Background Almost 20% of children in England are living with obesity by the end of primary school, with marked and growing inequalities driven by increasing obesity prevalence in more deprived areas. Neighbourhood environments are upstream determinants of childhood weight status. Cultural, Environmental and Planning (CEP) services delivered by local authorities (LAs) in England include various services that contribute to these local environments, e.g. leisure centres, parks, playgrounds, libraries, community safety and environmental protection. Children in deprived areas potentially benefit most from the provision of these universal services. Spending on CEP services has been cut dramatically over the past decade, especially in more deprived areas. Given the potential link between these services and childhood obesity, we examined whether recent cuts in LA spending on CEP services are associated with trends and inequalities in obesity.
Methods We compiled annual data (2009–2017) on CEP spending in 324 LAs in England, from Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government reports. Obesity prevalence data for Year 6 children were obtained from the National Child Measurement Programme, for LAs and Middle-layer Super Output Areas (MSOAs). Following descriptive and cross-sectional analyses, we used fixed-effects panel regression to estimate associations between CEP spending and obesity prevalence, within LAs over time, adjusting for potential confounding by local economic conditions and spending on other public services. Models included an interaction term between area deprivation (2015 IMD) and year to account for differential background trends in obesity across deprivation levels. We tested for effect modification by deprivation and, using MSOA-level obesity data, explored associations between spending and within-LA obesity inequalities.
Results In unadjusted cross-sectional analyses, areas with higher CEP spending had higher prevalence of obesity, reflecting the strong social gradient in childhood obesity and the higher levels of central government funding allocated to more deprived areas. Deprivation, other spend, and local economic conditions explained this relationship. In the fixed-effects analysis, designed to isolate average within-area change in obesity associated with changing spend, we observed a 0.10 percentage point increase in obesity prevalence for each 10% reduction in spend (95%CI: 0.04,0.15; p<0.001), but this disappeared after accounting for differential background trends in obesity across deprivation levels (-0.02; 95%CI:-0.07,0.03; p=0.39). Similar was observed for obesity inequalities.
Conclusion CEP spending levels may influence local childhood obesity risk, but the increasing prevalence and widening inequalities in obesity of the past decade seem to have been driven by factors other than CEP spending cuts, that are also unevenly distributed across deprivation levels.
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