How health on the high street is at the centre of Merton’s plans for better wellbeing

The way the NHS and the wider health and care system is managed on a local level is changing, with the launch of South West London Integrated Care System (ICS) on 1 July. This means a bigger focus on partnership working, to help people live healthier happier lives and reduce health inequalities – unfair differences in health in different groups because of social circumstances.

The ICS brings health and care organisations closer together than ever before – so collective resources can be used to meet people’s needs most effectively. New legislation, outlined in the 2022 Health and Social Care Act, also makes it easier for GPs, hospitals, mental health and community services and social care to work together more closely.

One of the key changes will be an even greater focus on working with voluntary and community organisations. In Merton, this is exemplified in a new initiative to bring health to the high street – one of many local schemes under the borough’s Health and Care Plan which launches this summer.

Health on the high street is a clever idea that brings healthcare closer to communities, using established spaces such as libraries, leisure centres and public squares as well as commercial units and empty shops.

Town centres across the country declined during the pandemic, raising questions about how they can be repurposed to meet changing needs. Crucial in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine programme, the high street premises’ potential for boosting wellbeing is much wider.

Vanessa Ford, Convenor for the ICS in Merton, and Chief Executive of the local mental health trust, explains: “Health on the high street is about changing the way care is delivered – and being more creative about engaging with people to improve their health. At its simplest, it might be that while you’re going to the supermarket you also get a health check or advice about on blood pressure, diabetes, your weight, stopping smoking. But it’s also about bringing people together, boosting their social wellbeing. The opportunities are endless.”

Some of the first projects to be explored include:

  • Young people’s mental health – youth counselling service Off the Record will offer sessions from local libraries in Colliers Wood, Mitcham and Wimbledon.
  • Healthy weight initiatives for working age adults – launch of a research project looking at how high street locations can be used to better support people with weight management. The research will explore people’s understanding of a healthy weight, alongside the challenges and barriers they face and their resources.
  • Addressing loneliness in older people – bringing voluntary groups who work with older adults together to share information about local support available.

For these projects to happen, there’s a need to harness the wealth of experience, knowledge and expertise in Merton’s thriving voluntary sector.

Simon Shimmens, chief executive of Merton Connected, representing the voluntary, community and faith sector, says this is something partners in the borough are ready for. “There will be a greater focus on the voluntary sector in Merton with potential for collaboration and more locally delivered care services,” he said. “Social prescribing with GP practices is a good example of how this is already happening and developing, with improved health and wellbeing outcomes via connections with community organisations.”

The NHS has launched a conversation with the sector on supporting each other to boost the population’s health. Resources are the key issue for community organisations, so the ICS in Merton will be launching a grants programme to fund health and wellbeing initiatives. The ICS is also looking at other ways of helping improve the sector’s resilience – fairs to help recruit volunteers, raise funds and share information about services, for example.

The local sub-committee of the ICS in Merton will be called the Merton Health and Care Together Committee. The Committee is made up of representatives from the Council, NHS South West London, Merton Connected, Healthwatch Merton, St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, South West London and St George’s Mental Health NHS Trust, Central London Community Healthcare and local GPs. The Committee will be governed by the South West London Integrated Care Board and Partnership, which will meet in public. The first meeting of the board is on 1 July.

Merton Health and Care Together Committee has agreed the values and principles that will be at the heart of all our work. They include keeping Merton people at the centre of what we do, valuing diversity and being honest, respectful and compassionate as well as innovative. You can read our full list of values and principles on the our work in Merton section of the website.

According to Mark Creelman, Executive Director for the ICS in Merton, this work is central to the wider movement for change and the ICS launch on 1 July. He said: “Health and care partners across Merton are gearing up for the launch of the Integrated Care System (ICS). It feels like things are really coming together for us to get on and make positive changes for local people – and that’s an exciting place to be.”