriously – wash your hands, keep your distance and wear a mask; secondly, look after your physical and mental wellbeing by doing some exercise – it might just save your life.

Directors of Public Health have for years shouted from the rooftops about the fundamentals that affect people’s health. These are not just their own behaviour – physical activity, diet, alcohol, smoking, drugs – but also wider factors such as education, jobs, security, housing and our living environment. 

Greg Fell, Director of Public Health for Sheffield pointed out in his 2018 Report, that many have been left behind in the quest for economic growth, creating a vicious cycle where poor health restricts economic growth. Take life expectancy for example: a girl born today in Yorkshire can expect to live to a ripe old age of 82. We shouldn’t feel too smug about this – her expected healthy life expectancy is only 62. If this young girl’s cousin was born into a family living Richmond-upon-Thames, in London, then she would probably live longer to 86 and, astonishingly, have a health life until 72, a full decade later than her Yorkshire family member.

The current retirement age for a woman is 67, five years past the age that ill-health apparently starts to take hold in Yorkshire and five years before women in Richmond-upon-Thames start to get sick: calling it a North-South divide is too simplistic, it’s more about the have and the have-nots.

It’s not just the end of life either: a recent survey we did of parkrunners showed that ten percent had long-term physical and mental health conditions, with the most common being depression and anxiety. For the general population (not just parkrunners), the mental health charity Mind quotes Office for National Statistics data and puts 1 in 4 of us suffering from depression in any one year. 

How can we expect someone be productive if they’re not well or are depressed? What kind of society do we have where a quarter of a person’s life is blighted by ill-health?

It’s not economy or health and wellbeing – it’s about both

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government – like most other governments across the globe – were obsessed by economic growth as the key measure of success. Growth brings prosperity, we were told; prosperity brings jobs and this is good. But what’s the point of all this prosperity if we’re just going to spend it all on healthcare? Wealth does not always equal health.

It’s not about the economy or health and wellbeing – it’s about both. If there’s one thing that the pandemic has brought to the fore, it’s the importance of wellbeing and quality of life. Some of the main reasons for the recent Covid-related impasse between our locally elected mayors in the North and the UK Government has been the inherent inequality between the North and South. While this inequality might have been described primarily as an economic one, it is only a proxy for health and wellbeing and ultimately quality of life.

Most plans start with a vision, move onto a strategy and then look for the outcomes that make an impact. It’s time to rethink our business plan: why not make high quality of life our vision? We can still talk about growth, but it has to be inclusive growth. Jobs need to be quality jobs, not zero-hours with no benefits. If we’re going to invest our hard-earned money in regional schemes, invest in things that both create jobs and improve quality of life at the same time.

In the coming years, we need to invest wisely and not in the old GDP-at-any-cost way. As a small example, each one pound of investment in something as simple as community sport can create an additional three pounds in social return such as reduced healthcare costs and improved quality of life. Investing in active travel infrastructure not only improves travel but also our physical health at the same time, another win-win situation. 

We should apply the same approach to all our regional interventions and take it to the logical extent of setting Wellbeing Budgets. If you want to know what this means, look to the country which seems to have coped with the Covid-19 pandemic better than most – New Zealand. 

Perhaps it’s a coincidence that in 2019 Jacinda Ardern’s government set the world’s first wellbeing budget which promised to make New Zealand “a great place to make a living and great place to make a life”.

That’s a vision for Yorkshire that I could sign up to.

In this story

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Contact the press office

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