By Public Affairs and Policy Officer Emma Giaretto

In the Healthy High Streets strategy published in January 2018, Public Health England defined them as ‘an asset that promotes and improves the health of local residents and of the wider local community’. This definition demonstrates the potential high streets and their components have to improve our health. For this reason, ensuring our high streets are designed in a way that promotes physical activity is now of paramount importance.

A city centre without an availability of healthy nutrition options and active services such as gyms can have a dreadful impact on a local community’s health. Especially in areas with high deprivation, there has been a rise in ‘clone towns’ where small and independent businesses are undermined by a proliferation of big chain stories, betting shops, and fast food outlets.

At the moment, planning regulations make it easier to open takeaways and betting shops than leisure centres, gyms or boutique fitness studios. Under England’s National Planning Policy Framework, gyms and leisure centres can only occupy buildings designated under the ‘Class D2’ category – whereas retail outlets sit in the far more abundant ‘Class A1’ category of building – leading many operators feeling ‘shut-out’ from the high street. Additionally, changing the category of a building is a lengthy, time taking and often unsuccessful process that results in a number of spaces left empty despite physical activity providers queueing to occupy them.

A central theme of Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s keynote at ukactive’s SWEAT conference, ukactive has called for a radical overhaul of planning regulations to make it easier for fitness businesses to have a positive health impact on England’s unhealthy high streets, which she said are “drowning in a sea of betting shops, fried chicken joints and empty shop windows.”.

Adding flexibility to planning regulations and making the process of changing the category of a building from A1 to D2 an easier process, would allow physical activity businesses to add vibrancy and life to the highstreets and would enable them to have a positive impact on the health of the community.

This is also an opportunity to capitalise on the strong social benefits of physical activity to bring together communities and increase social cohesion by providing them with a strong offer of ways to be active in a group setting. Due to the rising importance of this agenda, the ever growing role physical activity businesses can play in reducing loneliness is a theme that will be explored at this year’s ukactive National Summit taking place on the 12th September.

Click here for more information on the National Summit.