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Councils lack funding to tackle obesity – LGA

Council leaders are warning that they do not have enough money in their public health budgets to tackle obesity once mandatory services, such as sexual health and drug and alcohol services, have been paid for. 

The Local Government Association (LGA), which speaks on behalf of councils in England and Wales, stated that health problems associated with being overweight or obese cost the country £5bn per year, with the number of people with obesity predicted to more than double in the next 40 years. 

The Association’s latest report – Tackling the causes and effects of obesity – revealed that local government spending on the growing ‘obesity epidemic’ in 2014 is expected to cost more than £127m, a 21% increase on the previous year’s figures. 

It was noted that the new public health function for local authorities has given councils additional opportunities to tackle various issues, including obesity. However, much of the £2.8bn public health budget goes towards the mandatory services councils provide such as sexual health (25%) and drug and alcohol services (30%), which are largely demand led. 

Council leaders added that, if they factor in the mandatory NHS Healthcheck, the Child Measurement Programme and Health Protection, local authorities don’t have enough money left to do the preventive work needed to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing the country: obesity. 

They claim that additional funding would enable them to do “so much more” to reverse the tide of obesity. 

Already councils are taking action locally to tackle obesity through schemes to help residents get fit, including free or subsidised leisure services. 

For example, Birmingham City Council’s ‘Be Active’ scheme, provided free of charge, aims to tackle health inequality and associated deprivation level by offering access to free physical activity sessions. The scheme, which has now been expanded into the city's parks, has over 400,000 members – over a third of the city’s population. 

But the LGA claims much more can be done. It is calling on the government for a fifth of existing VAT raised on sweets, crisps, takeaway food and sugary drinks to go to boost council-run grassroots initiatives with a proven track record, such as leisure activities and health awareness campaigns. 

According to the LGA, this would create a £1bn fund to help transform the lives of the millions of overweight or obese children in this country which would more than pay for itself by reducing the huge cost to the public purse of obesity. 

Cllr Izzi Seccombe, chair of the LGA's Community Wellbeing Board, said: “The obesity crisis is costing this country £5bn every year and there are three and a half million overweight children. We are talking about an epidemic. 

“This is why we are calling on government to help people live healthier lives and tackle the harm caused by obesity by reinvesting a fifth of existing VAT raised on sweets, crisps, takeaway food and sugary drinks.” 

A government spokesperson said that more than £8.2bn has been set aside over three years for councils to deal with public health issues, including tackling obesity. They added that there are no plans to introduce a sugar tax. 

“Ultimately councils are responsible for their spending decisions and that's why we have given them greater financial independence so they can deliver sensible savings,” he said. 

“We are already seeing progress being made, with childhood obesity levelling off, and industry working together to make everyday food and drink products healthier.” 

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