The severity of this crisis means we need an overarching “obesity test”, now. Photo: Getty
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Why all new legislation should face an obesity test

Obesity is not a future theoretical threat, it is a present catastrophe.

David Cameron convened another COBRA meeting last week. Normally associated with terrorist threats and natural disasters, this time it was for a crisis in health. We’ve known about it for years, we’ve seen the catastrophic effects on individuals, we have had a plethora of advice on prevention and we have some frightening numbers of the cost to the economy. Were they discussing the greatest threat to the nation’s health and possibly economic security, ie obesity? No. Obesity, which has been blubbering for attention from politicians for a couple of decades, was elbowed aside by the far more fashionable ebola.

Obesity is not a future theoretical threat, it is a present catastrophe. In the past 20 years, the proportion of adults that are obese has risen from 13.2 per cent to 24.4 per cent among men and from 16.4 per cent to 25.1 per cent among women. Including being overweight, the numbers are far worse: 57.6 per cent to 66.6 per cent among men and from 48.6 per cent to 57.2 per cent among women. Most people have heard of the repercussions of being obese: diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, though less known tends to be the rising association with cancer. In 2007 the cost to the UK economy of overweight and obesity was estimated at £15.8bn per year, including £4.2bn in costs to the NHS. 2007 was also the year that the Labour government brought out its seminal Foresight Report on “Tackling Obesities” which set out to answer the question “How can we deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years?” The project assembled evidence and expertise from diverse academic disciplines as well as interested organisations within and beyond government.

Eight years on, one fifth of the way through the report’s timeline, and it’s safe to say the situation has not improved. We’re still getting fatter and we still have fat-sugar-responsibility-blame demonising headlines on a loop. The Foresight Report rightly asked for a system-wide approach and a portfolio of policies to be put in place. Politicians can point to things that have since been done, but they are self-evidently inadequate. The approach has remained to piecemeal, to voluntary, to weak, to uncoordinated and to blaming.

In “Careless eating costs lives” we have responded to the obesity crisis by putting together a portfolio of policies, acknowledging both that only a cross-cutting, robust approach will suffice and that there are more avenues to explore. Where previous activity has been limited, we are calling for extended application; where schemes have been half-baked, we are setting out a considered whole-sector approach; where good things have begun, we ask for them to be embedded in law as the new foundations of progress.  For instance, the coalition government’s much debated voluntary “Responsibility Deal” has actually seen 713 different organisations and manufacturers sign up to one or more “pledge” to improve labelling, content, nutrition or workplace health. They have shown it can be done, so why not now phase in this deal as mandatory for all manufacturers, just as the Disability Discrimination Act was phased in over a period of years, allowing a reasonable amount of time for companies to adjust? Likewise, the ban on advertising unhealthy foods on TV aimed at children, needs to be now extended across daytime TV, not just during the early-afternoon. Having calories detailed on some menus now needs to become the norm, from KFC to Starbucks to Pizza Hut.

Above all, the severity of this crisis – the drain on individuals, economies and the NHS – means we need an overarching “obesity test”. All government departments need to consider the impact of proposed policy on eating behaviours and public health, to ensure it does not compound the crisis. This is essential because the causes are so complex and multifaceted. Health, education, business, treasury, transport, trade, farming and local government all have their part to play, but if the “obesity” question is not being asked, the unintended consequences of policy could be a more obesogenic environment than we have already.

If a new policy or initiative makes it easier to supply fast food, harder to walk to the shops, more difficult for schools to serve balanced meals, cheaper to buy junk grub then it should be rejected. Those are obvious. But due consideration should also be given to prevention: mental illness and counselling services, early years support and cooking classes are all vital to ensuring problem symptoms are tackled before they turn into the signs of excessive weight gain. One friend remarked to me that everyone in the over-eaters anonymous groups that she had ever attended had reported a history of abuse.

No, obesity isn’t as captivating as ebola. And as ever, those with the least resources, the lowest resilience, and often the easiest to ignore are the hardest hit. But with a tidal wave of calories surrounding us, we can’t go on ignoring obesity – because it will sink all of us if we do.

Julia Manning is Chief Executive of 2020health

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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 the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back 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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