Darlington: A Healthy New Town
Ada Burns, Chief Executive, Darlington Borough Council, 6 June, 2018

I am a veteran of all the many approaches to regeneration, and I can overcome insomnia naming them all. I was a fan of the Blair Government Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy (2001) because for the first time we were addressing the wider determinants of ill health and poverty. So it was exciting to see public health back into local government and energising to watch our DPH build a coalition of the willing – such that health and wellbeing is seen as everyone’s business. This approach was well documented in the recent publication by the NLGN, Reaching Out, Influencing the Wider Determinants of Health, which I was glad to contribute to.

Pitching to become one of the ten sites to be selected by NHS for “Healthy New Town” (HNT) status was therefore a no brainer and it has given us a springboard to take that ‘Health in All’ approach one step further. For the first time in my experience we’ve built a dialogue between the local community, the agencies concerned with the health and well-being of people and those agencies that plan, build, sell and manage housing.

We wanted to do three things, create a set of “healthy new town” design principles that would be embedded within our Local Plan and realised within a regeneration and new build site, wrap around this improved built environment fresh approaches to tackling the wider determinants of health and thirdly develop and test new models of health care in alignment with the NHS Five Year View.

As the name suggests, the healthy new town work is exciting because it enables us to focus on ‘hard wiring’ population health improvement into future housing developments from first principles. Our emerging Local Plan will include Healthy New Town Design principles covering Green Infrastructure, Healthy Food Choices, Place-making, Economy, Transport & Movement, and Social Infrastructure. These principles will guide regeneration and development plans and projects over the next 20 years. On our first site, soon to start construction, the principles have been embraced with enthusiasm by the developer Keepmoat. The scheme will keep people well in their own homes, well connected, in an environment conducive to activity and with access to facilities and employment, integrated with the existing community. This is an important small but first step on a long-term journey to influence our built environment to support this well-being agenda.

But exciting as creating new places is we did not want to lose sight of our existing communities and the new development is located alongside an existing social housing neighbourhood which is in the top 10% of deprived neighbourhoods nationally – Red Hall.

So, we have worked with the residents to retro-fit the design principles into the regeneration of the estate and worked with residents to address the barriers to better health and well-being.

We have improved the environment for walking, developed whole family exercise initiatives that don’t require childcare, delivered bikeability programmes and ensured that sufficient bicycles are available for families who cannot afford one. There is a big focus on food, growing it, cooking it as a family, enjoying it, with the newly formed and strengthening Residents Association progressing gardening competitions and advice and plant share schemes.

As we know from our previous experience the key here is enabling community leadership and activation – planning, delivering and leading events and activities, and creating a sense of community by the residents for the residents, a sense of identity and pride. Arts groups are helping to gather and celebrate stories of the area, which sits alongside the track-bed of the Stockton Darlington Railway, birthplace of the modern passenger railway (and which celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2025).

The third shift which should have long term impact is the work that the clinical commissioning group and partners are engaged on to design a new model of care. This is predicated on primary care being at the heart of the model with other community, social, mental health and voluntary services wrapped around providing support to people in their own homes or as near as possible in their community as required. Working to deliver primary care at scale as a core foundation for this model is essential and will provide the flexibility and resilience required given the workforce and resource challenges across care services.

Darlington as a health and care economy also has ambition to exploit the benefits of digital technology in how it provides care to residents, enabling more patients to enjoy care from their own home through remote monitoring. Digital technology provides an opportunity to support residents in a much more holistic way – and move the focus upstream to what we can do to support residents to change behaviours, keep active, gain feedback and prevent the onset or progression of disease. Unlike too many regeneration initiatives of the past, we are determined that our Healthy New Towns becomes the way of doing business across the borough and across our partnerships.