07 Feb 2022 Blog: What does the Levelling Up White Paper hold for healthy weight?
Last week we saw the publication of the UK Government’s long-awaited Levelling Up White Paper. The paper includes details on how the Government plans to ‘Level Up’ the country – a key promise made in the Conversative’ s Manifesto in the 2019 election campaign. In this blog we will attempt to unpick some of the key features and consider this within the context of the healthy weight agenda.
Tackling health inequalities
We are pleased to see a strong focus on tackling health inequalities as part of the Levelling Up agenda. The Government will commit to a range of health promoting policies and interventions with a view to achieving the ambition of:
“narrowing the gap in Healthy Life Expectancy (HLE) between local areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030, and increasing Healthy Life Expectancy by five years by 2035”
Amongst the proposed interventions, the paper makes specific reference to addressing poor diet and obesity as priority areas:
“We will act now to deal with one of the biggest contributors to ill health: poor diet and obesity.”
However, in the same week the White Paper was published, the policy of restricting promotions and marketing of less healthy food and drink (previously been supported by the Government) would now appear to be under threat. Such measures are important drivers in reducing levels of obesity and poor diets, so we would encourage the Government to take a joined-up approach in reaching its ambitious targets on reducing health inequalities.
On the one hand, we have a Government suggesting it is committed to increasing life expectancy and addressing important health issues such as obesity which are indexed to levels of deprivation. On the other hand, reports are now suggesting the Prime Minister is prepared to weaken, delay or even scrap the plans all together in an attempt to win back favour with his MPs after a tenuous couple of weeks in Parliament.
These policy measures are now being used as a political football, and we are concerned that years of hard work and tireless campaigning will go to waste – not to mention putting the health of our population at further risk from the food industry.
If the Government is serious on reducing levels of health inequalities as part of Levelling Up, it needs to press on with taking junk food out of the spotlight to help deal with obesity and poor diets.
Progress on school food policy
The White Paper includes a commitment to oversee compliance with school food standards, something which was recommended in the National Food Strategy.
Pressure had been intensified on this issue in recent weeks, with Jamie Oliver and over 600 school leaders writing a letter to the Secretary of State for Education, plus Bite Back 2030 launching their ‘Spill the Beans’ campaign which revealed the postcode lottery when it comes to quality in school food, and a number of changes young people want to see.
The White Paper included the following promises:
- Schools will be encouraged to publish statements on the arrangements for their ‘whole school approach’ to school food. This will become mandatory when ‘schools can do this effectively’.
- The Department for Education (DfE) will be working with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to pilot measures with local authorities to ensure greater compliance with the school food standards.
- Training and support, worth £200,000, will be provided for school governors on the role they should take to support a whole school approach to food.
- Funding of £5 million to support food teachers so that every child can leave school knowing how to cook six recipes.
We are fully supportive of these commitments, which have been needed for some time and are glad to see the Government stepping up when it comes to school food.
However, we do feel there is a missed opportunity in extending eligibility of free school meals. Currently 1 in 3 children in poverty not eligible for free school meals. We know that Covid-19 has had a significant impact on household income and just this week it was announced domestic fuel prices will go up £693 a year on average in April, pushing more families into poverty.
Opportunities to be physically active
The paper primarily focusses on policies and funding to boost levels of recreational sport as a means to increase levels of physical activity, with funding for grassroots pitches and facilities a particular aim:
“The UK Government has committed £205m to build on this across the UK over the next three years. This will ensure local clubs and school teams have the facilities they need to thrive.”
However, we were pressed to find any mention of levelling up opportunities on active transport and active urban design. We know that London benefits from a fantastic cycle network, connecting up parts of the city by bike to allow people to cycle as their mode of transport.
The Government pledged £5bn funding for active travel outside of London during the pandemic. We hope the focus on active travel is not simply a by-product of Covid, and the immanent launch of Active Travel England will help to ensure there are equal opportunities for active mobility across the country.
There was however reference to green spaces, with a commitment to ensuring natural beauty is accessible to all is central to the planning system. Green spaces are important to support physical and mental health, yet many deprived urban communities have little to no access to parks compared to more affluent areas across the country.
The White Paper certainly shows potential in some policy areas that can start to improve health outcomes for the most deprived communities. However, we know that the devil will be in the detail, and we eagerly await the Disparities White Paper which will be crucial in understanding how health inequalities will be addressed, with particular reference to acting on the wider determinant of health.
It is disheartening, however, to hear reports that the Government is considering backtracking on policies that would support some of the ambitions outlined in this report. We strongly urge the Government to press ahead with all elements of the National Obesity Strategy, and believe this will indicate the extent to which they are genuinely committed to tackling health inequalities and supporting the Levelling Up agenda.