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11 Aug 2022

Putting the brakes on fast food – evaluating the use of planning policy to support public health

Junk food in schools

Putting the brakes on fast food – how Gateshead Council used planning policy to support the health of its residents.

A local authority in the North East has taken a blanket ban approach to new applications for fast food takeaways, to improve health and tackle childhood obesity.

By using all of the planning policy available, Gateshead Council has been able to reduce the proportion of fast-food outlets in the borough by 14 percent. It also reduced the density of takeaway outlets available, to around 13 less outlets for every 100,000 residents.

Gateshead has higher than the average national levels of children who are either overweight or obese, and research has shown that the food available close to where we are is likely to influence what we eat, and therefore our health.

We also know that the food offered by takeaway outlets can contribute to becoming overweight or obese if they are eaten frequently.

As part of work to support the health of residents, Gateshead Council took the decision (in 2015) to use all of the planning policy available to them, to prevent any further fast-food outlets opening up in the borough.

These were:

  • Restricting new fast-food outlets near schools
  • Restricting new fast-food outlets if the density of existing outlets has surpassed a certain threshold of all retail outlets (no more than 20% of all outlets can be fast-food)
  • Restricting new fast-food outlets if childhood obesity rates are above a certain threshold (no more than 20% based upon data from National Childhood Measurement Programme for children aged 4-5 and 10-11).

A research project funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria has evaluated its impact.

What the research found

The work found that Gateshead’s multi-pronged planning policy approach reduced the density of fast-food outlets by around 13 per 100,000 people, and the proportion of fast-food outlets compared to other types of food outlets by around 14%

Importance for local and national government planning policy

The results provide important evidence for both local and national government on useful ways to promote a healthier environment in a short space of time.

It’s also important to consider these findings in the context of proposed changes to planning legislation and how local government can make a difference to their environment in the future.


  • We need to consider that the growth of food ordering platforms may limit how planning guidance can influence local area obesity rates in the future.
  • There needs to be better coordination between national and local government to develop a strategy to make sure the environment in which we live is health promoting.
  • Further research is needed to understand if reducing the number of fast-food outlets has an impact on diet and related health conditions, including obesity and other diet-related diseases.

Next steps

The next step is to look at if this change in the density and proportion of fast afood outlets has had any impact on childhood overweight and obesity between 2015 to 2019, and if this did anything to reduce inequalities in childhood weight.

Professor Heather Brown, from Lancester University (and formerly of Newcastle University) led the study. She said:

“Obesity is a complex health issue that stems from a variety of causes, but we do know that where we live and work influences the food that we eat, our weight, and our health. The use of planning policy can be one way for both local and national government to help shape a healthier environment – by limiting or restricting where certain types of food outlets can be located, and this research supports that.”

The findings have been published in The Journal of Social Science and Medicine (August 2022)

Read the full paper