JANUARY is traditionally a time for mounting a challenge to beat the bulge, writes Richard Porritt

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The usual reasons for the sudden burst of activity is a simple over-indulgence during the Christmas period – all those mince pies, chocolates and hours knocking back lashings of alcohol take their toll.

And so it is that for a few weeks at least gyms will be packed, parks full and sports shops reporting a roaring trade in lurid, paunch-hugging exercise-wear.

Of course by February the vast majority of these well-meaning souls have chucked it in and returned to the erstwhile burgers, chips and beer diet.

Terrifyingly, one in three Britons will be classified as obese by 2030 – but why? For years government after government have pleaded with us to step away from the buns and instead satiate our ever-increasing hunger with a carrot or banana.

Who could forget the five-a-day mantra Labour drilled into the nation or the plasticine characters currently seen running, jumping and cycling across our screens? Well, it is not working - or at least it is not working for some.

It seems the ‘live healthy’ message is getting through to the middle and upper classes while those troublesome working class folk still insist on Chinese take-aways and special brew for breakfast – or at least that is what it appears Tory-run Westminster Council believe.

Bosses last week heralded their radical masterplan to tackle obesity, cut NHS bills and reduce benefits once councils fully take over the public health brief from central government in April – if you are fat we are cutting your benefits.

Now Westminster enjoy being a Tory test council but surely even Eric Pickles has not got the stomach for this one?

Junior Health Minister and Central Suffolk and North Ipswich MP, Dan Poulter, believes instead of beating people down a dress size with a big stick councils need to better target the flow of information and education.

“Although the efforts of previous governments in getting education about healthy lifestyles out to the public do not appear to have been that successful, the proposals by Westminster Council are rather Draconian,” he said.

“The lifestyles of those people in more affluent demographics has improved over time and now I believe we need to target better those who are still struggling.

“Doctors find people who have a health shock themselves – or when someone close to them does – change the way they live whether it be stopping smoking, cutting back on drinking or watching what they eat.

“Councils are closer to the ground on this issue and can educate young people in school or even community groups like young mothers.

“We continue to work with the food industry in an attempt to see how they can also play their part and I believe that is very important. There are things we can do and will look to do nationally but I think councils can make a really big impact in rooting out those who need the help better.

“Current projections suggest that by 2030 a third of people in the UK will be overweight – frankly that is a terrifying prospect.”

And the idea gets a similar response in Essex from Clacton MP Douglas Carswell: “This idea is nothing short of North Korean – what next? State-sponsored public exercise classes? I am all for localism and part of me says ‘good luck Westminster’ but no-one is born to be told how to live their life by a politician.

“Labour’s Andy Burnham supposedly wants to ban Frosties cereal to improve the nation’s health. Well I know if I give my kids too much sugar all the time it is bad for them – but these are personal responsibilities.

“By all means attempt to get people off benefits – make them go out and get a job. But forcing them to exercise is, on the face of it, rather backward. The people in Westminster voted for this type of council and they have got it. But I will not be supporting any similar moves in my constituency.”

And the councillor with responsibility for public health in Suffolk, Colin Noble, also agrees Westminster has gone too far.

He said: “Personally, I think this is a dreadful idea. The role of the state should be to guild people to help them make the right decisions. It should not force people to do things. I see the bills the NHS picks up for people who smoke, drink and eat badly. But that is a price worth paying to protect personal freedoms in my opinion.”

Thank goodness those in power in the East are not as daft as those in Westminster.

The idea of withholding welfare from people because they are unhealthy should be deemed quite abhorrent in a civilised country such as Britain. Governments and councils should be doing all they can to help people be healthier – and indeed to cut benefit bills – these plans are an escalation of the nanny state the Tories so often and vigorously attacked. Thankfully their apparent bid to please the current Conservatives in N0. 10, Westminster’s fawning council bosses appear to have annoyed rather than impressed.

Mr Carswell’s comments strike a cord – this is closer to a Communist regime than the freedoms a hands-off state should afford the public.

Westminster have been blinded by a desire to cut harder, faster and with more brutality than any other authority but even in the age of austerity money is not everything.

The council is akin to the annoying child in class who always has his hand up first when asked a probing question by the teacher – but does not always have the right answer.

• Richard Porritt is on Twitter: @Porritt

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