Extra powers needed to halt surge in “unhealthy” takeaways

New planning policies are needed to restrict the growth of hot food takeaways, according to a new report.

Sustain’s analysis found that McDonald’s and KFC are eyeing up 800 new sites in an “aggressive expansion plan”, putting the government’s target to halve childhood obesity by 2030 at risk.

A growing body of evidence suggests there is a link between exposure to fast-food outlets and the prevalence of obesity, while analysis by Public Health England (PHE) has also shown a strong link between the availability of fast-food outlets and increasing levels of deprivation in areas of the UK.

Sustain looked at how councils across England are using their planning powers to tackle the predominance of hot food takeaways.

With approximately 70,000 takeaways across Britain, and hot food takeaways “tending to provide more unhealthy food”, the authors noted how planning policies to restrict new hot food takeaways near schools are one of the few concrete ways local authorities have to stop their areas becoming even more saturated with unhealthy food.

However, these tools are coming under attack, said Ben Reynolds, deputy chief executive of Sustain, with local authorities “lacking capacity to provide adequate evidence to stand up to the resources of multinational chains”.

The authors said local authorities need “more powers to decide what happens in their localities”.

Reynolds added: “Current planning policies only focus on new takeaways near schools. If we are serious about tackling child obesity, we should also be looking at existing takeaways and other outlets selling unhealthy food to kids around school hours.”

Sustain urged any new government to explore other tools to help councils tackle obesity. This includes:

  • introducing licenses to sell high fat, salt or sugar food (for example, food that would fail the nutrient profile model);
  • licenses or planning permission being linked to signing up or paying for quality marks, such as the Healthier Catering Commitment;
  • limiting opening times; and
  • restricting what can be sold to children within certain hours.

At least 40 local authorities have introduced Supplementary Planning Documents (SPD) to restrict the growth of fast-food outlets as part of measures to create healthier environments. The childhood obesity plan, meanwhile, includes a three-year trailblazer programme to identify what works and share best practice so that local authorities can learn from one another.

PHE has worked with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to strengthen planning policy so that the proliferation of fast-food outlets can be kept in check. Updated guidance encourages policymakers to use their planning decisions to restrict fast-food outlets in locations where children and young people congregate such as schools, community centres and playgrounds, as well as in areas with high levels of obesity, deprivation and general poor health, and areas with an over-concentration of takeaways.

However, an investigation by the BBC last year suggested the guidance was largely failing. The BBC found that the concentration of takeaways on UK high streets was at its highest level in almost a decade; in most areas the number of takeaways per 100,000 people is greater than at any time since 2010.

Responding to Sustain’s report on localgov.co.uk, Cllr Ian Hudspeth, chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “Councils appreciate that a flourishing hospitality sector in our towns and cities is good for local economies and where they have introduced restrictions on takeaways, are working with businesses to help create healthier menus for their customers. Numerous councils have set curbs on new fast food outlets but need planning powers to tackle the clustering of existing takeaways already open.”

In a response to Sustain’s report, McDonald's said told the i website: "There are a number of factors that we consider when we apply for permission to open a new restaurant and we do not actively target areas to gain passing trade from schools. We share the ambition to reduce childhood obesity, which is a complex issue, and are committed to helping all our customers to make informed choices.”


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