Interview with Well Doncaster

| Anna Eaton

We recently got in touch with Well Doncaster after hearing about their team’s exciting approach to health that looks beyond clinical care and tackling unhealthy behaviours. They support communities to take control of their futures and are starting to shift the role of statutory services to enablers, not merely providers. But what does this really look like on the ground and how are they achieving it? Well Doncaster have lots of wonderful examples and experiences to share. Team member Emma Nicholas kindly talked to us about their journey, the best bits, the mistakes and the team’s advice to others wanting to do similar things.

Emma tell us about what Well Doncaster is and what it does:

Well Doncaster is a part of a national program of work by Public Health England and Manchester University in response to the Due North report’s findings around the health inequalities between the North and the South of England. We were one of the first sites to get involved and are one of ten pathfinder sites across the North of England.

Based in the local authority, the small team is made of Public Health specialists who address health inequalities by working with local residents to build on their strengths. We focus on what’s strong not what’s wrong and tackle wider issues that impact on health including housing and worklessness.
Key to all we do is strengthening communities and we play a convening role for local places working with local people, groups and agencies/services to support our communities to thrive.

Well Doncaster takes a holistic view of health, which is often reduced to better clinical care and addressing unhealthy behaviours. Although these are important, they only address about half the contributors to health. The importance of the social, environmental and economic realms have been undervalued. Supporting people in communities to take control of their social, environmental and economic futures is a key difference of Well Doncaster and its approach and starts to change the role of statutory services as enablers not merely providers.

Doncaster Council’s Director of Public Health, Dr Rupert Suckling’s, vision of Well Doncaster is for it to act as a ‘lightening rod’ around which local people and statutory services can rally. Whether it is the reopening of the community library, the establishment of peer support, the change in use of the children’s centre or returning allotments to use. Acting as a catalyst for action, encouraging people to reconnect with what keeps them healthy whether that’s volunteering, getting into work or unleashing their creative talents.

The best thing about what we’ve done with Well Doncaster is…

It’s certainly hard to choose the best thing, but there have been a couple of key things which have really made the difference.

Firstly, it’s all about relationships. We were given the freedom to take time to build relationships of mutual trust with communities, a luxury in the public sector of today. We took time to have conversations over too many cups of tea to mention and in doing so developed connections with key community leaders.

Secondly everything we do has to come back to the community’s voice. We started work in Denaby Main, a community of 4,000 people whose health and economic prosperity has been on a steady decline since the closure of the mines and before any work could start we had to understand what they see as their community assets. We gained this insight by undertaking an Appreciative Inquiry. We listened and worked to support their aspirations and encouraged residents to engage in activities they would not ordinarily engage in.

Having these two factors at the core of our approach has led to engaged and empowered residents who are taking the lead in developing their communities. Adopting an asset based community development approach to reduce health inequalities has facilitated empowerment and resilience in the community.

What has been the biggest or best mistake you have made?

I’m not too sure about the biggest or best mistake but one of Dr Suckling’s mottos is ‘learn by doing’ and that’s what we have done.

In community development, timing is often everything. When we carried out the first Appreciative Inquiry in the summer of 2015 the community said they would like more opportunities to volunteer, but they didn’t know what opportunities were available and how to access them. In response to this we commissioned a local organisation to provide Volunteer Coordinators who would engage with local businesses and organisations, map out all the opportunities in the community and match residents with opportunities. They did a great job and worked hard but struggled to engage with the community to fill the vacancies.

We were given the freedom to take time to build relationships of mutual trust with communities, a luxury in the public sector of today.

Emma Nicholas

The community had said they were missing something and the opportunity was provided but there was low uptake. The evaluation of the service, alongside insight from other work in the area taught us that the community wanted it but weren’t ready for it. They had other issues to sort out first. We concentrated on providing responsive and appropriate support in the community to meet their needs and a year later the library was full of local volunteers. There is now a volunteer run befriending group meeting weekly and small community groups popping up across the area.

We ticked all the boxes but the community, once again showed they are the ones really in charge and when they were ready, they acted.

Has anything surprised you during this work?

Denaby Main had a host of untapped assets and resources and it didn’t take much for community leaders to emerge. When offered a little bit of support they took it and ran with it. An example of this is when we established a community micro grant where community groups could access £500. There were 31 successful applications for the grant over 18 months. Having access to start-up funds empowered residents to create their own groups and eight new community groups were constituted during that time. The grant panel was a rolling panel of 11 residents who met monthly and discussed what impact each application would have on their community. The impact of the grants and the decisions of active and concerned residents continues to be felt in the community.

Another surprise is the success of Get Denaby Enterprising, a 1:1 support approach around enterprise and self-employment. Once the mines closed in Denaby Main no other industry come in to take its place and a culture of long term unemployment became entrenched in the community. This alongside high rates of long term conditions led to twice the borough rates of Employment Support Allowance claimants in Denaby.

We again turned to the community to understand their views on how to address this situation. A key priority that emerged was support around self-employment and providing non-traditional avenues into work where people could utilise their skills and talents to support themselves. From this we commissioned a local social enterprise to provide tailored support around self-employment and the community instantly responded. The first year saw 71 people seek support and 24 people went on to start trading. A culture of peer support emerged alongside as a monthly business club took off where newly started and local established businesses met and shared their journeys, ideas and learning. In July 2018 Get ‘Denaby’ Enterprising became Get ‘Doncaster’ Enterprising as the approach was expanded to other areas across the borough and in its first five months has seen 27 people attend ‘Be the Boss’ sessions and six people are registered and trading.

What piece of advice would you give to someone or a group/ organisations thinking of doing something similar?

We’ve come up with our top four things; they aren’t new, we’ve heard them all before but often they are the things that get put to the side in order to fight the fires of our day jobs, take too much time, aren’t seen to have quick enough returns or are too hard to evidence impact to justify time or resources. But we have found that they have been critical in the success of all that has been achieved in Doncaster. They are:

  • Engaging with communities and taking time to build relationship
  • Capturing community voice and using that as the driver for decision making
  • Focus on building on assets
  • Partnership working

What’s next for Well Doncaster?

Well Doncaster has been working in Denaby Main for the last three years and we have spent 2018 using our learning and experience to expand to four areas of opportunity across the borough. We have been working with partners to understand and build on community strengths through collecting community insight and developing key anchor third sector organisation.

We are proud of all that has been achieved in Doncaster and are working to share our journey and learning both across the borough and through publications, so watch this space!

And lastly, where can we find out more?

You can find out more about what we doing in Well Doncaster on the Well North website, on our blog or contact team member Emma Nicholas at

All photos supplied by Well Doncaster.

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