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?'.

5 Conclusions

5.1 Conclusions

5.1.1 The Scottish Government’s current consultation ‘A Healthier Future’ identifies Scotland’s obesity rates as amongst the highest in the developed world. The aim of the consultation is to create a policy and legislative approach that will reduce the public health harm associated with poor diet. Improving the food environment is critical to this aim and the consultation is clear that a wide range of regulatory and other actions are needed to make healthier choices easier wherever we eat.

5.1.2 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.

5.1.3 This report presents findings from the research undertaken and in doing so addresses the following objectives of the project:

  • Summarise key research and practice to concisely describe how the planning system in Scotland and other countries currently interacts with the food environment;
  • Identify what are considered to be key characteristics of a good food environment from the perspective of the planning system in Scotland;
  • Identify whether the number (density) of particular shops or outlets in a place is a problem for creating an improved food environment;
  • Identify the degree to which the area around schools in Scotland is considered to be a bad food environment or is protected from becoming one; and
  • Identify examples of both effective and the less effective planning policies which target the aim of ‘How can the planning system best support the creation of an improved food environment in Scotland?’

5.1.4 With a view to responding to the defined objectives the literature review element of the research involved the review of a series of pertinent academic articles and those published by or on behalf of a series of Local Authorities. It also explored national policy, guidance and relevant planning legislation across Scotland and England in so far as it relates to the control of the food environment. In conclusion the findings of the research are as follows.

Key Characteristics of a Good Food Environment

5.1.5 The food environment is defined as the food available to people in their surroundings (e.g. work place, school, home and journeys between) including the range of foods, affordability, nutritional quality, convenience and desirability. It nudges consumers in directions contributing to dietary habits which can have long term impacts, especially in children.

5.1.6 Whilst the research undertaken did not explicitly identify what constitutes a good food environment, broadly speaking 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, sometimes referred to as ‘food deserts’ or ‘obesogenic environments’, are noted as a consequence of poor access to fresh food and increased exposure to readily available energy dense food. In some locations it has been argued that food environments have developed in such a way as to make it easier for people to consume more energy dense food and be less physically active. As a result, reducing obesity is now a key goal of global health policy with an increased interest in the retail environment around schools.

Density, Clustering and the Food Environment

5.1.7 In so far as density and clustering of hot food outlets is concerned, scope to modify the distribution and density of takeaway food outlets in cities and neighbourhoods is becoming an increasingly important element of nutrition and health policy in the UK and elsewhere. Identifying the association between exposures to outlets selling unhealthy food, diet, and body weight however has proved challenging, and the evidence base remains ambiguous. Research identifies that simply looking at ‘fast food’ and ‘healthy food’ outlet options ignores the wide range of unhealthy foods available within the likes of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. It should be noted however that the latter tend to provide healthy food options.

5.1.8 It is argued that neighbourhoods which have many fast food takeaways may also have outlets selling healthy food that dilute fast food exposure. Focusing on one particular outlet type does not truly characterise a person’s food environment, and the overall food environment more broadly, rather than availability of specific outlet types, may be linked to obesity.

5.1.9 Although there is conflicting evidence and some studies do not show a statistically significant relationship between outlets selling unhealthy food and consumption or weight gain, overall the evidence would suggest that increased exposure to outlets selling unhealthy food increases a person’s likelihood of gaining weight.

5.1.10 It can also be concluded from the research that certain Planning Authorities in England, are seeking to control the clustering and density of hot food takeaway uses on health grounds or to ensure the provision of a choice of fresh, nutritious food types for local communities. This is not the case in Scotland where the clustering and density of hot food takeaways is currently controlled for other reasons e.g. promotion of town centre viability and protection against anti-social behaviour.

The Food Environment around Schools

5.1.11 Strategies to address childhood obesity have highlighted the role schools can play in exposing students to healthy food, focusing on improving nutrition standards within schools. There is a growing body of research across countries, including Scotland, however which demonstrates that food environments around schools play an important role in dietary choice and quality of food available to students.

5.1.12 It should be noted however that the effect of the food environment outside schools on children and young people’s diet is complex. The evidence around the impact of the presence and availability of fast food outlets on obesity produces unclear and conflicting results with some research showing a link to obesity and others not showing a link.

5.1.13 Access to outlets selling healthy food was noted as decreasing the odds of being overweight or obese. In terms of young people’s eating habits, it was noted that a positive approach rather than a coercive one was better received by young people by, for example, increasing the range of healthy affordable food in schools. It was also noted that the balance of food outlets, both unhealthy and healthy, has more impact on dietary quality in children and young people, as having access to different types of outlets allows the option to make healthy choices. The research available has not identified the degree to which the area around schools in Scotland is considered to be a bad food environment.

Planning System Interaction with the Food Environment

5.1.14 The rise in obesity has led researchers and policy makers to look at the role of the social and built environment and explore the idea that food environments are a contributing factor. The causes are noted as being multifaceted and embedded in various aspects of the environments which cannot be addressed by planning alone. Issues to be addressed include a range of factors and influences, such as nutritional quality of convenience food, promotional offers and school stay-on-site policies. In land use planning terms zoning or exclusion zones were looked at as a means of limiting access to fast food and a limitation of the density of fast food outlets. 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.

5.1.15 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. As a result, the degree to which the area around schools in Scotland is protected from becoming a bad food environment is not apparent in planning terms. Outside of the planning system however there is a growing body of research which is looking at the food environment and its impact on obesity. Given the conflicting research linking the food environment to obesity some have suggested that further studies are required to better understand the impact of such policies designed to limit the proliferation of hot food takeaways.

5.1.16 The English planning system is more advanced in terms of applying such research to national and local policy. 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 (leisure centres, community centres, parks). This is generally achieved through Development Plans and Supplementary Planning Documents, based on a robust evidence base, each an important material consideration in the determination of planning applications. Policy and guidance have introduced the following measures:

  • An exclusion zone of 400m (or in some cases 800m) or 5-minute walking distance around sensitive youth facilities such as secondary and primary schools, parks, playing fields etc.;
  • Control of the hours of opening of a facility to prevent opening during school hours;
  • Prevent takeaways where the number within the area already exceeds the identified national average; and
  • Where a certain percentage of children of a certain age within a ward are obese based on statistics available from the National Child Measurement Programme.

5.1.17 In some council areas these policies have proven effective at discouraging applications at the pre-application stage; leading to refusal at the application stage and standing up to challenge at the planning appeal stage, as discussed in Section 4.0.

Policy Analysis – Policy Effectiveness

5.1.18 Research identified that there is not a planning policy framework in Scotland against which to determine fast 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.

5.1.19 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 when evidence based, but have proven less effective without an evidence base and when other material planning considerations dictate otherwise.


Email: Simon Bonsall

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