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Urban health

A joined-up approach on urban health: our priorities for the next Government

14 June 2024
8 min read

Four in five people living in the UK live in towns and cities. They are places where poverty and affluence sit side by side, and where people who live only streets apart can be worlds apart in their health.

This is because poverty and ill health are deeply connected.

But cities are also the best places to break the link between poverty and ill health, offering an opportunity to act on a range of factors in a concentrated place and at a neighbourhood, borough and city-level.

This is why we’re calling on the next Government to support approaches that address the interconnected drivers of health equity.

Managing health goes beyond healthcare services. The places we live and work play an important part in creating healthy environments.

Too often, the links between these drivers are not recognised. This is why the new Government should create a central coordination body – the Joint Urban Health Unit – to lead on key issues which intersect departmental priorities and drive progress towards healthier, more equitable cities.

The Joint Urban Health Unit should have representatives from Government, urban communities and industry – recognising that the products businesses produce and their footprints in communities have a strong impact on people’s health.

The Unit would provide a space to collaborate and deliver policies that people living in urban places have a stake in, and build on initiatives like the Net Zero Council or Joint Air Quality Unit which drive cross-government working.

We believe the Unit could immediately prioritise policies on three key drivers of health in cities: access to healthy and affordable food, the air we breathe, and the homes we live in:

1. Reduce the appeal and availability of high fat, salt and sugar foods through restrictions on advertising and better enforcement of existing legislation

Through our Children’s Health and Food Programme, we know that healthy food needs to be both affordable and accessible.

Too often cities are flooded by unhealthy food and drink options, but the good news is there are new and existing tools available for policymakers to take quick and effective action.

While legislation limits advertising high fat, salt and sugar products on television, brands are saturating urban spaces with advertising targeting young audiences. These are more often than not in neighbourhoods where people survive on low incomes.

Some local authorities have stepped-up and banned high fat, salt and sugar advertising on council-owned spaces, but we’re calling on Government to step up and protect children across the country by implementing a nationwide ban on high fat, salt and sugar advertising on publicly-owned sites.

Meanwhile, we know healthy foods are three times more expensive than unhealthy foods per calorie, and a third of food and drink advertising is for the least healthy foods, compared to 1% on the healthiest.

Regulations brought in from 2021 supposedly limit how unhealthy foods can be promoted and marketed, but these regulations are often ignored. Enforcing these regulations in full, with enough capacity for enforcement, should be a priority for the next Government.

2. Incentivise businesses to reduce polluting emissions by introducing a business rates relief system that encourages tracking and reducing emissions that are harmful to health

Air pollution has a wide range of health effects including respiratory illness, an increased risk of cancer, heart diseases, and negative birth outcomes.

The health effects of air pollution are not experienced equally. Children, older people, people in lower income areas, and people from ethnically minoritised communities are all disproportionately affected.

Businesses have an important role to play in reducing air pollution – with approximately one third of emissions coming from industrial and commercial sources in urban areas.

Financially incentivising businesses to calculate and reduce their emissions will improve air quality in towns and cities and help the Government to meet its air quality and net zero commitments.

3. Safeguard the rights of tenants through new legislation

Insecure, poor-quality housing has a huge impact on people’s physical and mental health – and people from ethnically minoritised groups are much more likely to have homes in the precarious private rented sector.

This is why we’re calling for legislation that:

  • abolishes Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions
  • doubles the notice period for rent increases
  • makes periodic tenancies the new standard
  • outlaws bans on renting to families with children or in receipt of benefits
  • creates a national landlord’s register and introduces an ombudsman to help protect the rights of tenants.

Creating healthy, equitable urban places will take time – but these policies are easy to deliver and are vital first steps to creating a joined-up vision for urban health. This means making communities central to a strategy for health that breaks down social and economic inequalities and makes urban places healthier for everyone that lives in them – no matter their background.

Peter Babudu

Get in touch

If you’d like to find out more about our priorities for urban health, get in touch with me.

Peter Babudu