Janet Street-Porter: I fear 'Healthy Towns' are just another fad

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The Independent Online

I broke my ankle at the start of the summer, and am trying to lose the weight I gained. My doctor in Yorkshire said I was "obese". This chap is what I'd call morbidly thin. Addicted to running, he spends lunchtime pounding over the moors, generally in pouring rain. He's definitely in the minority among the locals. There's nothing I don't know about losing weight – it's just a case of mind over matter. And so it is for the majority of us.

Alan Johnson's way of tackling Fat Britain is to designate "Healthy Towns" where innovative wheezes to change slothful behaviour will receive government funding, matched with local cash. Ideas range from rewarding obese parents who walk their kids to school with vouchers, to a points system where prizes are handed out for attending slimming clubs and keep-fit classes.

I don't dispute that medical conditions stemming from obesity cost the NHS a fortune. I recognise it takes a huge amount of willpower to turn down food, and even more effort to start exercising. If I, who can cook and who enjoys walking, find it hard, then I understand why busy mums feeding a family on a limited budget would opt for takeaways, and not feel like nagging their kids to get off their backsides and kick a ball about.

Like many of this government's initiatives, Healthy Towns came out of a need to solve a social problem, by wrapping proposals in trendy terminology (Change4Life) so that they seem like a fashionable new club rather than something emanating from a dull Whitehall department.

Look at the schemes in detail though, and they seem uninspired. A few more cycle lanes, a city farm, guidelines and new signs for fast food outlets selling healthier meals. Tesco and Asda promise to cut prices on healthy food, and Pepsi plans an ad campaign using sports stars to promote exercise – obviously not mentioning the tooth decay brought about by over-consumption of sugary drinks.

All of the above big ideas stand zero chance of shifting sizeable tonnage of fat off the British backside. Let's look at the role of big supermarkets. Their layouts are designed to get us buying far too much stuff we don't want or need. If you want to eat less, be healthy, and patronise local shops, small suppliers and farmers' markets. Make a list and stick to it.

Obesity stems from poverty and poor education, and instead of allocating a paltry £30m over three years, and only to targeted areas, nationwide radical plans are needed. Margaret Beckett has been drafted in to sound the death knell for the government's Eco Towns, and I expect Healthy Towns to fizzle out when the recession really hits. Is NHS cash going to be channelled into dance lessons and vouchers for fatties when people need cancer drugs and better end-of-life care?

The simplest way to deal with poor diet is to teach mums to cook, and reward them. We need a version of the Women's Institute that appeals to working-class urban mums, where basic recipes can be learnt together. Jamie Oliver reckons lack of cooking skills means a new kind of poverty and wants a Minister for Food. Catering facilities in all schools should provide freshly cooked meals, not reheated fare. School meals should be free and compulsory, and instead of Ed Balls's modest proposals schools should teach children how to cook by the age of nine.

Why not let all children cook their own school meals – now that's a radical solution! Ban fast-food outlets within a half a mile of schools. Extend the school day and fund trainers to run a daily hour of activity. Trouble is, all my ideas are too practical and too simple for ambitious government ministers who crave newspaper headlines.

The pettiness of divorce doesn't last for ever. I should know...

Guy Ritchie has been reunited with his two sons who have been in New York but has received a list of conditions from their mother, one of which allegedly requests that the kids drink Kabbalah-approved water. Dad must regularly disinfect their hands and television, newspapers and magazines are all banned. Madonna is behaving no more unreasonably than most divorcing couples – one of my ex-husbands drew up a list of restaurants I wasn't allowed to visit in case our paths crossed. Another fought a protracted battle over the ownership of an antique Mickey Mouse money box. Another split a print by an artist friend down the middle and my third husband sold furniture we had bought together to my second husband, just to annoy me. (It did). Divorce generally leads to this kind of petty behaviour, until it's all finalised. A couple of months later, they'll be friends. Look at Demi Moore and Bruce Willis – they even holiday together.

Who care's where apostrophe's go?

Lynne Truss's book Eats, Shoots & Leaves might have been a best seller, but I've never met anyone who managed to finish it... we like giving books about poor punctuation as presents, but I doubt we actually take much notice of the contents.

A survey has found that almost half of us use the apostrophe incorrectly, and one professor suggests we look up the rules every time we're confused. Sorry, life is too short – I've decided that any written version of the English language is acceptable, if it gets people reading.

The current storyline in The Archers will resonate with many listeners. Peggy, home from hospital after suffering a small stroke, is struggling to cope with husband Jack's worsening dementia. Fearful that her well-meaning daughters will remove him to a nursing home, she's concealing the extent of her difficulties.

On Radio 4's Feedback programme last week, June Spencer, who plays Peggy, movingly revealed that her own husband was losing his memory when he suffered a stroke and later died. June described her experiences to the writers of the serial, which is why the script rings true.