Community Wellbeing and Resilience Service would cut health costs by leaning on volunteers

An ambitious ‘whole system approach’ to support the wellbeing of residents – which taps into volunteer groups – has been branded a way to cut costs for Essex health commitments, a council meeting has heard.

Essex County Council (ECC) is considering options for a Countywide Community Wellbeing and Resilience Service – tackling health inequalities such as smoking cessation, weight management and NHS health checks.

The service – which ECC has set a draft budget of £4.9 million for – will include the wide ranging use of volunteer groups.

ECC has said that a key challenge for all councils has been how to address the lifestyle choices that individuals make which impact on their health.

For example – with two thirds of Essex residents reportedly overweight, and five per cent of people reporting that they are always lonely and 16 per cent sometimes lonely – traditional commissioning of services delivered by professionals are not able to respond to this level of need, ECC says.

With many people seeing their physical and mental health decline during the pandemic, the need to address it has become more acute.

But in addition to the specialist professional support offered where needed, and building on the success of the community weight management project, the new community-based model will employ a “social movement approach that encourages local people to help other local people”.

Councillor Ivan Henderson said the scheme was proof of the way the council is intending to find efficiencies – potentially largely through volunteer groups.

Cllr Henderson told an ECC cabinet meeting on Tuesday June 22: “So it begins – which is what we said prior to the election. The hidden cuts are coming our way.”

He continued: “Can Cllr Spence tell us if he thinks those volunteers are aware that their services are going to be used to cover savings and cuts this council and Government have put forward over the last few years because I don’t think they will expect to be covering those services.

“They will expect to help and support resources not cover the gaps in resources which I think this contract is now expecting them to do.”

Councillor John Spence, cabinet member for health and adult social care, said: “Volunteers will only volunteer if they agree with what they are being asked to volunteer for. If one loses the volunteers, one has rather lost the benefit.

“By engaging more with communities we can persuade more people to come forward for the health check which will enable early identification of a condition which might not otherwise come to light until it’s acute.

“One measure I would be looking forward to in this is we would see far more people coming forward for their annual health check than has been the case.

“There are savings to be achieved – we believe there is a very significant saving. Because you are taking overheads away from four or five organisations and leaving them with one and many of those, the overhead to frontline spend ratio is over 20 per cent.

“If we can save that we can ensure it gets reinvested.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter