Food increasingly on the menu at local elections

The most recent local elections have seen several mayoral candidates across the political spectrum make food-related pledges. In this blog we highlight examples and explore the growing power and influence of metro mayors. 

A polling station sign. Credit: Lazyllama: Shutterstock

Voters in England elected councillors and mayors in 107 local authorities and chose the Mayor of London and nine other metro mayors on Thursday the 2nd of May. Mayoral elections took place in London, West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Tees Valey. Mayoral elections also took place for the first time in the East Midlands, the North East and York and North Yorkshire.

School food

In London, Sadiq Khan has been elected to serve his third term as mayor. In his mayoral campaign, he announced his intention to a permanent commitment to free school meals for all London primary school children. Mr Khan’s win on Thursday seals a hot, nutritious school meals for 287,000 children in primary school across the capital over the next four years.

In West Midlands, a huge new Combined Authority (CA) of 2.8 million people, with a £1.1 billion 30-year investment fund and powers over transport, housing and planning, education and skills and strategy and innovation, mayoral hopeful Richard Parker pledged to provide 66,000 kids with free school meals if voted in and "demand" the cash from central government. In the run up to the election, Richard Parker teamed up with Coventry MP Zarah Sultana, who is campaigning for free school meals for all children in state primary schools at a national level. His victory in the elections opens up the prospect of a higher profile campaign for school meals for more children living in poverty.

Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, re-elected at these local elections to serve a third term, has publicly backed calls for a review of national free school meal policy, showing how mayors can use their ‘soft power’ to address issues outside their formal remit and put pressure on national government.

Kim McGuinness, the newly elected Mayor for the North East Combined Authority, has also backed the campaign for free school meals for all primary school children, but has pointed to the lack of mayoral resources to be able to deliver. She said, "I was on free school meals and we still have a significant number of children eligible for free school meals. We really need long term changes, so that it is no longer acceptable for kids in this region or anywhere else to grow up in poverty."

No other metro mayor has committed to roll out free school meals for more children in their area, despite 900,000 children living in poverty not qualifying for free school meals in England. At a local authority level, before the commitment to roll out school meals to all primary school children across London, only five London boroughs provided meals for all primary school pupils and three London boroughs operate expanded secondary school meal programmes.

This is hardly surprising, given the huge financial commitment required at a local level at a time of increased demands on local services driven by an ageing population, limited budgets and stubborn levels of inflation. However, will other metro mayors come in support of a much needed national review, putting pressure on this and the next government? With a growing number of elected metro mayors now calling for a national funding settlement to deliver school meals, pressure for policy change within the Labour party will no doubt continue to escalate.

While paying for school meals for more pupils may not be a viable option for most local authorities, there’s plenty they can do to increase uptake of free school meals and improve access to food. At least six councils have now implemented an ‘opt-out / right to object’ free school meals auto-enrolment process, following Sheffield’s example. In Lewisham, this has helped identify 500 eligible families not claiming free school meals, mostly speaking English as an additional language and from non-White ethnic backgrounds, generating £1.2 million in pupil premium funding for schools in a single year. We’ve recently explored experiences, challenges and resources from networks and local authorities driving uptake of Free School Meals through opt-out automatic enrolment schemes in this blog.

Many more councils are actively working to improve school meal provision and using their planning powers to restrict hot food takeaways.

Healthier food advertising policy across transport network 

North East is a new CA covering two million people, with powers over transport, skills, housing, finance and economic development. There, several mayoral candidates pledged they would restrict unhealthy food advertising on public transport. Independent candidate Jamie Driscoll, was first to commit to switch the spotlight away from unhealthy foods and drinks, quickly followed by Labour’s Kim McGuinness and then the Green Party candidate. Kim McGuiness’s win opens the prospect for a second transport network to enact a healthier advertising policy.

The healthier food advertising policy has now been in place across the Transport for London network for the last five years since Sustain was commissioned to support the Mayor of London to write and implement it. Independent academic research demonstrates that it has led to Londoners purchasing 1,000 fewer calories from unhealthy foods and drinks per week, and is expected to prevent almost 100,000 cases of obesity, 3,000 cases of diabetes and 2,000 cases of heart disease, saving London’s NHS over £200 million, while maintaining advertising revenues. Since then, Sustain has supported 13 other English local governments to successfully sign off on these policies. Close to 150 others (nearly 40% of the UK) are consulting Sustain with implementing their own policies in their local area.

