Healthy New Towns
By Chris Bradshaw
Simon Stevens, the Chief Executive of NHS England, recently announced plans to create ten NHS-supported ‘new towns’ across the country.
Mr Stevens referred to a report produced by the Building Research Establishment on the cost of poor quality housing which estimated that 3.5 million homes in England have serious hazards which could lead to health problems, placing a large pressure on the NHS in terms of costs and care provision.
Professor Kevin Fenton, the National Director for Health & Wellbeing at Public Health England (PHE) said “Some of the UK’s most pressing challenges – such as obesity, mental health issues, physical inactivity and the needs of an ageing population – can all be influenced by the quality of the built and natural environment. The considerate design of spaces and places is critical to promote good health.”
Some of the new features that will be tested include building dementia friendly streets, ensuring residents can access GP services digitally and having fast-food-free zones around schools. The Healthy New Towns programme will be working alongside the ten housing developments offering inspiration and support whilst looking at how sites can redesign local health care services and how they can also take a cutting edge approach to improving their communities’ health, wellbeing and independence.
Of the 114 expressions of interest received from local authorities, developers and housing associations, 10 areas have been chosen as demonstrator towns with developments ranging from under 500 to over 10,000 homes. The chosen sites are:
• Whitehill and Bordon, Hampshire
• Cranbrook, Devon
• Barking Riverside
• Whyndyke Farm, Fylde, Lancashire
• Halton Lea, Runcorn
• Bicester, Oxfordshire
• Northstowe, Cambridgeshire
• Ebbsfleet Garden City, Kent
• Barton Park, Oxford
The programme will cover projects totalling more than 76,000 new homes and a potential capacity for approximately 170,000 residents. The schemes are all expected to be completed by 2030. Funding to build the developments will come from council budgets and private developers rather than the NHS.
While this is a positive move towards utilising the planning system as a means to improve people’s wellbeing, only time will tell if the projects and the programme will have a significant impact.
Funding is set to come from council budgets and private contributions. This begs the question of, in this time of austerity and councils facing tighter budgets, what impetus or incentives would be in place for the private sector to provide finance for the scheme? If no mechanisms are in place to ensure adequate funding then the scheme is unlikely to succeed.
There is also the question of what weight the input of the NHS and PHE in shaping the demonstrator towns would be given? Would it be a statutory requirement for these specific sites or would it just be lip service?
There is also the question of how these demonstrator schemes would be effective in their wider context. Two of the schemes are entirely new developments with the rest being urban extensions, brownfield sites within urban areas or a small section of a larger development. Will the principles in these demonstrator towns have any sort of effect if they are surrounded by, or in close proximity to, an existing obesogenic environment? In order for them to be effective within existing areas, a long term strategy would be required to upgrade the existing area in line with healthy town principles.
In brief, while the demonstrator towns are a step in the right direction towards tackling obesogenic environments, there needs to be mechanisms in place to ensure the advice is acted upon, that funding is available and that the sites have maximum effectiveness.