Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Whipping town planners into shape

Guest post by Michael Chang, Town & Country Planning Association

Obesity is climbing up the national and local government agenda, and following two previous seminal publications – the Foresight Report on reducing obesity in 2007 and the Marmot Review of health inequalities in 2010 – one of the many spotlights has now firmly fixed on town planners and the planning system.

So all eyes will be on town planners at the Fuse event – More than enough on our plates: tackling the takeaway food diet at source – on Thursday (30 April).

This blog will attempt to shed some light on what planning can, must, should and could do. Coming from a non-academic background and admittedly a town planner, I take a pragmatic but liberal view of the planning system. This is not surprising as I work for a charitable organisation which essentially championed good planning for healthy outcomes for people in the Victorian times through the building of two garden cities in Letchworth and Welwyn.

Planning is a legal mechanism tasked with a land use function and exists to ensure the sustainable use of a scarce resource that is the land and the natural environment. What we do is grounded in what planning law, dating back to the 1990s, allows us to do and what national policy in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) published in 2012 requires us to do. Why do I emphasise these dates? Simple. Laws change and policies evolve. Of all the planning laws and policies we have had, there has never been an explicit reference or requirement to consider access to fresh healthy food. That is, until 2014 with the online Planning Practice Guidance which the government hailed as a triumph in condensing thousands of guidance into an accessible and evolving online guidance, and which supports the NPPF. In addition to having a section on health and wellbeing, it states:
The range of issues that could be considered through the plan-making and decision-making processes, in respect of health and healthcare infrastructure, include how: opportunities for healthy lifestyles have been considered (e.g. planning for an environment that …promotes access to healthier food).
Healthier food is of course not defined but at least planners are now strongly encouraged to consider food in planning.

Laws and policy frameworks haven’t stopped some enlightened local planning authorities in doing what they think is right for their local areas to use current planning powers to improve access to healthy food or rather, to restrict the proliferation of unhealthy land uses. We know there are dozens of councils now pursuing planning policies to prevent burgeoning shops serving unhealthy foods, albeit meeting increasing resistance from the food industry and also from within different sections of the planning profession. Actions in planning also take time: five years between the publication of Foresight (2007) to the first Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on takeaways in 2009 and the Greater London Authority’s takeaways toolkit in 2012. Also there are more than 350 local planning authorities across England, so we still have a long way to go.

The Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) published the Planning Healthy Weight Environments resource in 2014 which highlighted the following considerations regarding food in planning:
  • Development avoids overconcentration of hot-food takeaways (A5 class use for the sale of hot food for consumption off the premises) in existing town centres or high streets, and restricts their proximity to schools or other facilities for children and young people and families.
  • Shops/markets that sell a diverse offer of food choices are easy to get to by walking, cycling or public transport.
  • Leisure centres, workplaces, schools and hospitals with catering facilities have a healthier food offer for staff, students, and/or customers.
  • Opportunities for supporting innovative approaches to healthy eating through temporary changes of use have been explored.
  • Development maintains or enhances existing opportunities for food-growing, and prevents the loss of food-growing spaces.
  • Opportunities are provided for households to own or have access to space to grow food – for example roof or communal gardens, or allotments.
So the key message of this blog is: there is actually no legal, or professional, basis that stops town planners from taking appropriate policy actions to promote healthier communities through the provision and access to fresh healthy food. Much of what is needed is a cultural change within the profession, more active support of colleagues in public health in the planning process, continuing advocacy by national organisations, and last but not least (especially where Fuse is concerned), translating valuable evidence from academia to a format planners can use.

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