England & Wales, Global Communities and society, Health and social care

Councils overlooked in obesity epidemic

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A recent publication by the National Obesity Forum, has predicted that existing forecasts for obesity levels in the UK, that by 2050 half the population will be obese at an annual cost of £50bn, could in fact be over optimistic.

The most recent data from the Health and Social Care Information Centre and research from the Universities of Glasgow and Leeds all point towards an acceleration of obesity levels.

t’s easy to be glib about obesity, but this represents a serious crisis. Obesity affects the people’s health directly and by making them more vulnerable to other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. It represents a massive drain on the public purse and a huge detriment to the wellbeing of millions of people.

The Forum’s report, The State of the Nation’s Waistline addresses Government initiatives such Change4Life, encourages more healthy eating programmes and physical activity within schools and urges GPs to be more proactive in helping patients with weight management issues.

It has little to say about the role of local government. This is a curious omission.

Local government has the formal responsibility (and the budget!) to manage public health and just as importantly it brings together at a strategic level the different services that can help manage or prevent obesity: housing, planning, school support services, licensing, and leisure services.

There are already good examples of councils thinking innovatively about how to take a preventative approach to obesity.

Waltham Forest and several other councils have used their licensing powers to stop takeaways opening near schools, Dudley MBC have used their parks to establish outdoor gyms and healthy living classes for children and their parents.

There are also councils that enable GPs to prescribe access to council leisure facilities, or that are using parking policies to encourage footfall and walking through town centres.

And of course the council unlike the health service has through its elected members a direct democratic link that connects these initiatives to the aspirations and ambitions of local communities.

This sort of innovation is still held back by the UK’s archaic and fragmented public service budgeting with councils often unable to unlock the savings that their preventative activity generates in other budgets, notably those of the NHS, and thus unable to invest in prevention at greater scale.

Community budgets and integrated health and social care commissioning are steps in the right direction, but they’re only a beginning.

As we’ve long argued at LGiU, until we take a genuinely integrated approach to the funding of local services, we will be tying one hand behind our backs as we attempt the sort of preventative shift we need if we are to avoid the catastrophic scenario the National Obesity Forum are warning of.

Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of LGIU. This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

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