The future of health, wellbeing and sustainability

Any take on sustainability that doesn’t have health and social care close to its heart probably isn’t worth taking seriously.

Any take on sustainability that doesn’t have health and social care close to its heart probably isn’t worth worrying about any further. But you’d be astonished at how many people just don’t get that.

A bit of history. Labour set up the Sustainable Development Commission back in 2000. It took a while to persuade the Cabinet Office that we should operate across the whole of government but, by 2004, we’d already started to work closely with the Department of Health on a whole range of different initiatives within the NHS. The redoubtable Anna Coote joined the Commission, and we quickly developed a fantastic health team within the Secretariat.

It was a fruitful period. Synergies began to flow around public health issues (e.g. food and nutrition), health inequalities (e.g. food poverty), transport (cycling, walking, air pollution etc.), planning and housing, greening the NHS itself, and, of course, climate change. There was extensive engagement with Strategic Health Authorities (long gone), Primary Care Trusts (duly re-engineered), and Directors of Public Health through Regional Assemblies (again, long gone).

During that time, the Department of Health got more and more involved, as did key people within the NHS. A Sustainable Development Unit in the NHS was created in April 2008, and the Department launched its own Carbon Management Strategy in January 2009. Of all the relationships the SDC had across government at that time – advising, supporting, monitoring, challenging – this was one of the best.

Which mattered not a jot to the incoming quango-crushing Coalition Government. It wasn’t just the Sustainable Development Commission itself which was unceremoniously brushed aside. Bit by bit, with clear intent, not by accident, almost every element in the "SD infrastructure" of the outgoing government, built up over a decade (Departmental Action Plans, procurement, audited performance reports, improved policy-making and so on) was rooted out or simply allowed to die.

But not completely, thank heavens, in the Department of Health – despite yet another mega-restructuring. And the best possible proof-point for this was the launch last week of a seriously impressive Sustainable Development Strategy not just for the NHS itself, but for Public Health England (which now falls under the remit of local government) and social care (which has never been part of this agenda before).

I know that all sounds remarkably geeky – yet another strategy, clunky, departmental integration, boring old support units, and so on. But dismiss all that at your peril. When it comes to actually delivering more sustainable outcomes on the ground, institutional strength and continuity matter at least as much as smart policy-making.

By and large, institutions work because of the people in them. Right from its inception, the NHS Sustainable Development Unit has been run by two extraordinary individuals: David Pencheon and Sonia Roschnik, with huge encouragement and vision from Sir Neil McKay. It’s a formidable team, which has somehow managed to navigate its way through the chaos of the last few years – and to bring together a quite extraordinary coalition of organisations across the wider health system which are all now committed to playing a much bigger role in putting sustainability at the heart of that system.

I acknowledge I may be making a bit too much of this – the Sustainable Development Unit’s budget, for instance, is laughably inadequate. But right now, if you scan across the whole of Whitehall, sustainable development is mostly invisible. Michael Gove killed it in the Department of Education; BIS meddles a bit with various aspects of the "green economy", but has no strategic overview; DEFRA’s a basket case; DCLG has gone backwards on sustainability issues from the first moment that Eric Pickles crossed its threshold; the treasury is a pit of very smart, ideologically hostile vipers; the Foreign Office and DFID do good stuff, but are desperate to ensure that the Daily Mail never hears of it. It’s a grim picture.

So against that backdrop, what the Department of Health is doing is really quite special – and the new strategy is very special, too.

David Cameron on a hospital visit in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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