17 Sep 2020 NAO Report supports Local Government action on obesity
Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO – the UK’s independent spending watchdog) published a new report[i] examines the effectiveness of the government’s approach to reducing childhood obesity in England by considering the evidence base and progress so far.
Food Active has long campaigned for greater powers for addressing obesity at a local level and through our Local Authority Declaration on Healthy Weight, have enabled over 20 local authorities across England to make a strategic commitment, across all council departments (from Housing to Highways!) to reduce unhealthy weight in local communities, protect the health and well being of staff and citizens and to make an economic impact on health and social care and the local economy.
The local authorities who have adopted the Declaration have included metropolitan and county councils. The Declaration has helped enable them to review how local policies, such as transport and planning, impact on healthy weight.
We take a closer look at some of the recommendations made in the report which support local government action on obesity.
- The Department (referring to the Department for Health and Social Care) should establish a robust evidence base, commissioning further research if necessary, of what works to establish which interventions in the programme and actions by local authorities work best to reduce childhood obesity.
- In line with the timing of the proposed spending review, the government should target support and funding to local authorities and population groups who have the greater obesity problems.
- The Department should provide greater support to local authorities to help them implement efforts to reduce childhood obesity.
It is promising to see the NAO recognise the role local government can play in addressing obesity, and ultimately that national government should utilise this to a greater extent. As part of the Childhood Obesity Plan Chapter 2, the Government committed to funding for five local authority childhood obesity trailblazers to support local action on obesity. One of the successful bids was the Pennine Lancashire Healthier Place, Healthier Future programme[ii] – which Food Active is currently the delivery partner for – selected to test a range of local levers including system leadership, planning regulation, business engagement and community-led advocacy . However, beyond the trailblazer programmes, there has been little national appetite for more funding to address obesity at a local level.
The recommendations also make an important point about targeting funding and support to local areas which have population groups that experience disproportionately higher levels of overweight and obesity. A Marmot report published earlier this week illustrated how the health gap in England has increased in recent years[iii] – despite the Department’s goal to significantly reducing the obesity gap between the most and least deprived children in England by 2030.
We will also be responding to the Comprehensive Spending Review to emphasise the importance of sustainable funding for public health – which has suffered significant cuts in recent years. According to analysis by the Health Foundation, almost all local authority public health services faced cuts between 2014/15 and 2019/20[iv]. Whilst local authorities have made efficiencies through better/new commissioning models, the cuts are nevertheless impacting frontline prevention services. This does not correlate with the Government’s policy paper ‘prevention is better than cure’ published back in 2018[v].
Furthermore, the NAO report concluded that there is limited awareness and co-ordination across departments of wider activities that may impact on childhood obesity rates. The report shows that currently there is no co-ordination of these activities across government to ensure that they are compatible with the overall aim of reducing childhood obesity and there are no plans to introduce some co-ordination. This is disheartening to see given that obesity is influenced by a wide range of factors and influences – many which are beyond the realms of public health. Perhaps a National Government Declaration on Healthy Weight is required to support cross-departmental action on obesity.
[iv] The Health Foundation. Briefing: Taking our health for granted – plugging the public health grant funding gap.