Tell people to eat less? Yes, that’ll sort out obesity

The government's package has little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public healt

"Worthless, patronising rubbish" was how TV chef Jamie Oliver described the government's new obesity strategy in Thursday's Guardian. Not a doctor, admittedly -- although the BMA also weighed in -- but someone who cares passionately about the subject and has taken considerable pains to try and reverse the bad eating habits of British schoolchildren. He's also got a point. And, ironically, at least part of the problem is traceable back to a Tory-driven policy from the early 80s.

How do I know this? I was there. Overnight, the move from a set menu to a cafeteria system in my Yorkshire comp changed many of my friends' diets from a fairly balanced diet to one of chips, pizza and doughnuts, because, unsurprisingly, that was what they liked. Consumer choice was important, wasn't it? Except that it wasn't. Choice is not an automatic, universal social good. And those who paid for this particular schoolboy error were mostly the kids from the rougher estates, who didn't eat well at home, either.

Fast-forward to today, and there's a sense of déjà vu. Obesity. It's just about people eating too much and not getting enough exercise, isn't it? I mean, why can't they just cut the calories and get off their fat backsides?

Surprisingly this, in a nutshell, is Andrew Lansley's breathtakingly subtle and innovative strategy to combat obesity. Eat less, move around more. Rather than getting people to understand healthy eating, we are back in the 1970s, cutting calories. In other words, if you eat a diet comprised of nothing but chips, as long as you eat few enough to stay within your calorie limits, you're healthy, as far as the government's concerned.

Lansley's comments have, unsurprisingly, found approving echoes in the right-leaning press: "fat people have only themselves to blame", runs one Telegraph comment piece. But obesity is simultaneously a public health and an educational problem, not just a medical condition. And, patently, if it were that simple we would have cracked it a long time ago.

Ilona Catherine, health correspondent for the Independent, writes: "Telling an obese person to consume less...is like telling an alcoholic to have one glass of wine rather than a bottle or two." Just read this fine, brave and personal piece by blogger Emma Burnell, if you really want to understand both the daily struggle and the politics that underlie obesity.

Now, I am not, I think, one to sign up to that twenty-first century, Oprah-style craze for converting every slight human condition into an illness. But I take exception to this.

Lansley's wrong-headedness derives from four errors: his dogma that what Labour has done is nanny-state and must be reversed; that a coercive, do-as-I-say approach will work in this area, for which there is little evidence; that central government edicts are undesirable per se and do not work (er, smoking ban, anyone?); and a fatal succumbing to food industry interests -- highlighted last year by former Downing Street adviser John McTernan in the Telegraph -- in proposing that self-regulation, instead of government control, is a large part of the answer. Yes, that worked well in the City, and the press, didn't it?

It is perhaps true that Labour's attempts have not solved the problem as quickly as anyone would have liked, although it is also difficult to prove how effectively one is turning around a long-term problem which often starts in childhood. But this package, according to most interested parties, is simplistic, unambitious and has precious little chance of successfully tackling our greatest single public health problem.

Worthless? Perhaps I wouldn't go that far. But not worth much.

Rob Marchant is a political commentator and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

 

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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