© 2017 Neil Stacey

A story of Leicester’s “quiet innovation” in healthy cities (musings after Leicester Urban Observatory ‘launch’ – City Mayor Lecture)

Yesterday evening (26th Jan 2017), Sir Peter Soulsby, Leicester’s City Mayor, kicked off the ‘CITY SERIES 2017’ lecture series. It marked a formal launch (of sorts) of the  Leicester Urban Observatory. Loretta Lees, Professor of Urban Geography at the University of Leicester, will pick up the baton with a second CITY SERIES lecture on March 16th.

Covering two thousand years of city history as well as the recent past and near future of the city – the trajectory of the city – is not easy in an hour. Yesterday’s lecture did this very well: it was enjoyable, informative and very well delivered. It is refreshing to hear a politician happy (and confident) about setting out (something of) his stall and revealing (although only a smidgin) the thorny issues around some of the methods the city is employing to deliver positive change. Those methods are difficult for some to view positively. Regardless of one’s political views, those methods are very much part of the present ‘condition’ – but this blog has no intention of trying to address the extraordinary changes afoot under the banner of austerity politics.

The lecture name-dropped George Brown, Leicester’s (first?) Inspector of Nuisances in the 19th Century. News to me. A quick bit of online research reveals a story of legislation (1846 Nuisance Removal Act) but more interestingly that, following appointment to the role by the Chief of Police, Brown submitted a list of “specific health hazards which called for immediate remedy” (ref: Malcolm Elliot online text). The story echoes the familiar story of the extra-ordinary health challenges that faced 19th Century cities. However, it also reveals another example of Leicester’s history of “quiet innovation”; Elliot’s text refers to Brown’s role in the subsequent appointment of two of the first Medical Officers of Health in Britain, two years before the Public Health Act of 1848.

The story of John Buck, one of the two ‘medical health officer’ appointments, refers to him throwing his opinion and weight into the issue of housing – championing the banning of back-to-backs. We then read of innovation in the treatment of the mentally ill. A story emerges of a medical practitioner with an expansive view of health, recognising the value and importance of where one lives (campaigning for better housing) but also what one does and enjoys in day to day life (development of music + visits to Leicester Forest etc in the County Asylum).

The health issues facing 21st century UK cities are not as stark and apparent as those of the 19th Century. Regardless, can one imagine the NHS championing the introduction of bye-laws (or design codes in today’s speak) to ensure housing meets the expectations of health in the 21st century? The present day is ‘terrified’ of restricting the market provision of housing – the idea of our health ‘industry’ wading into the debate is beyond unlikely.

Our understanding of mental health has evolved significantly since the days of the County Asylum. Yet mental well-being is arguably the defining health issue of the day (see Mental Heath Uk website). As above, can one imagine the ‘NHS’ wading into the debate on how cities provide for delight in the city – for the provision of ‘music’ or ‘access to green space’ for all? (I appreciate it is a huge leap from John Buck’s efforts to provide for a small group of patients to the provision for all citizens – but hopefully the drift of my comment is clear).

The underlined questions are – to be honest – not ones I can answer with any authority (another hole in my knowledge to be filled with further research); perhaps there is more involvement of the health perspective than I realise. But I am confident that the idea of planners, architects, urban designers, landscape designers, the public/ communities, politicians and policy makers and medical professionals debating and agreeing codes for our cities is beyond us at this time.

Hopefully there is a George Brown and a John Buck out there fighting to make this happen. Hopefully the evidence, upon which policies and codes to help address 21st century “specific health hazards” can be constructed, is also forthcoming and compelling.