At the end of a road I used to live on, there was a wonderful curry house that always smelled amazing every time you walked by, even if it was 8am in the morning and they were just starting to prepare the food for the day. Whilst I lived there, I ate more takeaway curries then I have in any of my other many houses which were not so conveniently located to delicious smelling food.
The food available to us in our environment is likely to influence what we eat and subsequently our health. The use of planning policy can be one way for both local and national government to help shape a healthy environment by limiting or restricting where certain types of food outlets can be located. About half of all local authorities in England have some type of planning guidelines to restrict new fast-food outlets. In England there are three main types of planning policy used to promote a healthy food environment:
1. restricting new fast-food outlets near schools.
2. restricting new fast-food outlets if the density of existing outlets has surpassed a certain threshold of all retail outlets (e.g. no more than 20% of all outlets can be fast-food).
3. restricting new fast-food outlets if childhood obesity rates are above a certain threshold (e.g. above 20% based upon data from National Childhood Measurement Programme for children aged 4-5 and 10-11).
What Gateshead did
Gateshead Council, like many local authorities in North East England, has childhood overweight and obesity rates that are higher than the national average. To try and reduce childhood overweight and obesity to less than 10% by 2025, Gateshead implemented all three types of planning guidance (a school exclusion zone, restricting new outlets by retail density, and restricting new outlets by childhood obesity rates). This is effectively a blanket ban on establishing a new premise for use as a fast-food outlet if the building was not already being used for that purpose. Buildings that were being used for fast-food could change ownership and continue to sell fast-food. This guidance was implemented in June 2015.
As part of an NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC) funded project, we evaluated if Gateshead Council’s approach to planning had any significant impact on the density and proportion of fast-food outlets in Gateshead compared to other local authorities in the North East which did not have any type of planning guidance. Data on food outlets came from the Food Standards Agency Food Hygiene Rating Scheme Data. Our analysis covered 2012-2019 (we did not include data during the Covid-19 pandemic because planning guidance on what type of food outlets could provide takeaways was relaxed) - a subject covered earlier this week in the Fuse blog post How Covid-19 changed the takeaway landscape by Callum Bradford from Teesside University.
What we found
We found that compared to other local authorities in the North East, Gateshead’s planning policy reduced the density of fast-food outlets by around 13 per 100,000 people and the proportion of fast-food outlets by around 14%.
Next, we are going to look at if this change in the density and proportion of fast-food outlets has had any impact on childhood overweight and obesity between 2015 to 2019 and if this did anything to reduce inequalities in childhood weight.
If you would like to read our paper in Social Science and Medicine on the impact of Gateshead’s planning policy on the food environment you can find it here.
The NIHR ARC NENC has also summarised the research here: Putting the brakes on fast food – evaluating the use of planning policy to support public health.