Planning rules for food outlets can provide communities with healthier environments that may lead to improved population health.
Project title: Evaluating the impact of Supplementary Planning Documents on Health Inequalities in the North East of England
John Wildman, Newcastle University
ARC research theme
Inequalities and marginalised communities
This project aims to improve the health of the population in the North East and North Cumbria by evaluating the impact of Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) on health inequalities in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension incidence.
Local authorities (LAs) have an important role in shaping healthy community environments through planning policy decisions. As highlighted in national and local guidance, this includes access to healthier food.
Important health inequalities exist around access to healthier food, as unhealthy food environments tend to cluster in more socially deprived areas, and lower socioeconomic groups are more vulnerable to the detrimental effects on diet and health of exposure to these environments.
LAs in England have used Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD) and other planning tools to limit the proliferation of hot food takeaway outlets.
Around 50% of LAs have SPDs or other planning guidelines to control numbers of takeaway and fast food outlets. One third of SPDs are motivated by improving population health.
Despite their widespread nature, there is currently no evidence regarding the effectiveness of these LA restrictions on improving health or reducing health inequalities. Similarly, there is little previous evidence on how local policy actions influence food environment dynamics.
The initial number of unhealthy food outlets in an area is an important determinant of their number over time, but it is not clear if regulations imposed on the these types of outlets change the composition of the local food offering towards more healthy options.
The North East and North Cumbria region has high levels of deprivation and prevalence of obesity and obesity related conditions. The region also has high levels of health inequality, showing the steepest life expectancy difference in the country -around 10 years- between deprivation groups.
Our urban centres are also characterised by some of the highest concentration of fast food and takeaways outlets in the country. At the same time, the area offers a unique context to explore the effectiveness of current SPD-based food policies in LAs.
Purpose of the project
The purpose of this project is to provide evidence regarding the effectiveness of planning powers of LAs to create healthy and equitable local environments. LAs are well positioned to influence the structures of neighbourhood food retail through planning.
Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) are gaining popularity as a mechanism to shape the local food environment.
In the UK, fast-food outlets, takeaways and other unhealthy food outlets are more prevalent in deprived areas, contributing to observed social inequalities in health.
This project was co-developed with public health, environmental health, and policy practitioners to meet their need for evidence on SPDs and their ability to reduce health inequalities.
Practitioner and policy makers across the region are an integral part of the project and have played an active role in its development.
A project advisory team includes include representatives from Public Health England, UK Healthy Cities Network, and local community groups from the North East.
The findings from this project will be used to develop a toolkit for evidencing the effectiveness of SPDs in the region and nationally.
Project outcomes and findings so far
The first stage of this project found that a multi-pronged planning policy approach adopted by Gateshead Council 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.
The findings have been published in The Journal of Social Science and Medicine (August 2022) – Read the full paper
Keywords: Prevention, obesity, childhood obesity, public health, planning policy, fast food