25 Jan 2018 Guest Blog: Great Expectations – how the planning system can help solve the obesity crisis?
Michael Chang MRTPI is Town and Country Planning Association Project and Policy Manager leading its Reuniting Health with Planning initiative. In addition to delivering the Initiative’s programme of projects, he is undertaking a Master by Research at Leeds Beckett on planning healthy weight environments.
It has been more than 10 years since the Foresight report on tackling obesity and statistics on childhood obesity levels are still grim.
The obesity crisis might have been predicted 4 years earlier. For those of you who are Friends fans will know the episode – The One with the Mugging, in which Chandler joked “Apparently, walking is too much exercise. Kids, kids! Roll your way to childhood obesity!” to which Monica responded “Wow. Kids today have such an easier time getting fat!”.
There is of course a serious point about the prevalence of obesity. In some areas as high as a quarter of children are obese or overweight, and even Milton Keynes, one of the most famously planned new towns, is one of the fattest cities in this country. But many councils including the Mayor of London in his draft London Plan, are already taking actions by introducing local planning policies and guidance to restrict the prevalence or unhealthy takeaway outlets around schools. Policies requiring play and recreation opportunities, access to green open spaces and sustainable buildings are already in the planning process.
The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) worked with PHE and other partners to develop a planning healthy weight environments framework to think about issues such as movement and access, open space, play and recreation, food environments, buildings, neighbourhood spaces and the local economy and training environment. There is already abundance of literature highlighting associations between these elements and health outcomes, including many of the diseases linked to obesity. So then what are the practical issues?
Hand up not a hand out – have you got what it takes?
Practitioners and campaigners are asking challenging questions: whether to ask Government to further legislate for action, whether national policy drivers need to be stronger to support local government? Probably neither. Lets have a stocktake of some of the key tools. There is the National Planning Policy Framework (note it is due for an update in 2018 so make sure you feed into the consultation) and the Planning Practice Guidance on issues including health and wellbeing, sustainable transport and green infrastructure. Leeds Beckett University, supported by PHE, the LGA and the ADPH, is examining what a whole-systems approach to tackling obesity would look like. As part of a team of research students supporting this programme, I am researching what local government policy levers exist to implement planning healthy weight environments. We need to make the most of what we have got.
Tipping the scales in our favour
Since the reuniting of public health responsibilities into local authorities in 2012, there is evidence of strengthening and joining up of local actions to tackle obesity and health through the planning process. Appeal decisions against developments are increasing referencing impact on obesity levels as one of the reasons. This indicates an increasing recognition that health is a material consideration which should be taken seriously in the planning decision-making process (though you win some, you lose some).
So the provocation and call to action is that in planning healthy weight environments, local authorities and partners as a collective whole, already have the necessary levers to plan for and implement policies and decisions around the health agenda. It all comes down to local leadership and commitment to align local priorities on tackling obesity, collaboration and perseverance with and better use of the planning system to effect the range of actions needed. I call on everyone committed to the agenda to ask oneself what they can do to help make a difference and seek to use the planning system positively and creatively.