Will other CAs with powers over local transport networks such as Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, South Yorkshire, West Midlands or West Yorkshire follow?

Addressing food insecurity

Andy Burnham, elected as the Mayor of Greater Manchester for a third term, launched a Food Security Action Network and a Food Poverty Action Plan post-covid with actions to increase uptake of Healthy Start, the provision of debt and welfare advice alongside food provision, and the appointment of a poverty lead in each council and in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. His re-appointment is likely to see this approach and drive continue.

Other CAs including Liverpool City Region oversee the distribution of Household Support Fund to local authorities in their area showing how they can use their convening power to facilitate joint working.

Jamie Driscoll, placed second behind the winner Kim McGuiness in the mayoral race in the North East, pledged to leave no child behind in his campaign and “continue to campaign against the cruel two-child benefit cap that keeps 45,000 north-east kids in poverty”.

At a local level, action to tackle food insecurity has become a key function in many local Public Health teams, in collaboration with local partners including community and voluntary sector organisations and food businesses. Councils across the country are adopting a ‘cash first approach’ to food insecurity, providing cash payments to people in financial crisis, and wrap around support e.g. debt and welfare advice. Additional actions include becoming Living Wage Employers; removing barriers to breastfeeding; promoting food access for older, disabled, people of colour and asylum seekers and improving the uptake of Healthy Start.

Addressing the climate and nature emergency

Local authorities spend over £70 billion on procurement each year and manage 1.3 million acres of land. Candidates should set targets for food and farming in the context of their climate emergency plans by supporting local food businesses, serving climate-friendly meals in council settings, reducing waste, and promoting allotments, community food growing and agroecological farming, particularly in council-owned land. However, our analysis from 2003 and 2022 shows too few councils taking action.

Healthy rivers are becoming an influential voting issue for almost half of the British public. The results of a consumer survey, commissioned by River Action, show a surge of public concern over the dire state of Britain’s rivers and waterway. River pollution has been seized upon by the Liberal Democrats and Greens as a key challenge to other parties in parts of the country.

Intensive agriculture is the main cause of river pollution incidents in England and is responsible for more pollution entering rivers than water companies. Our recent Stink or Swim shows how just ten corporations produce more waste than the UK’s ten largest cities.

Growing the local food economy

While strategy and innovation and developing the local economy is very much within the powers of metro mayors, we are seeing far less focus and pledges on growing the local food economy. However, the food system employs one in seven UK workers, contributing over £120 billion to the economy. The food and drink industry can be an engine for economic development and building a good food movement.

The North-East Mayoral Combined Authority Deeper Devolution Deal is unique in this respect. The North East deal includes the desire to “create a regional food covenant or charter to help boost local production”. It also includes the ambition to “deliver an agri-food and drink event in the region in 2024/25 to showcase innovation, scale, and growth potential of industry in the region.”

West of England Combined Authority is another case in point and provides business and technical support for the West of England food and drink sector.

Mayors should commit to investing in local food infrastructure such as markets or food hubs, providing training and advice and support for farmers and food SMEs and helping to establish new markets for fresh food.

Direction of travel

Because food plays a part in so many public services, from public health to school meals, it is crucial mayors and council leaders use the potential to achieve multiple goals, using levers such as planning or economic development policy, to achieve more with less.

Interest in taking a place-based approach to food has increased substantially over the last decade, with over 95 places now members of the Sustainable Food Places network and councils in those areas being actively involved in their food partnership and taking action to address the most pressing issues in our food system.

Before these local elections, CAs represented 41% of England’s population, 49% of its economic output, and 14% of the land area. With the new CAs formed 2nd of May and the new devolution deals planned for 2025, CAs will represent 57%, 60%, and 42% respectively.

Metro mayors are already playing a key role to address food issues and will undoubtedly continue to play an even bigger role in the future.

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