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.
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.