Taking away takeaways: The public health blob’s next target

by Cllr Joe Otten, councillor for Dore & Totley, Sheffield


The latest front in the public health blob’s war on choice can be found in the arcane world of planning policy. Officials in Sheffield are attempting to impose a ban on new hot food takeaways that wish to open at lunchtime and are within 800 metres of a secondary school. 


Oh yes, this is about the children. Never mind that a third of the city is within 800 metres of a secondary school, or that many secondary schools don’t let their pupils out for lunch. Their fragile little minds will be warped by the existence, within 800 metres, of chips, pizza, curry and Chinese food. And, just to be safe, best to restrict the choice of adults who work or live in those areas too. 


There are two big problems here. One is that ‘hot food takeaway’ as a planning policy use class has very little to do with nutritional value. You can still buy the same food and just eat in. You can buy much worse food – crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks – from a supermarket or a corner shop. Or you can buy a ready meal – much the same sort of food as a takeaway, but arguably less fresh and more processed. You can buy, with the blessing of the council, from an ice cream van outside a primary school one day a week. Public health is after this too.


And the evidence on which a lot of nutritional advice is based can be pretty circumstantial. While complete reversals are rare, the chief dietary heroes and villains are rarely the same from one decade to the next. I don’t have a problem with public health advice based on current thinking and I will even follow some of it. But such shifting sands are no foundation for taking away people’s free choices using the force of the law.


This leads us to the second problem. Legally local authorities are not allowed to simply ban developments they don’t like. There is a presumption in favour of development and a policy to restrict development has to be proportionate and supported by evidence. This is tested by the planning inspectorate as part of the interminable legal process for adoption of a local plan.


So I asked what the evidence was.


I was referred to some papers… 


Day and Pearce (2011) observe that  “ready access to obesity-promoting foods … may have a negative impact on student diet”. It is ‘may’ and not ‘does’ because this is not the question they studied. 


Walton et al (2009) suggest that “limiting the location of food outlets surrounding schools could be explored as intervention options to support schools in promoting nutrition.” This is an idea not a result.


Turbutt, Richardson and Pettinger’s “The impact of hot food takeaways near schools in the UK on childhood obesity: a systematic review of the evidence reads:


“Despite the lack of good evidence on hot food takeaways and health, planning policies around the UK are being changed to reduce exposure to fast food”


Yes, this is from one of the papers offered in support of the policy. If academics systematically reviewing the literature cannot find evidence supporting a ban, who are we to argue? And remember, legally, a ban must be supported by evidence.


Evidence was offered of a correlation between areas of deprivation, body mass index, and numbers of fast food outlets. You might think the logical policy response would be to ban takeaways in areas of deprivation, rather than near schools, but that would be more likely to trigger righteous outrage at the sheer snobbery of it.


This brings us to the other requirement: Proportionality. We do, after all, restrict tobacco, alcohol, gambling and pornography to prevent children accessing them, and we regulate in various ways how adults may access them. In this instance, a policy supposedly designed to restrict childrens’ access to these foods will equally restrict adults. 


Tobacco, alcohol, gambling and pornography, I think most would agree, are greater vices than chips and pizza, yet we don’t ban them altogether within 800 metres of a secondary school for adults and children alike. Even if the nutritional content was consistently worse than food from other sources (which it isn’t) and if the evidence base were there (which it isn’t) how could such an outright ban ever be proportionate for such a lesser vice? If my children’s worst vice turns out to be a takeaway from the local chippy I will be happy.

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