Obesity and Planning Permission
The obesogenic nature of our inner cities has long been a cause of concern for activists campaigning against poor health, and the key instrument for control of inner city environments is planning permission. In the post war years such permission has become fiercely complex and very much the realm of lawyers, yet normal inhabitants of any town have to interact with it if they want to complain about commercial and retail development in their urban environment.
Planning permission determines the character of the built environment, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of restaurants and retail food outlets. For those of us who are concerned about obesity, the fast food and hot food takeaway sector is an area of significant focus. We are not talking about lunchtime takeaway shops, whose staple is sandwiches and salads, many of which are quite healthy We are talking about the evening purveyors of kebabs, chips, fried chicken wings, oversized pizzas, king sized burgers and such like, where the calorific content is significant but the nutritional contents in minimal.
The poor quality of inner city environments also has the effect of discriminating against the poorer and less advantaged members of society, due to the high level of social housing and poor quality of rented accommodation that often exists in the inner city. The middle class leafy suburbs have traditionally been more insistent at keeping low quality fast food restaurants and take-aways out of their areas; they have a better understanding of the damage these retail units do to the environment in which they live.
Public health is not normally considered an adequate reason for refusing planning permission, but increasingly local councils with poor health metrics in their areas are taking action. Within the planning system, local government can control development by using Planning Directives, and these are increasingly being used. Other such tools include Supplementary Planning Documents, and a number of local councils, such as Dagenham and Coventry City council have used these as tools to reduce the prevalence of fast food takeaways in their areas.
It is unfortunate that local authorities often use child (as opposed to adult) obesity as a diversionary tactic, emphasising how they prohibit hot fast food take-aways from operating close to schools, and other no doubt worthy child health policies, but they fail to address the key issue of adult obesity caused by the overall poor quality of the inner city environment. Making the matter especially difficult, of course, is that at a time of hollowing out of town centres, councils try to attract retail outlets to their inner city areas, encouraged by the need for councils to attract business rates to their locality at a time of budgetary cuts from central government.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for obesity. In practice to make policies effective they have to be used with other anti-obesity tactics. But anti-obesity campaigners should increasingly ask why these poor quality hot fast food retails outlets exist in their cities at all.