NHS will design new housing to fight obesity and improve elderly care.

NHS project managers are to guide the development of ten towns and villages with a view to discouraging obesity and helping older people to stay independent

“Healthy towns” housing nearly 200,000 people will be built across the country as the NHS starts urban planning for the first time.

Virtual care homes would be created by having houses connected by wi-fi, allowing elderly residents to speak to carers and to one another. Easier- to-navigate roads with more signs would create “dementia-friendly” communities.

Adventure playgrounds would be a standard feature of street designs to make walking more fun for children, and fast-food-free zones would be enforced near schools.

Under the scheme, NHS project managers would guide the development of ten towns and villages, containing 76,000 homes and about 170,000 residents, to discourage obesity and help older people to stay independent. Patients would be encouraged to consult their GPs via Skype; and houses with built-in communications to hospitals and surgeries could offer an alternative to “institutional” care homes.

Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, wants the developments to be modern versions of the Edwardian garden cities. They represent a “golden opportunity” to show that design can improve health, he said, and other towns would be encouraged to copy the approach if it works.

More than 100 councils and developers applied for NHS help under Mr Stevens’s scheme and ten have been chosen, from Devon in the south to Darlington in the north of England. Detailed plans are expected within six months as the NHS works with councillors and developers to get planning permission. Building should begin by the end of the year.

Mr Stevens said: “We want children to have places where they want to play with friends and can safely walk or cycle to school rather than just exercising their fingers on video games.

“We want to see neighbourhoods and adaptable home designs that make it easier for older people to continue to live independently wherever possible. And we want new ways of providing new types of digitally enabled local health services that share physical infrastructure and staff with schools and community groups.”

After George Osborne, the chancellor, promised two years ago to make Ebbsfleet in Kent the first garden city in a century, Mr Stevens decided to seize on the project as a way of helping people to live well. Avoiding ill health caused by laziness, obesity and isolation is vital to saving the NHS from bankruptcy, he believes.

Developers will be expected to pay for the new towns, with the NHS contributing only staff time. However, NHS England has made the case that towns that show they are taking health seriously would be more attractive places to live, making it easier to sell the new houses.

Schemes in the US have attempted to get health experts more involved in planning. Towns in France, Belgium and the Netherlands have designed streets to encourage walking and cycling but Mr Stevens’s is thought to be the first national programme that would build healthier towns from scratch.

He said: “As these neighbourhoods and towns are built we’ll kick ourselves if in ten years’ time we look back having missed the opportunity to ‘design out’ the obesogenic environment, and ‘design in’ health and wellbeing.”

Labour tried to create “healthy towns” by funding cycling schemes and urban gardens rather than using the planning system. Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said that this move had failed but added: “This second attempt could be a blueprint for future people-friendly communities.”

Izzi Seccombe, from the Local Government Association, said that the proposals were an opportunity “radically to reshape health and care services”.

Industry supports the idea but wants to weigh up the costs on a case-by-case basis. The Home Builders Federation said that it was “committed to working with all parties interested in finding practical models that deliver more, high-quality homes in an environment in which people want to live”.

Healthy new homes

Darlington, Co Durham – 2,500 new homes
A group of “virtual care homes” will link directly into a digital care hub

Whitehill and Bordon, Hampshire – 3,350 homes
Campus will adapt to needs of long-term sick

Cranbrook, Devon – 8,000 homes
Cranbrook will look at how healthy lifestyles can be taught in schools

Whyndyke Farm, Fylde, Lancashire – 1,400 homes

Halton Lea, Runcorn, Cheshire – 800 homes

Northstowe, Cambridgeshire – 10,000 homes

Bicester, Oxfordshire – 1,300 new homes

Barton Park, Oxfordshire — 885 homes

Barking Riverside, London – 10,800 homes

Ebbsfleet Garden City, Kent – 15,000 homes
The first garden city for 100 years