Northumberland strategy's focus on early years matches goals in key report by MPs

The goals of a new strategy to boost health and wellbeing in Northumberland chime well with a key report by MPs on giving children the best start in life.

Wednesday, 27th February 2019, 14:54 pm
Updated Wednesday, 27th February 2019, 15:17 pm
A new report highlights the importance of the first 1,000 days of life, from inception to age two.

A Health and Social Care Committee report, published on Tuesday (February 26), emphasises how the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two, ‘is a critical phase during which the foundations of a child’s development are laid’, but claims not enough is being done to support children and their parents in early years.

It advises that ‘intervening more actively (…) can improve children’s health, development and life chances and make society fairer and more prosperous’.

The cross-party group of MPs want a strategy across various government departments to be developed, while each local authority should develop, together with NHS bodies, communities and the voluntary sector, a clear and ambitious plan for their area.

The publication comes a month after Northumberland County Council approved its Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy for 2018 to 2028, which aims to boost the life expectancy of residents while reducing health inequalities.

Of its four main themes, the first is giving every child and young person the best start in life, as ‘advantage starts before birth and a positive childhood experience is vital to ensure children are ready to learn leading to better health and wellbeing throughout life and better life chances’.

A report explained that while there are many areas of child health in which Northumberland performs better than the English average, there are also a number of indicators for which child health outcomes are poorer.

‘Improving the early life experiences of children will, both directly and indirectly, result in improved health and wellbeing in later life,’ it adds.

The overall success of the strategy will be monitored by changes in life expectancy, healthy life expectancy and the gap between Northumberland’s least and most deprived communities on those two measures.

The council’s decade-long strategy was signed off by its health and wellbeing board, which features representatives from the council, NHS bodies and the voluntary and community sector.

As with anything, funding is key and the MPs’ report states that spending cuts have negatively affected universal, targeted and specialist services and the wider community assets (eg, public amenities) available to children, parents and families.

The report notes that responsibility for commissioning public health services for children aged 0–5 transferred from the NHS to local authorities in 2015.

‘Councils spent more on this area of public health than any other, often exceeding the amount transferred over to them for this purpose,’ it continues.

‘However, spending on public-health services for children aged 0–5 has fallen by nine per cent since 2014-15 and is projected, by the Health Foundation, to fall by another 15 per cent by 2019-20. Cuts to other public-health services have been much deeper.’

Given the financial pressures on councils, the report calls for the Government to use the Comprehensive Spending Review this year to shift public expenditure towards intervening earlier rather than later.

Coun Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s community wellbeing board, said: “The importance of early intervention and prevention services for children and families cannot be overstated and this report rightly recognises the crucial support provided by councils, and the significant financial constraints they are under.

“There has also been a 20 per cent drop in the number of health visitors since 2015, when responsibility was transferred to local government without enough funding to grow the workforce and pass on the necessary skills.

“Councils need well-trained, highly-skilled health visitors and public-health nurses and we support the report’s call for a holistic workforce plan for the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, which must be well-resourced.

“Councils have pulled out all the stops to try to prioritise early years and intervention services, but can only do so much in the face of such funding pressures.

“Therefore, it is vital that in the forthcoming Spending Review, the Government reverses the £700million of public-health reductions, to enable councils to work more closely with the NHS, implement best practice and most importantly help give children the best start in life.”

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service