There is surely something deeply ironic about the history behind NHS England’s recent announcement that the government will be creating 10 new towns across the UK, all designed to encourage people to exercise more, eat better and live independently into old age.
It’s certainly not a new idea, although the term ‘obesogenic environments’ might have seemed very alien to George and Richard Cadbury back in 1893.
Back then, the idea of creating a town that would provide a healthy and positive living environment for working families was a natural evolution of the Victorian philanthropic movement, where industrialists like the Cadburys drew upon their Quaker principles in a neat move that not only secured their businesses’ future but also ensured their employees would benefit from a healthy (and, by definition, productive), lifestyle.
In fact, in many ways today’s healthy towns pale in comparison with the ambitions of villages such as Bournville, where the Cadbury brothers decided to relocate their chocolate factory and its workforce. Radical ideas that we now tout as innovative were part of an entrepreneurial force that even Richard Branson may now see as way left field.
High wages, good working conditions, pension schemes, joint works committees and a staff medical service may not seem too far away from current working conditions, but at a time when poor housing was literally killing people in expanding urban communities, Bournville’s houses for the workforce were not only more spacious but also had large gardens and modern interiors designed by the resident architect, William Alexander Harvey.
It didn’t stop there. The Bournville village had parks and recreation areas designed to encourage swimming, walking and outdoor sports and improve the workers’ wellbeing. Schools, hospitals, museums, public baths and reading rooms followed through the Bournville Village Trust, set up in 1900, and there was even an outdoor swimming lido with water from a natural spring.
Back in the present day, NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens says: “We want to see neighbourhoods and adaptable home designs that make it easier for older people to continue to live independently wherever possible.”
The new towns will be funded through council budgets and ‘private partners’ and will incorporate a raft of digitally based infrastructures that will contribute to healthier lifestyles, along with dementia-friendly wider streets and fewer tripping hazards.
A conspicuous lack of fast food outlets will present residents with a new culinary challenge (and could lead to a healthy black market in home delivery takeaways from the nearest towns?), and the future will be healthier and happier for everyone living there.
Not that anyone should be critical of such ideas.
The Cadbury brothers clearly did something right. Not only were they the fathers of a global (albeit unhealthy) brand, the Bournville village has been heralded as a model of residential development, and the company remains one of Birmingham’s main employers today.
And all without thinking up the perfectly crafted, all-encompassing phrase ‘obesogenic environment’.