Atkins has been drafted in by health officials in north-east England to tackle obesity caused by “traffic controller-designed” housing estates

The firm has been appointed by quango Public Health North East to analyse the effects of estate design policies on residents’ wellbeing, and to look for ways to promote walking and cycling.

The move comes after health secretary Alan Johnson launched a campaign against “fat towns” where the design makes physical exercise difficult.

Geoff Gardner, the management consultant at Atkins leading the project, said 20-year-old government policies to fight crime and manage traffic had created a string of estates built around dead-end streets, which encourage people to use cars.

He said: “There are still people who think footpaths equal crime and use that as an opportunity to build an extra five houses on the plot rather than a footpath.”

Some people still think footpaths equal crime, and build extra houses instead

Geoff Gardner, Atkins

North-east England suffers from some of the highest obesity rates in the UK. Among children, almost 8% of boys and 10% of girls are said to be obese.

Gardner said health bodies could improve the statistics through measures such as supporting congestion charges as well as more hands-on approaches. “Experts help people give up cigarettes and we want to use them to make people give up cars, which are just as addictive and hard to quit,” he said.

Cynthia Bartley, project manager at Public Health North East, said: “Transport initiatives can play an enormous part in improving an individual’s health and we want to explore how this can happen in the North-east.”