The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published their latest estimates of personal wellbeing in the UK. In addition to providing a picture of personal wellbeing at national level, there is also a focus on individual local authorities. For the first time they examined possible explanations for the observed differences between local authorities at a Combined Authority level using additional data from Happy City’s Thriving Places Index (TPI). This provides further insights into local factors affecting wellbeing to enable better decision-making.
Dawn Snape from the Centre for Inequalities and James Harris from the Centre for Cities and Regions at ONS, share the key messages and look at why this data is important for everybody in the UK.
The Office for National Statistics have recently published an article focusing on important wellbeing challenges facing the new Combined Authorities (CAs). These are groups of local authorities (LAs) which have chosen to work collaborativelyand have been given devolved powers through negotiation with central Government. The CAs are particularly interesting as their local decision-makers have greater power to affect key aspects of people’s lives in their areas, or the ability to negotiate increases in such powers, through their elected Mayors. The aim of the article is to shed light on how people rate their own wellbeing and how this relates to important aspects of quality of life in the areas in which they live. The CAs are all working to achieve local economic growth, ideally in an inclusive way such that all local residents, businesses and the local environment benefit, in particular to reduce poverty and to improve the life opportunities of more disadvantaged groups.
How could using a wellbeing lens help with this? How does the individual wellbeing of people factor into plans for economic growth and the Local Industrial Strategies? We looked at the latest ONS personal wellbeing estimates (between the year ending March 2017 and the year ending March 2018) from each LA within each CA to see how they fare in wellbeing terms, based on how their own residents rate their wellbeing. Then we used data from Happy City’s Thriving Places Index (TPI) to consider how local circumstances may be shaping the quality of life of local residents and how this is reflected in the area’s average wellbeing ratings. Using data from both of these sources together has helped to add more context to the wellbeing averages which we hope will be of value to decision-makers.
This gives us a useful starting point for understanding the important challenges to wellbeing for each CA and areas of real strength from which other areas might learn. Examples include Wigan in Greater Manchester CA where people have a higher average feeling that what they are doing is worthwhile and a lower average feeling of anxiety; Solihull in the West Midlands CA where people are happier and have greater average life satisfaction than the UK average; and Harrow and Sutton in Greater London which are the boroughs in London where people are happiest and have lowest anxiety levels. In each of these brighter spots, it is important to consider what examples of good practice exist there and what is it specifically that enhances quality of life for their residents.
Even in areas with broadly average measures of wellbeing, there may be local disparities in personal wellbeing which highlight differences in quality of life for local people. In Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, for example, there has been economic growth for many years, people are healthier than average, can expect to live longer than average, and remain in good health for longer in some areas than others across the CA. However, none of the LAs in the area achieved better than the England average for any aspect of personal wellbeing. Indicators such as ‘good jobs’ from the TPI show disparities between the LAs of Cambridge, Huntingdonshire, and South Cambridge, which all have a higher proportion of people in good jobs than the England average, whereas Fenland and Peterborough are below the England average. This may partly be explained by Fenland and Peterborough having a higher proportion of people who have no qualifications, or having lower average hourly pay than the other local LAs.
Another example is the West of England Combined Authority, where South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset are both fairly close to the England average in wellbeing measures, whereas the City of Bristol is below average on all four measures. This seems to be a combination of factors affecting Bristol including having higher rates of crime than average, slightly lower life expectancy than average, and people apparently having less access to green space, whereas the opposite is true in the other two authorities.
There are some important aspects of life that research has shown really matter to wellbeing, many of which are already part of the strategic thinking of the CAs. These ‘wellbeing fundamentals’ include: good health, positive relationships, and not just employment, but good jobs reflecting people’s own priorities for job security, wages and work-life balance. We also know that wellbeing does not thrive in circumstances of great inequality. Reducing disparities in life expectancy and health, access to skills and education, good jobs and affordable homes are important priorities for achieving inclusive growth in all areas.
To develop sustainable wellbeing now and for the future, it is reassuring that the Combined Authorities are giving serious attention to the human side of inclusive growth. The ONS Centre for Cities and Regions has been engaging with the Combined Authorities, and discussing their Strategic Economic Plans, and we know the CAs are delivering a variety of strategies for enabling and encouraging people to lead healthier and more active lives, providing opportunities for everyone to access green space and clean air, ensuring a high level of ‘school readiness’ and educational attainment among our children, intervening earlier to help vulnerable young people and avoid them potentially entering the youth justice system, and providing affordable homes in communities where people can feel a sense of belonging and positive social connection.
These are some key ingredients for sustainable wellbeing without which people struggle to lead healthy, happy, productive lives. From our conversations with the Combined Authorities, it’s exciting to hear that plans for inclusive growth give consideration to growing the wellbeing of local people as well as growing the local economy, and that the two are integrally linked.