Britain’s childhood obesity strategy is a blow for localism, a blow for the NHS – and a blow for London

Mmmm. Chicken. Image: Getty.

Labour’s London Assembly health spokesperson on obesity and devolution.

The government has bottled it. The Junk Food Giants have won.

The National Childhood Obesity Strategy was an opportunity to be bold and deliver the tools to meet the growing challenge of childhood obesity. Instead there is very little to call a strategy at all, and London’s children will pay the price for this government’s failure.

We often see obesity as the problem itself, but it is what it leads to which we tend to forget.  Obesity reduces quality of life and increases mortality. It can affect mental health and can lead to diabetes, heart disease and related cancers. We’re seeing those horrendous ramifications on an acute level in the capital. 

In London we have been waiting for the government to take action for years – so you can imagine the disappointment at the limited scope of what has been announced. 

Of course there are things we welcome in the strategy, particularly the drive to increase physical activity for Primary School children, and the sugar tax George Osborne announced in the budget earlier this year. But the strategy’s lack of action on food promotions and advertising, especially new forms of advertising to children, is hugely disappointing. 

Advertisements are becoming increasingly interactive. “Advergames” – video games which advertise a product or company – have the potential to collect and use a wide spectrum of data, enabling the programmes to refine and better target their audience. The addictive nature of games is exactly why large food companies spend money developing and placing these games. Our children form the intended audience in many of these advertising campaigns, and the implications for their health is only too plain to see.

Not only did the government’s strategy offer no real plan to clamp down on irresponsible advertising of this kind, but its unambitious approach to addressing obesity comes as a blow for localism.

 We were hoping for more devolved powers to allow metro mayors and local councils to take a tailored approach to tackling childhood obesity locally – for example, by using planning and licensing regulations to curb fast food shops along school routes. Devolved powers might also be extended to allow for stronger local controls on the location of advertising in order to reduce the exposure of school children to junk food advertisements. The government’s offering didn’t represent a solid action plan to allow bespoke solutions to a complex problem; what it did represent was a series of missed opportunities.

This watered down strategy also formed a blow for the NHS. It is well documented that the NHS has a funding and capacity crisis. The only way to save the NHS is to reduce the number of people suffering chronic illness. Shockingly, the NHS spends more on obesity, and the treatment of resulting co-morbidities, than the UK does on police and fire and judicial services combined. The estimated cost of obesity to the NHS is £5.1bn. The government’s failure to set out a proper agenda to tackle obesity is also a failure to impede the financial ramifications of this growing crisis on our under resourced health services. 

Lastly, the government’s shoddy attempt at an obesity strategy came as a particularly strong blow for London.

The capital has the highest rate of childhood obesity in England and the highest rate among any other peer city in the world. That’s right: London has higher rates of childhood obesity than Hong Kong, Paris or New York. In London almost 1 in 4 children in reception, and 1 in 3 children in year 6, are overweight or obese. This is a tragedy.

Parents have a key role to play in ensuring their children can access healthy meals, but there is no getting away from the fact that obesity takes a firmer grip on some sections of society than others. Obesity affects London’s poorer communities and BAME communities far more than it does more privileged groups. This further divides a city which already suffers from shocking health inequality. Responsibility and voluntary measures have completely failed: a stringent approach from government was necessary to stop the growing obesity crisis. 

Whilst that has failed to materialise, we have learnt a lot about the way Theresa May wants to approach localism and devolution, and about her approach to those with large vested interests. We have also learnt that this is a government who can’t be relied upon to step up to the mark and protect the health of our children.

Growing up in London is tough. You are surrounding by competing influences, a cultural mosaic and a variety of pressures, some good some bad. What the government has done is miss an opportunity to remove some pressure, help make our children healthier, and offer them a healthy, happy future.

 Dr Onkar Sahota is a member of the London Assembly for Ealing & Hillingdon, a practicing GP in West London, and Labour’s London Assembly Health Spokesperson. He tweets as @DrOnkarSahota.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.