When the council introduced strict planning rules to cap takeaway numbers in 2010, it was the first in the UK to do so. New fast food outlets were banned altogether within 400 metres of schools, and prevented from “clustering” in shopping centres. New takeaways would have to pay a £1,000 levy, set aside to fund child obesity initiatives such as outdoor gyms in local parks. Owners of existing takeaways, meanwhile, would be persuaded to make their food healthier by reducing sugar and salt content, and providing nutrient labelling.
“We are facing a health crisis which is affecting our young people,” declared the then-leader of the Labour-controlled council, Liam Smith. “At the core of this is obesity, and one of the main causes is fast food.”
More than 20 councils in some of England’s most deprived areas, including Birmingham, Bradford and Newcastle, have since followed Barking and Dagenham’s lead in introducing so-called Supplementary Planning Documents (SPDs) aimed at restricting the availability of takeaway food. In March, official guidance from Public Health England recommended that councils build SPDs into their local obesity programmes.
But there’s a hitch. Although the council’s own figures suggest its fast food policy has made an impact, as yet it doesn’t appear to have had any significant effect on its residents’ health.
At ward level, the figures are even more stark. In Barking and Dagenham’s most deprived neighbourhoods, nearly a third of all four- and five-year-olds, and nearly half of 10- and 11-year-olds, are obese or overweight.
Barking and Dagenham’s cabinet member for care and health, Councillor Maureen Warby, admits progress has been slow. The £1,000 takeaway levy has never been enacted, and the council has struggled to get leverage over the menus of existing takeaways.
Public health officials have tried to persuade owners to make their menus healthier – by using different ingredients, grilling rather than frying, or using less salt – but it has been difficult to make progress. A council evaluation of the scheme notes cryptically that a campaign to change owner practices was piloted, but has been “resource intensive”.