Obesity impacts on health in many ways. It is a cause of coronary heart disease and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, raised blood pressure and colorectal cancer.

Tackling obesity can help to address these health problems and also has wider implications in terms of quality of life, reducing health and social care costs and making economic productivity savings (from reduced obesity related ill health).

Obesity is a complex problem that requires action from individuals and society across multiple sectors. One important action is to modify the environment so that it does not promote sedentary behaviour or provide easy access to energy-dense food.The aim is to help make the healthy choice the easy choice via environmental change and action at population and individual levels.

“Developments should be located and designed where practical to… give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements.”

NPPF, 2012

Local authorities have a range of legislative and policy levers, alongside wider influences on healthy lifestyles, which they can use to help create places that support people to maintain a healthy weight. Public Health England suggests that public health professionals should work with their colleagues across local authorities to use these and other approaches to maximise health benefits. Their Healthy People, Healthy Places programme emphasises the role of better planning and design in improving health – they have produced two briefing papers on obesity and the environment.

“In areas of deprivation, obesity levels are 25-30% of the adult population compared to 20-25% in more affluent areas. If those who are overweight are included, the figure rises to 50% of the total adult population.”

Kent JSNA 2012

Options for addressing obesity through planning include:

  • Using planning and regulatory measures to address the proliferation of fast food takeaways – many councils are now seeking to limit new hot food takeaways within close proximity to schools for example (see case studies section below).
  • Improving access to healthy food (e.g. protecting and delivering allotments and other local food growing sites) – the King’s Fund reports that there is anecdotal evidence that local access to healthy food may improve diets.
  • Creating an environment where people actively choose to walk and cycle as part of everyday life (see active travel section).
  • Creating safe, accessible and pleasant outdoor spaces including places for children’s play (see active communities section).
  • NICE public health guidance on the promotion and creation of physical environments
  • Takeaways toolkit – A comprehensive briefing including tools, interventions and case studies to help local authorities develop a response to the health impact of fast food takeaways, published by the London Food Board and Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH).
  • Weight management economic assessment tool – This tool from Public Health England is designed to help public health professionals make an economic assessment of existing or planned weight management interventions (including policy actions and environmental change). It will be useful to commissioners who wish to compare the costs of an intervention with potential healthcare savings it may produce.
  • Active Planning Toolkit – Published by the Gloucestershire Conference and funded by NHS Gloucestershire (2011), this toolkit provides a practical guide to help professionals create buildings and natural environments that help support people to get more active. It gives examples of how planners, architects, and developers can design in features to encourage physical activity, such as making stairs easy to find and linking shops and workplaces to walking and cycling networks.
  • Health contacts
  • Planning contacts
  • See active travel and active communities sections.
  • Making the Case for Investment in the Walking Environment – this review by Living Streets includes a useful case studies section with example of projects designed to enhance the walking environment from across the UK and internationally. It also provides a summary of the health benefits of improving places for walking.
  • Waltham Forest: restricting hot food takeaways to address health inequalities – The London Borough of Waltham Forest was the first in the country to prepare an SPD on restricting the opening of new hot food takeaways. The SPD states that the council will refuse planning permission if hot food takeaway applications are within 400 metres of a school, youth facility or park.
  • Addressing the health impacts of hot food takeaways – As part of a strategic approach to tackling the Borough’s obesity problem, and in particular childhood obesity, Barking and Dagenham adopted a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) to explain its approach concerning the appropriate location and concentration of hot food takeaways. Similar to planning regulations adopted within Waltham Forest, Barking & Dagenham have developed an approach restricting the development of hot food takeaways in local centres, and excluding them completely from certain areas. The council also requires permitted hot food takeaways to pay a fixed fee of £1000 through a section 106 planning agreement. This fee contributes towards initiatives to tackle childhood obesity in the borough such as providing facilities in green spaces to encourage physical activity and improvements to the walking and cycling environment.
  • Dudley’s Planning for Health SPD – The percentage of children in reception year who are obese in DudleyBorough is 10.2%, higher than the national average. There is a social gradient for obesity in both reception and year 6 pupils in Dudley Borough schools; and a social gradient for obesity in adults across the Borough with the most deprived areas associated with higher levels of obesity amongst residents. This Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) aims to provide supporting information and guidance for planners, developers and investors on how the environment and planning decisions impact on the health and wellbeing of the population. The SPD conforms with the Dudley Health and Wellbeing Strategy and adds value to the ‘Food for Health’ Action Plan and ‘Tackling Obesity – A Health Needs Assessment for Dudley’. Key themes of direct relevance to tackling obesity include healthy sustainable development, planning for active lifestyles and over proliferation of Hot Food Takeaways.