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Government misses a trick in forgetting council role to tackle childhood obesity

100 3605Cllr Michelle Lowe, deputy leader and cabinet member for housing & health at Sevenoaks District Council, reflects on the government’s missed opportunity for district councils to help tackle child obesity in its recently published strategy.

It is a shame that the government’s recently published report on childhood obesity has more or less overlooked the role that councils, and in particular district councils and unitaries, can play in the battle against childhood obesity.

The facts and consequences of childhood obesity that the report highlights are truly shocking, and it is clear that something has to be done to halt this growing trend. However, the report’s solutions are mainly Westminster focused – which is a shame because there is a lot that councils can do to support the government’s effort.

The report states: “Obesity is caused by an energy imbalance: taking in more energy through food than we use through activity”. So what can district and unitary authorities do to help people exercise more and eat more healthily?

Inclusion in local plans

As the planning authority, health can be made a material consideration in local plans – which would be made even more powerful if they were supported by the Planning Inspectorate at Bristol. This can take many forms from trying to limit the number of unhealthy fast-food outlets – particularly close to schools – to ensuring walkways, pedestrian and cycling routes from housing developments to stations, bus stops and schools. I appreciate this alone will not get people out of their cars, but providing as many alternatives as possible will help.

The licensing function can support the planning process by licensing unhealthy fast-food vans, and environmental health can encourage healthy menus with extra rewards and stickers for restaurant and café doors. Many councils also organise community awards – why not offer most improved menu and healthiest menu to encourage businesses and help them see their part in the battle against obesity.

Of course, we must not forget that districts and unitaries also have leisure responsibilities. Tying these in with the local plan can ensure open spaces near residential areas and schools, where children can play before or after school. While their community safety role can help ensure they are safe and that youth do not grow out of hand.

Leisure centres and playing fields with more organised activities also play their part. It is always great when innovative sports development officers offer ballroom dancing to coincide with ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in the winter months, and archery in the summer – a great all ability sport – that whole families can participate in.

Encouraging people to grow their own food at their local allotments not only keeps them fit and healthy in the outdoors while they garden but develops a healthier attitude towards food and encourages more vegetable and salad eating.

Think about what more local councils could do if some of the sugar tax found its way into their budgets. In my experience local government is almost magical at what it can do with relatively little extra funding.

It is such a shame that the government has missed a trick by not highlighting the vital partnership role that councils can, and will play in this battle, by focusing almost exclusively on the role of Westminster.

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