Planning guidance which restricts the number of hot food takeaways in areas with high childhood obesity is part of South Tyneside Council’s whole systems approach to the problem of excess weight. Data suggests the strategy is beginning to have a positive impact.
Just under a quarter of Reception pupils in South Tyneside are overweight or obese, rising to 38.6 per cent in Year 6.
Mapping by the council shows a correlation between the most deprived wards and excess weight. It also reveals the proliferation of fast food takeaways in those areas, which tend to be more urban. In one ward with particularly high rates of obesity, 22 hot food takeaways are currently operating.
“It is a very visible thing,” said Julie Connaughton, Public Health Practitioner at South Tyneside Council. “Families and children are exposed to it and of course there is interest in trying it. It’s a hook that draws people in. For these families, there needs to be the choice of a different type of food available in these prime spots where there is high footfall.”
Reducing excess childhood weight to 35.1 per cent by 2020 is one of the priorities in the Council’s Joint Health and Wellbeing Strategy.
Work towards this is cross council and involves internal and external partners. Initiatives include; a healthy weight module in staff training, school nurses, health visitors and children’s centre staff pushing the message under the Best Start in Life banner, 100 per cent uptake of Healthy School Awards and targeted work with schools that have higher obesity levels.
Part of this approach is the link-up between public health, planning and environmental health. This joint work has produced an evidence-base document which illustrates the link between high levels of childhood obesity and the geographical spread and clustering of hot food takeaways. The mapping provided the foundation for a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) which introduced two health-based material considerations that would have to be considered as part of planning applications.
The first stipulates that permission will not be granted for A5 uses (i.e. hot food takeaways) in areas where the levels of obesity in Year 6 pupils is higher than 10 per cent. The second is that outside of designated town and district shopping centres, proposals for new A5 uses will not be permitted within 400 metres of a secondary school boundary.
The Local Development Plan in its current form does allow for A5 uses in town centres and other areas, however.
Eight applications for A5 premises have been submitted to the Council since the SPD came into effect in 2017; one was withdrawn, one is still undecided, two have been approved and four have been refused, one of which was dismissed after appeal.
“It has been a long process, particularly collating the evidence base,” said Connaughton. “It has been frustrating at times but the teams have worked really well together and the results to date have been positive.”
The latest NCMP figures are also encouraging. The proportion of Year 6 pupils classed as overweight and obese has dropped by nearly one per cent between 2017/18 and 2018/19, from 38.6 per cent to 37.7 per cent.
Collaboration across departments and sharing information is vital. At South Tyneside, the public health team receives a weekly list of planning applications and is able to submit representations, a system that was in place prior to the development of the SPD and which helped to prepare the ground for it.
Producing robust, very specific local evidence to support planning guidance can be labour intensive. One of the obstacles the team in South Tyneside faced that the coding and classification for food outlets used by environmental health and planning was different.
The team learnt lessons from other councils. South Tyneside took its lead from Gateshead Council which has been a front-runner in applying health-based stipulations in planning.
How will the approach be sustained?
Work is ongoing to prepare a new Local Development Plan for South Tyneside. New Local Plan policies will seek to strengthen the guidance provided in the SPD which will ensure stipulations regarding vitality and viability will be brought together to give the health-based policies more weight, helping to manage the proliferation of hot food takeaways.
“The caveat in the old policy which allows A5 use in certain areas will hopefully be removed,” said Deborah Lamb, Senior Planning Policy Officer at South Tyneside Council.
The new local plan will also include a health and well-being policy for the first time.
Councillor Tracey Dixon, Deputy Leader with responsibility for Independence and Wellbeing, said: “Reducing obesity and promoting healthy lifestyles among our children and young people in particular are among our top priorities.
“We recognise that it is much harder for people to make healthy choices if there is a proliferation of hot food takeaways where they live. Limiting exposure to unhealthy food choices is one of the ways we can take a proactive approach.”
Julie Connaughton, Public Health Practitioner at South Tyneside Council