Fyson on ... planners' role in translating healthy city lifestyle goals into effective development practices

Health secretary Alan Johnson announced last week that he intends to start the healthy living revolution by designating nine towns and cities for special incentives to avert the growing obesity crisis.

In return for taking exercise, people will earn points that they can redeem for healthy excursions and sports equipment. The participating places will be part of a coalition focused on the two key issues of diet and exercise, especially for children.

It comes as a relief to know that planning's role in creating healthy towns is for once not going to be exaggerated. But it will be expected to respond on some specific matters. Planners will be required to exploit the "flexibilities contained in planning regulations" to "manage the proliferation of fast food outlets in particular areas", for example near parks and schools. The question will be whether such policy manipulation can stand up to challenge on appeal.

Provision in development plans to enhance cycling and walking opportunities will be more secure. Councils will be expected to invest in improved cycling infrastructure and skills as part of the £140 million recently allocated to Cycling England. This must surely mean dealing with some of the more absurd discontinuities in many urban cycling networks.

Urban cycle paths that come to a sudden stop and are easily encroached on by motor vehicles attract only the most fearless riders at present and hardly fill parents with confidence. It will take properly segregated urban cycleways for cycling to reclaim its reputation for safety.

There is also to be a Walking into Health campaign, aiming with somewhat comic arbitrariness "to get a third of England walking at least 1,000 more steps daily by 2012", and yielding in total "an extra fifteen billion steps daily". The problem with this kind of aspiration is that it might be achieved most easily by, for example, reducing the number of bus stops, which would only encourage people back into their cars.

The problems that come with an ageing society complicate the issue. Walking may keep all ages and conditions of people fit, but as they increase in number and grow as a proportion of the population, elderly people with reduced mobility are going to need more not fewer transport services.

The demonstration healthy towns have all suggested good ways to get people into activities. But unsurprisingly in the current financial climate, proven weight-loss facilities such as gyms seem largely precluded by their high capital costs. A slimmer economy does not suit obese people.

- Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.

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