Britons need to walk more – but their cities aren’t set up for it

Walking: basically a gym. Image: Getty.

An evidence review by Public Health England (PHE) hit the headlines last week, after the government agency found that a large chunk of middle aged adults are doing little to no exercise on a regular basis. According to PHE, 41 per cent of middle aged adults in England (defined as those aged 40-60) walk less than ten minutes at a brisk pace in an average month.

The coverage of this report is all focused on individual behaviour. Headlines covering the study proclaimed that “Millions of English adults failing to go on a brisk 10-minute walk every month”, and “Six million middle-aged people take no exercise”. As a nation, it seems we’ve forgotten the basics of leading a healthy lifestyle. We commute to work, we sit at our desks – and we find little time for exercise against the competing demands of work and family. As a result, our physical and mental health worsen. We need to get moving, and walking is a pretty simple way to start.

In light of the findings, PHE are trying to encourage us all to walk more frequently. The organisation has launched a campaign to get people to take up the challenge of walking briskly for 10 minutes a day, accompanied by an app to help us keep track.

The report acknowledges that previous official advice of doing two and a half hours of intensive activity a week doesn’t seem like a realistic goal for many people. On the other hand, walking is, in theory, an easy choice to make. It doesn’t require any specific equipment, you don’t need to be young and fit to walk, and you don’t need to go to a special place or pay any money.

But reasons why we do or don’t go for a walk are not just about personal choice or inclination. Structural factors influence whether we walk at all, how frequently and how far. Our activity levels are influenced by our social networks, whether we feel safe in our communities, our proximity to green space, and by the design of our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.


There is good evidence on this latter point – Including from PHE themselves. For example, the design and planning of an area can encourage or discourage walking and cycling. A spatial planning review from PHE highlighted the importance of neighbourhood ‘walkability’ in increasing physical activity. Elsewhere, our evidence review on urban design shows that providing safe and convenient footpaths encourages people to walk and cycle more.

How active we are is also influenced by our socioeconomic status. Barriers to physical activity affect some groups more than others and social deprivation affects our capacity to go for a swim, walk or run. Children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space or somewhere to play.

To reduce health inequalities, we need to recognise and reduce the barriers to participation. Some of these barriers are the cost of childcare, the cost of transport, and social isolation. London is the third greenest city in the world – but a single mum who has no-one to go for a walk with and no easy transport route to a park faces bigger barriers than others.

Directors of public health are based in local government. As a result there’s an opportunity to do something about this: councils have a major role in influencing some of these factors. Planning, housing, transport, leisure and parks are all core local government responsibilities. We’ve found in our current public health research project that directors of public health across England work with a range of council departments and voluntary sector agencies to improve population health.

There is nevertheless an opportunity to do more, to join up work with the organisations and people that can help tackle the barriers to improving health across all groups. Recognising that the problem is about more than just individual behaviour will be a good place to start.

Lucy Terry is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget is hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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