|A healthy high street - complete with 'unhealthy' sugar!|
The 'Health on the High Street' report from the Royal Society of Public Health starts off well with a statement that, for once, actually has some connection to actual public health rather than the regular nannying fussbucketry we associated with the profession:
A healthy high street environment is one in which there is clean air, less noise, more connected neighbourhoods, things to see and do, and a place where people feel relaxed. The architecture of the high street would be such that it fosters active urban design principles including pavements, seating, shade and shelter. Above all the high street would provide a safe environment where the public don’t live in fear of crime,violence, harassment, or accidents.
It's hard to take issue with this as an argument. Firstly it's absolutely about the public realm, the environment in which people go about our everyday tasks and in which we celebrate the good things of life. And this is the concern - if there is one - of public health. But just as importantly these things - less pollution, places to sit, low crime and a mix of indoor and outdoor - are what make for successful town centres.
Sadly though the Royal Society of Public Health doesn't stop with saying high streets should be clean, green and safe. Turn the page and that nannying fussbucketry hits you in the face. We are presented with yet another judgemental dismissal of things other people (mostly other people from lower social classes) enjoy.
The businesses on a healthy high street would not only enable basic needs, including access to affordable healthy food and affordable financial services to be met, but would actively promote healthy choices. There would be access to essential services whether that is health services, cultural amenities, places to be active, leisure centres or green spaces, for example. A healthy high street would also create opportunities to minimise harm whether that is ensuring that health is included as a condition for licensing and a consideration for planning consent.
We have arrived at the crunch. The health high street isn't about a clean, green, safe space at all but is rather about public authorities - through licensing or planning controls - deciding what sort of business is fit to grace our town centres. To justify this particular branch of health fascism the Royal Society of Public Health has cooked up some of its own pseudo-science - what they call 'the Richter scale of health'. This scale (unlike the actual Richter Scale) is an entirely subjective, opinion-based scale. A business can score somewhere between -8 and +8 on the basis of researchers allocating a score from -2 to +2 against four 'areas of health': encourages healthy lifestyle choices; promotes social interaction; allows greater access to health care services and/or health advice; and promotes mental well-being.
Now you'll have noticed that most high street retailers will score zero (since this, our researchers tell us, is what is given where 'the category is not relevent to the outlet'). Your typical shoe shop, assuming we're not running a campaign on the health impact of high heels, is entirely neutral on matters relating to health. Mostly because it's a place where you go to buy shoes. And the same goes for building societies, charity shops, clothing shops, hairdressers and hardware stores.
As a measure then this is worse than useless. Unless of course your objective is to use your status and authority (this is a 'Royal Society' after all) to promote a given political agenda around your intrusive and judgemental definition of public health. It will come as no surprise to discover that the 'research' identifies betting shops, tanning shops, payday lenders and fast food takeaways as the dark evil on the high street, the causes of unhealthy high streets. And the healthy stuff - leisure centres, health centres, pharmacists, health clubs, museums and pubs (the inclusion of which will be giving various in the Church of Public Health palpitations - in the authors defence they did manage to find a picture from inside a pub that didn't show anyone actually drinking*).
The authors then go on to set out in lurid detail the evils of gambling, burgers, fake tans and high interest borrowing before settling down to create a little ranking of the most and least 'healthy' high streets in England. Unsurprisingly the resulting ranking show that high streets in northern towns where people like a flutter and eat take-away kebabs are much more unhealthy than high streets in the nice, comfortable market towns where the researchers and their friends are likely to live. This time it's Preston that gets the devil's mark resulting in the usual slew of sneering broadsheet articles and this from the local paper:
OFFICIAL: Preston has unhealthiest city centre in the UK
Followed by people from Preston agreeing:
Coun John Swindells, deputy leader of Preston City Council, said: “The results of this survey mirror our own concerns. Indeed the Royal Society for Public Health is campaigning to allow local authorities greater planning powers to deal with this issue. It is something the council, along with 92 other local authorities, has and will continue to lobby the Government for."
This is the saddest thing about the report - not that a bunch of London-based nannying fussbuckets has produced 'research' designed to show the awfulness of northern cities and towns but that the leaders of those places fall over eachother to say just how much they're doing to make Preston more like Salisbury (as if that was either achievable or desirable). If places like Preston and Middlesbrough - number two in this particular ranking of evilness - are doing badly it's got more to do with the relative poverty of the place than it has to to with whether the council has powers to ban betting shops or fast food takeaways.
Finally the report goes into full 'something must be done' mode listing a veritable cornucopia of fussbucketry. This opens with planning and licensing controls including specific powers around health as a reason for refusing a licence (having been nice about pubs earlier in the report they include alcohol licensing in this demand) as well as a general power to stop 'clustering' - presumably that wouldn't apply to Bond Street or Saville Row.
We then get assorted nudges and bans (including the entirely stupid proposal for a ban on displays of vaping products) before the entirely predictable for differential business rates, mandatory health warnings and limits on stakes all while repeating the familiar litany of lies about these products and services ('crack cocaine of gambling'). All of this is deeply depressing and reminds us that too many - the leader of Preston City Council for one - are taken in by this New Puritan agenda of public health.
This research (truly awful and unscientific research) will be rolled out again and again - by the LGA, by the BBC, by assorted groups of fussbuckets - to support the argument for ever more restrictions on who can do what and where. It will be accompanied by the continuing sound of moaning as high streets continue to decline - with the sort of outlets derided here forming the last vestiges of a town centre economy. And rather than look for a completely different approach, we'll trog along behind the health fascists and control freaks as they nail the last few nails into what's left of our high streets.
*Although the eagle-eyed will note that it's a very old photograph as it contains images of smoking!