Councils are ignoring planning guidelines that keep fast-food premises away from schools. Just one local authority has written the policy into its development plans.
Most councils say their plans were drawn up before the guidelines came into effect, but they have not amended the plans to incorporate the policy and are not committing to doing so in future.
Some say they cannot adopt the guidelines, because they may conflict with EU or national competition law.
Parents behind a campaign to establish “no fry zones” around schools say planners must be forced to take the issue seriously, if the country’s looming obesity crisis is to be averted.
Group spokesman Philip Moyles said: “These guidelines have been in place since 2013 and they’ve been ignored. There is no desire, at local level, to implement them, so really they don’t do anything.”
The Irish Examiner surveyed the 31 city and county councils for compliance with the Department of Environment’s local area plan guidelines, which state “exposure of children to the promotion of foods high in fat, salt or sugar should be reduced” by “careful consideration of the location of fast-food outlets in the vicinity of schools and parks”.
Just one, Wexford County Council, has a policy on the issue — its ban on fast-food outlets within 200m of schools predates the departmental guidelines.
Kilkenny, Clare, Kerry, Louth, Kildare, and Dún Laoghaire Rathdown said they would adopt the guidelines when they reviewed their local-area plans, and Cork county, Waterford, Westmeath, and south Dublin would consider the idea.
The rest gave no commitment and Dublin City and Wicklow County Councils said they did not think they could adopt the guidelines, because they would contravene other regulations.
Dublin said: “National retail planning guidelines advise the planning system should not be used to inhibit competition.”
Wicklow said the guidelines were too vague, as they did not define “vicinity” and discriminated against fast-food outlets, compared to sellers of confectionery, ice-cream, and sugary goods.
“In the absense of clear guidelines... it is not known if any objectives adopted by individual local authorities would be legal,” the council said.
The issue came to prominence during the battle by three schools in Greystones, Co Wicklow, to prevent a McDonalds opening just 30m away. McDonald’s got planning permission, which survived appeal, after inspectors said objections based on the departmental guidelines were irrelevant, as Wicklow County Council had not adopted them.
The fast-food giant was only halted last month, when objectors announced plans for a High Court challenge and site owners, Lidl, withdrew from the land-transfer deal.
Mr Moyles, one of the objectors, agreed the guidelines were too vague. “They should state what ‘vicinity’ means. We’re looking for a 400m exclusion zone. It’s just far enough to be a deterrent to students on their lunch break, or while they’re waiting for the bus home.
“It’s a common-sense distance, in that it’s not going to put the fast-food providers out of business, but it’s enough to protect our children.”
National studies show one quarter of Irish nine-year-olds are overweight and the World Health Organisation says Ireland is on course to be the fattest country in Europe by 2030.
Mr Moyles said local authorities were reluctant to face down big business, but the approach was shortsighted.
“Irish Heart Foundation research puts the cost of dealing with obesity at €4.3bn a year by 2020, so this is a national issue. Using planning regulations is only one measure, but it’s a step in the right direction and it costs hardly anything to put specific guidelines in place to make sure that planners make decisions responsibly.”
Dr Eva Orsmond, who appeared on RTÉ's Operation Transformation, said that fast food outlets are not the only cause of childhood obesity, and it is up to parents to educate children about healthy eating.
"This would basically mean that if we go with these types of laws, we should basically then make sure that there are no shops near schools," she said.
"Just saying that McDonalds, or any other fry shop, is the cause of childhood obesity… I think we are missing the bigger picture."
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