Whilst I have been a vocal supporter in Parliament of the need to tackle childhood obesity, I am by no means a shining example. My childhood was fuelled by sugar and E numbers that had me running around convinced that one day I would be a professional cricketer, or the next Gary Lineker, inspired by whatever sport happened to be on the telly. The year was 1986 and politicians hadn’t given a second thought to Frosties.
Listening to Andy Burnham this weekend (over my bowl of Frosties), it occurred to me that, whilst I ate additives that would probably strip paint and enough sugar to power a small town, I was never overweight.
Politicians are missing the point on childhood obesity. The problem cannot be attributed to diet alone. When I was young, housing estates were not the sprawling concrete jungles that they often are now, but afforded their residents access to green open space. Such open space is vital for young families, especially as gardens get smaller. It would be easy to tweak our planning framework to ensure access to safe, accessible open space so that children can have the kind of active outdoor lifestyle that my generation took for granted.
As a former Councillor, I was Lead Member for Leisure on Swindon Borough Council. I was always under pressure to invest in leisure centres – and we did – but the reality is that most children visit these once or twice a year. We have to look at the facilities that are closer to home. Swindon is full of primary and secondary schools with halls and excellent sports facilities, yet after school they are locked away behind fences and hire charges. These need to be opened to local groups and residents, so kids can make best use of the facilities on their doorsteps. In concrete jungles, this is more important than ever and I have a radical suggestion for how this could be paid for.
Local authorities should merge their youth service with their leisure services. We should take the money from the empty old-fashioned youth clubs and give it to the leisure service to reach out into local school facilities. It would pay for things that young people actually want to do, be it football sessions or street dance lessons. You would then have the trained youth workers parked up to provide the special support if needed. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. The Friday night ice-skating disco targeted at Swindon teenagers regularly attracts 600 young people.
In short, politicians need to realise that childhood obesity is not a problem that can be solved by nanny state, but by ‘nudge’ state. Yes we need to educate about healthy eating, but we also need to do simple, tangible things to make an active lifestyle easily accessible to all our children. Gary Lineker is out, Bradley Wiggins is in, but the enthusiasm remains. The battle against childhood obesity will not be won over the breakfast table, but in the parks and facilities at the end of the street.
Justin Tomlinson is the Conservative MP for Swindon North.
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