How can we build the foundations of a healthy economy? | Michael Wood

Michael Wood

Blurred lines between the local health economy and local economy offer the NHS new opportunities to share the burden – and benefits – of investments in healthcare. Michael Wood tells us how.

The NHS has always been a bedrock of the local community, seemingly immune from the cyclical re-industrialisation and de-industrialisation of local economies.

While this separation of sorts has enabled us to plan and run a national health service that looks the same in Carlisle as it does in Clapham, it now seems that the wheels of localism are finally catching up with us. This renewed focus around ‘place’, and the blurring of lines between the local health economy and the local economy does, however, offer the NHS new opportunities to share the burden – and the benefits – of investments in healthcare more widely.

Realising every place’s potential

The government’s approach to local growth since 2010 has been a supporting one, shifting powers away from the centre to local communities, businesses and citizens. This ‘tailoring’ of local approaches has the intention of ensuring communities have the skills and tools they need to create and shape their own dynamic and entrepreneurial local economies. 

The critical role of leading growth locally has been handed to the 39 local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in England, now working closely with a range of partners to map out their own plans for their own places. 

So where does the NHS fit in then?

With a few noble exceptions, at present it doesn’t. But this may be about to change. The mutual myths and misunderstandings that stop the health service being routinely considered as a driver of both jobs and growth are being challenged from both sides. There are three areas where the NHS is a key cog in the local economic machinery:

Firstly, the focus on the commercialisation of research in the UK has never been as acute. The challenges of an ageing demographic, of which we in the sector are all too aware, are now being understood as perhaps the most significant business opportunity of them all – with universities and businesses competing across localities to develop breakthrough healthcare advances that can be marketed worldwide. 

This is largely thanks to the work of the academic health science networks (AHSNs), along with some large teaching hospitals, in making the NHS more accessible at a strategic level. These partnerships provide real opportunities for the NHS to invite investments in our associated research and clinical infrastructure.

The second is our workforce. The chances are that the NHS, along with the care sector, is the biggest employer in any given local area. This in itself makes the sector’s omission from many of the individual LEP’s skills and employment committees particularly glaring. 

This is only part of the picture though. LEPs will often cite entrenched ‘worklessness’ as their biggest local economic drag. But by sharing our difficulties in up-skilling the local populations and in encouraging school and college leavers to seek careers in the NHS, we can solve both our problems. A successful local medtech hub, for example, requires higher level skill-sets that the health and business communities may lack – by pooling investments, we can address our skills gaps at all levels.

The third area is an important one, which LEPs are finally coming round to – social inclusion. An increased understanding of the role health and wellbeing plays in tackling poverty and driving employment, and thus productivity, is leading to some refreshingly innovative LEP thinking in how to address this challenge. 

There are real opportunities here for an economic recasting of our messaging around public, mental and community health, and for a new focus for our links with sectors such as housing, transport and planning. You will also have a local community and voluntary sector that is desperate to get involved – use them.

This is simply a brief snapshot, but of all the partners involved in the local growth landscape, only the NHS locally has the breadth to cover such a range. The challenge for the NHS across a health economy is to approach these areas collectively, not in isolation. Wrap them together and you can effectively match health with growth.

What do we have to do differently?

While the Strategic Economic Plan that governs the priorities for investment in your local area may not yet mention the NHS, you should now be in the minds of its authors. Think of LEPs as the strategic investment leaders for your local economy – and then think of yourselves as one of their strategic investment partners. You each have complementary resources and responsibilities. 

So, we know that the NHS has a strong local growth story to tell. We also know that this story is relevant in every part of England, whether urban or rural. The thing about ‘place’ is that every story will be slightly different – you will be the best at telling it.

Michael Wood is the NHS local growth adviser at the NHS Confederation. Contact him at

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