Councils in charge of healthy lifestyle drive

Author: Nick Triggle, BBC News   |  

Councils are to be put in charge of encouraging healthier lifestyles under plans to be unveiled by ministers.

Local public health directors will be moved out of the NHS and into local government as part of the shake-up.

The government believes the wider remit of councils in areas such as housing, transport and leisure puts them in a stronger position to tackle smoking, drinking and obesity in England.

A ringfenced pot of NHS money will also be set aside to help.

The protection of the public health budget – the first time this has been done since the 1800s – is considered essential because of the cuts councils are facing following October’s Spending Review.

To support local government, the Department of Health’s public health white paper will also propose creating a new public health service that will provide advice and support on issues such as health protection, nutrition and treatment.

A health inclusion unit will be set up as well to oversee the drive to reduce health inequalities, which have widened over the past decade.

Extra money – dubbed health premiums – will be given to the poorest areas to help tackle some of the most entrenched problems.

But details on how the government aims to tackle individual problems, such as obesity, smoking and drinking, will not be spelt out until the new year.

Both the Association of Directors of Public Health and Local Government Association have welcomed the impending changes.

And Health Secretary Andrew Lansley told the BBC the new system would have a “real impact on improving health”.

He said: “Health is not just about the quality of healthcare. It’s probably at least as much about the quality of people’s lives – the environment, the housing, their education and employment.”

He said the strategy was intended to improve the health of the nation and reduce health inequalities.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “We have got to arrive at a point where politicians stop just telling people how to be healthy but actually help them to do it, which is about positive steps on supporting people on things like physical activity as well as necessary interventions.”

The public health White Paper will say the key to encouraging healthier behaviour lies in creating the right environment and then “nudging” people into making different choices.

Examples of this include schemes such as incentivising children to walk to school and providing more support through nurses and health visitors to encourage new mothers to breastfeed.

Employers will also be told they have an important role in helping and supporting staff as well.

Mr Lansley has in the past been critical of what he has said has been the lecturing tone of previous public health drives.

He has also been keen to stress that the solutions do not necessarily require greater regulation.

In fact, the White Paper is expected to make reference to a “responsibility deal” that could be launched in the new year which will see industry sign up to schemes to encourage healthier behaviour.

Angela Mawle, of the UK Public Health Association, which has members in both local government and the NHS, said: “Councils have the potential to make a real difference, but it important public health directors are given the power to influence what is happening.

“I also don’t think we should turn our back entirely on regulation. It still has a place.”