County areas see a surge in adult obesity, as new report highlights how councils are tackling the challenge

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2023 | 15 May 2023

The number of adults in England’s county areas who are overweight or obese has increased by 1.1m in county and rural areas since 2015, new analysis from the County Councils Network reveals.

Almost two-thirds of adults – 65% – in county areas were classed as overweight or obese in 2022, up 3.1% from 2015, a new report released by the CCN today finds.

Whilst the report sets out the scale of the challenge for county councils and unitary councils in counties, it also highlights what those local authorities are doing to encourage healthier and more active lives from their residents across 16 best practice case studies. It is released ten years since public health functions were transferred from the NHS to local government.

Download the new report County Spotlight: Active and Healthy Communities here.

CCN says that as providers of public health services, as well as being responsible for leisure centres and active travel infrastructure such as cycle lanes, councils are best placed to engage with communities to support and enable residents to live healthier lives.

The report showcases their work in encouraging and enabling healthy lives, across three themes:

  • Investing and innovating in leisure services
  • Encouraging healthy lifestyles
  • Building active travel infrastructure

But the report paints a challenging picture for councils addressing what is a growing obesity issue. The number of people classed as overweight or obese across the whole of England has risen by almost 2m between 2015 and 2022, but county areas account for the vast majority of this – 58% of the country’s total.

County local authorities say they are hamstrung in their efforts to address the growing obesity issue in their areas, receiving almost half of what councils in London receive in Public Health Grant and significantly less than the England average. This ring-fenced grant is paid to councils to help fund services, such as weight loss programmes.

This year, rural and county local authorities will receive £45.74 per head from the government’s grant, 44% less than what councils London receive on average (£81.17) and 25% less than the England average of £60.71.

However, urban areas have seen much smaller increases in people who are overweight or obese. London saw a 0.8% increase (118,000) people) and urban metropolitan boroughs saw a 2.9% increase (373,000 people).

CCN is calling on the government to finally deliver a fairer share of public health funding for county areas, with the government pausing plans to introduce a new formula. If the government’s ‘leading option’ for a new formula had been introduced, this would have seen these areas’ share of public health funding increase by an estimated 2.4% on average, with some county authorities seeing their share of funding increase by a quarter.

In tackling the rising tide of adult obesity, these councils are also warning that inflation continues to threaten the viability of some leisure centres, with CCN analysis finding it will add £60m to costs for cultural and leisure facilities in county areas between 2022 and 2024.

The government did announce a £63m package for swimming pools in the March Budget, but this fund was for the whole of England with £40m of it intended for long term upgrades to energy efficiency rather than inflationary costs.

The network also argues that with inflation still in double digits, the government should keep under review the funding it has made available to support leisure centres and swimming pools.

Cllr Martin Tett, Health and Social Care Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:

“Being overweight or obese is one of the biggest determinates of poor health later in life, so council leaders recognise the preventive role healthy eating and active lives can have on wider health system. Unfortunately, the rates of people becoming overweight has increased every year in county areas since 2015, with the pandemic exacerbating this.

“We can be proud of our track record in public health, and it proves that local knows best: we have integrated public health with other local authority services such as social care, housing, and transport. As today’s report shows, there are some innovative examples of how we are supporting and enabling residents to live healthy and active lives.

“But despite this great work, the fact remains that county areas are hamstrung by how much funding for public health we receive. We are at a significant disadvantage compared to urban areas, receiving up to 44% less on average than councils in London – and this could explain why our obesity and overweight rates have increased the most over the last seven years.”

Notes to editor

  • The data below is a CCN analysis of Public Health England’s data on the percentage of adults (aged over 18) classified as overweight or obese in each individual local authority area, for the years 2015/16 and 2021/22. The total number of people overweight or obese in those areas was calculated using those percentages and compared against mid-year population estimates for 2015 and 2022.
2015/16-2021/22 2015/16 % Overweight 2021/22 % Overweight % Change 2016 Pop Overweight 18+ 2022 Pop Overweight 18+ No. Change
County Councils Network councils 61.8 64.9 3.1 12,493,900 13,630,484 1,136,583
Metropolitan Boroughs 65.5 68.4 2.9 6,054,553 6,427,782 373,229
London 54.6 55.4 0.8 3,706,184 3,824,889 118,705
Other unitary councils 62.8 65.8 3.0 4,543,360 4,915,921 372,561
England 61.4 64.0 2.6 26,698,433 28,655,848 1,957,415