Urban planners and active living proponents are furious following the NSW government’s shock decision to axe the Premier’s Council for Active Living, the principal body for active living information and strategy in NSW, in what is shaping up to be yet another misstep by the Baird Government.
Active living strategies integrate urban design and healthy outcomes, as a counter to years of urban planning based around the car as the central mode of transport, which is at least partly blamed for the obesity epidemic in Australia.
Sources in the sector said the demise of the body could hamper take-up of active living strategies by urban planners who looked to PCAL for independent, interdisciplinary advice. It could also damage NSW’s reputation as an international leader in the field.
The news comes as a landmark series was published in the Lancet this week, which found enormous benefits related to compact, active cities, and advocated for improved urban policies with a focus on walking, cycling and public transport.
The decision to axe PCAL was quietly announced in a recent communiqué to stakeholders, a copy of which was obtained by The Fifth Estate. It cited duplication of functions by other bodies as a key reason for the body being axed.
A NSW Health spokesperson told The Fifth Estate the policy context had changed significantly since PCAL began in 2004, pointing to Premier Mike Baird’s announcement last year that it was now a priority to reduce childhood obesity by five per cent in 10 years, through the NSW Healthy Eating and Active Living (HEAL) Strategy.
“An Expert Advisory Panel, an Implementation Committee and a cross-government working group have been established to drive the implementation of the HEAL Strategy,” the spokesperson said.
“This increased focus and expanded agenda has overtaken PCAL’s primary remit. A decision has therefore been made to discontinue PCAL.”
However, there is concern axing the body, which is highly respected by urban planners and built environment practitioners, will impact NSW’s ability to implement active living strategies into its cities.
Professor Susan Thompson, director of City Wellbeing in the City Futures Research Centre at the University of NSW, told The Fifth Estate it was “highly likely” this was the case, “particularly in relation to the take-up of active, healthy planning by urban planners and other non-health professionals who looked to PCAL for independent advice and research evidence in this area”.
She said PCAL had gained enormous traction in what was an interdisciplinary field incorporating built environment and health professionals. Respect and trust was very difficult to earn in such an interdisciplinary environment, she said.
“If PCAL’s work – it will only be some of PCAL’s work – is now done by bodies primarily associated with health, then there will likely be a loss of this traction and credibility with non-health organisations and entities.”
One of PCAL’s strengths, she said, was that it was seen as operating independently of government. With the Ministry of Health now in control, the status of active living becomes open to political interference.
“Preventive health / health promotion is a very small part of the state’s health budget,” Professor Thompson said. “The bulk of money is spent on looking after people when they get sick – not working to prevent them from becoming sick. If priorities change within the Ministry of Health there may be even less resources committed to this area and then the work and achievements of PCAL will be further jeopardised.”
She said the relationships built up and gains made by PCAL would be vulnerable “until health supportive environments are part and parcel of the planning system”.
Professor Thompson believes axing PCAL should be reconsidered.
“PCAL reflected very positively on the state government’s commitment to creating healthy supportive places for the people of NSW. I don’t understand why they have ended it. PCAL cost very little and due to the passionate commitment of its staff – particularly its executive officer Peter McCue – was huge value for money.”
It is understood Mr McCue recently resigned from PCAL, after being at the helm for more than 10 years.
A transition arrangement for the body is currently in place, with the body to wrap up all activity at the end of December 2016.