Person sitting at a bus stop in London

Urban health

Why local elections matter for our health

27 May 2021
4 min read

Policy and Influencing Director, Anna Garrod, explores the impact of the recent local elections on shaping place and policy that impacts our health.

Local elections, particularly when a by-election is thrown into the mix, are often packaged as a verdict on the state of national politics. For the Prime Minister, this year’s elections were a report card on his handling on COVID-19, and for Sir Keir Starmer, an assessment of his first year as leader.   

Where we live shapes our health  

As a result of the delay of 2020’s May local elections, this month almost two thirds of people in England had the opportunity to vote – a bumper day for democracy. When people are asked what is important to them in their daily lives, the answers – good local shops, green space and fresh air, efficient public transport – make it clear why local elections matter.   

Local authorities have enormous power (if not always the resource needed) to shape the quality of our lives. Our evidence shows that for people in urban areas, decisions about transport, clean air and the local retail and work opportunities can have a very real, and potentially devastating impact on their health: contributing to higher rates of obesity, poor mental health and the development of long term conditions to name a few.   

And while debates rage about what the electorate was telling us with their votes– that Labour has lost touch with working class communities, that the Prime Minister was saved by the vaccine roll out, levelling uplevelling down, and on and on – there is a less sensational, but equally powerful, story to be told about the results.   

Where local politicians across the political spectrum convinced voters of their understanding and commitment to their local place, or through tangible action (see Conservative Ben Houchen in Tees Valley) they triumphed. We saw this in the metro mayor elections, where Labour bucked damaging national losses to win 5 of 7 elections with candidates with strong and locally driven priorities.  

Priorities as we recover from COVID-19

Never have these factors that shape where we live and work been more crucial than in the aftermath of COIVD-19, the associated economic fall-out and the unmeasurable impact on physical and mental health. So, as the Mayor of London and our Assembly members turn their minds to the challenges head, what should they prioritise?  

When people are asked what is important to them in their daily lives, the answers – good local shops, green space and fresh air, efficient public transport – make it clear why local elections matter.

Preserving the positive changes to London’s air 

The first UK lockdown had a dramatic impact on air pollution rates, and people across the capital felt the benefits. Those with asthma and COPD reported better health, and pedestrians and cyclists reclaimed quiet streets. These changes proved to be fleeting, as much of the pre-COVID traffic has returned to our capital.   

However, the changes in how we use our urban space have shown what’s possible. For example, London’s red routes were devised over 30 years ago as a means to enable MORE traffic to travel through the city. In the process, high streets were reduced to busy thorough fares, with limited pavement space and local shops unable to offer local parking space for those who need it.   

A Mayoral review of the Red Routes would offer the opportunity to radically redesign our urban space to increase active travel, reduce air pollution and prioritise road space for those who need it.   

Getting on the front foot to tackle health inequity 

COVID-19 has demonstrated more than ever the relationship between the economy and healthDuring lockdown, businesses stepped up to keep Londoners safe, anas restrictions ease, it is these communities that the Capital’s economy will rely on for workforce and custom. But this relationship between the economy and health plays out an individual level too: we know that financial insecurity and poor housing can trigger the progression of multiple long term conditions, and in a vicious cycle lead to further insecurity and stress. Despite these facts, debates about health inequality too often overlook the solutions that aim to get on the front foot and re-direct this vicious cycle upwards.   

Solutions such as our COVID Financial Shield: working with landlords, creditors, GP surgeries and debt advisors to identify revenue-neutral ways to reduce evictions and improve health: a replicable, scalable model that couldn’t be more pertinent with the lifting of the eviction ban at the end of this month.   

Recovery from COVID-19 is a mammoth task. But along with the immense challenge, there lies opportunities for our London decision-makers to dramatically improve the daily lives and health outcomes of Londoners.