Public Heath England (PHE) has just published practical guidance, informed by Fuse research, for local authorities wanting to use the planning system to improve public health. In this blog post Andy Netherton and Michael Chang, from PHE's Healthy Places Team, tell us how they hope the guidance will be used to tackle obesity.
Obesity is a modern day public health challenge that cannot be met by a traditional scientific approach alone. Tackling obesity levels in England requires action by national and local government, health and social care, non-governmental agencies, communities and individuals – a whole system approach.
Traditionally the vast majority of public discussion and state campaigns target individual level behaviour change and treatment. This does not address the environment in which we live, that influences the decisions and actions that we make; things such as what we eat, whether we exercise, how we travel to work, how we interact within the community and if we have access to and use open spaces.
These physical environmental factors can be influenced by national and local policy and action. State led interventions are difficult to put into place due to the need for evidence within complex social and environmental determinants. The difficulty to isolate evidence related to these interventions and local government capacity to balance competing demands results in an inconsistent approach to policy adoption.
The use of planning policy and development management is a clear example of an intervention to tackle obesity which is not yet consistently applied across the country. Practice across the country has shown a diverse range of approaches in local plans and planning appeal decisions which has taken over 10 years to develop, but is now accelerating.
Figure 1 – Charting the use of planning for healthy weight environments
This policy to implementation lag has to be seen in the context of an increasing obesity challenge, both in terms of prevalence and health inequalities.
Figure 2 – key obesity data and trends
on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, May 2019 - NHS Digital,
Government Statistical Service|
This was recognised within the Childhood Obesity: a plan for action, Chapter 2. The challenges it identified, included the proliferation of fast food outlets, less active travel, limited access to green spaces and physical activity; and these factors create an environment that makes it harder for children and their families to make healthy choices, particularly in some of our most deprived areas.
The Childhood Obesity plan confirmed that local authorities have a key role in tackling this challenge and pledged support:
- to make sure that all local authorities are empowered and confident in finding what works for them, and;
- to develop resources that support local authorities who want to use their powers and provide up to date guidance and training for planning inspectors.
Previous research by PHE (Spatial Planning and Health: Getting Research into Practice (GRIP) study report) identified that local authorities would benefit from support that reduced the need for resource input, for example reduced duplication to create policy and practice. This publication is aimed at getting knowledge into action by providing guidance and a template supplementary planning document (SPD), one of many planning levers available to local authorities, that can be used by local authority planning and public health teams. It answers the following questions:
- What is the current evidence base linking the built and natural environment and healthy weight? Specifically, can the local food environment influence diet and obesity?
- How can the planning regime be used to promote healthy weight environments?
The provided supplementary planning document (SPD) is a starting point that requires local content and policy to be added. It can be used as a whole or parts selected on local need or to dovetail to existing local policies. Clearly this intervention is one intervention that must be used within a wider national and local obesity strategy.
There remain challenges to promoting a healthy food environment, for example the impact from the rise of industrial kitchens for food delivery must be monitored. Work must continue to influence the energy and compositional content of other food options and build our homes and neighbourhood to allow people to more active.
This publication provides guidance on a practical evidence based intervention that draws together several professional groups within a local authority. Gateshead Council have successfully adopted and defended on appeal, controls on hot food takeaways as part of a wider approach to tackling obesity and promoting healthy weight environments. It is hoped that for many areas working together to tackle obesity will provide confidence to further unite planning and health. It moves the debate from a deficit model of obesity to an asset based (salutatogenic*) approach to promoting healthy weight.
*Israeli-American sociologist Aaron Antonovsky coined the term "salutogenesis" to describe an approach which focuses on a positive view of wellbeing rather than a negative view of disease.