Relationship between food environment and planning system: research summary

Summary of research responding to the question 'How can the planning system best support the creation of an improved food environment in Scotland?'.

1 Executive Summary

1.1 Executive Summary

1.1.1 The Scottish Government consultation paper ‘A Healthier Future’ identifies Scotland’s obesity rates as amongst the highest in the developed world. The consultation ran from October 2017 to January 2018 and included over 30 proposed actions to improve the Scottish diet and lifestyle and reduce public health harm. Improving the food environment is critical to this aim and the consultation document makes it clear that a wide range of regulatory and other actions are needed to make healthier choices easier wherever we eat.

1.1.2 As such, it was noted that research should be undertaken to establish the relationship between the planning system and the food environment, including exploring how food outlets in the vicinity of schools can be better controlled. The evidence provided by the research will inform the next version of the National Planning Framework and Scottish Planning Policy.

1.1.3 The aim of this research project is to respond to the question ‘How can the planning system best support the creation of an improved food environment in Scotland?’ This was carried out using the following methods:

  • A literature review of academic articles and those published by or on behalf of a number of Local Authorities;
  • A review of national policy, guidance and relevant planning legislation across Scotland and England in so far as it relates to the control of the food environment;
  • The analysis of identified planning policies and Supplementary Planning Documents which seek to control the food environment; and, a review of relevant applications and appeal decisions.

1.1.4 The following conclusions emerged from the research.

Key Characteristics of a Good Food Environment

1.1.5 This research considered the food environment to be the food available to people in their surroundings. A consistent set of characteristics of a good food environment could not be identified from reviewed literature. Broadly speaking however healthy food environments enable consumers to make nutritious food choices with the potential to improve diets and reduce the burden of malnutrition. Bad or unhealthy food environments are more clearly defined, noted as a consequence of poor access to fresh food and increased exposure to readily available energy-dense food.

Density, Clustering and the Food Environment

1.1.6 From a review of the available literature, the association between exposures to outlets selling unhealthy food, diet, and body weight varies, some research shows a link and others do not. Research notes that neighbourhoods with many fast food takeaways may also have access to outlets selling a range of healthy foods diluting fast food exposure. Overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight.

1.1.7 Some Planning Authorities in England have sought to control the clustering and/or density of hot food takeaway outlets on health grounds through the introduction of appropriate planning policies and/or guidance. This is not the case in Scotland where the clustering and density of hot food takeaways is controlled for other reasons including the promotion of town centre viability and protection against anti-social behaviour.

The Food Environment Around Schools

1.1.8 Some research exploring the effect of the food environment around schools on children and young people shows a link to obesity while other research does not.

1.1.9 Access to outlets selling healthy food was noted as decreasing the odds of being overweight or obese. It was also noted that the balance of outlets selling healthy and unhealthy foods has an impact on dietary quality in children and young people.

Planning System Interaction with the Food Environment

1.1.10 The causes of obesity identified in this research are noted as being a result of various environmental factors. In land use planning terms zoning and/or exclusion zones were looked at as a means of limiting access to fast food and reducing the density of fast food outlets (quantity of fast food outlets in a given area). In view of conflicting research linking the food environment to obesity, defining local levels of obesity as an evidence base was considered important to inform policy.

1.1.11 A review of National Policy and Development Plans across Scotland has found that current planning policy has no interaction with the food environment in so far as seeking to address obesity is concerned. There is no direct reference to tackling obesity or opportunities to influence the food environment in health terms. Outside of the planning system however there is a growing body of research looking at the food environment’s impact on obesity.

1.1.12 Reflective of national policy requirements, in certain Planning Authorities in England there is a drive to control the local food environment around schools and other sensitive uses (e.g. leisure centres, community centres, parks) through Development Plans and Supplementary Planning Documents. Each is an important material consideration in the determination of planning applications.

Policy Analysis – Policy Effectiveness

1.1.13 Research identified that there is not a planning policy framework in Scotland against which to determine hot food takeaway applications on health grounds. Given the absence of relevant planning policy, the outcome of one particular appeal noted that it was not considered reasonable in planning terms for the Council to refuse the application on health grounds.

1.1.14 Across a number of Planning Authorities in England, there are Development Plan policies and/or Supplementary Planning Documents against which planning decisions on fast food takeaway applications can be made on health grounds. These have largely stood up to planning appeal/challenge when evidence based, but have proven less effective without an evidence base.


Email: Simon Bonsall

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