Emerging urban food governance: the case of London

Food policy has not usually represented a mainstream domain for urban planning. However, as Professor Kevin Morgan argued now ten years ago, this “puzzling omission” is not justifiable anymore given the multifunctional character of the food system with his effects on different policy sectors and the now recognized belief that it cannot be automatically relegated to the rural policy domain (2010: 341). Accordingly, Thomas Forster et Al. collected best practices from cities around the world to demonstrate the breadth of food policy and programmatic work that is occurring in urban areas, proposing a wide range of solutions for Mayors (2015). Their collection of policy solutions showed how “cities are moving towards an integrated approach to food systems and there are wide interest and experimentation in inter-departmental institutional mechanisms” (Forster et Al. 2015:17)

London Mayor Sadiq Khan buying food in a London Market (source Sustain)

In this context, the city of London shows a complex governance system (Travers 2002: 787) which at a first sight does not seem to leave much space to food policy. Thus, London has a two-tier structure with 32 boroughs plus the City of London representing local interests and the Greater London Authority (GLA), consisting of the Mayor and the Assembly, in charge of the London region (Travers 2018: 340). The London boroughs are responsible for local services delivery. In terms of policy competences, they run social care, environmental policies, road management, public health, social housing, waste management and they can supervise local schools (Travers 2018: 348). Whilst the Mayor establishes the strategic framework for the boroughs and the London plan, he also holds executive powers over transport – chairing the executive board of Transport for London – policing, fire, emergency services, London’s growth and economy. He even has a shared competence in housing and regeneration policy (Burdett and Rode 2015). By contrast, food policy in the UK appears fragmented amongst different policy sectors and layers. In particular, the multilevel nature of the food sector led food to be considered a “wicked issue” for policymaking and apparently unable to fit the policy system (Parsons, Barling and Lang 2018: 212). Consequently, an evident policy opportunity emerged for urban food policy, with the city of London experimenting new policy structures and promoting policy change.  

In the last years, the city of London has strengthened its commitment to food policy. The increased powers of the Mayor and the GLA enabled them to find new policy opportunities and address relevant issues for the capital, even in absence of strategic responsibilities. And food is one of these cases. Indeed, the Mayor and the GLA “consult widely and work closely with London organizations – boroughs, the private sector and voluntary bodies, in a new inclusive style of politics” (Pilgrim 2006: 226). Moreover, the Mayor has to enhance residents’ health and wellbeing, by also promoting social and economic development (Halliday and Barling 2018: 186). Hence, food policymaking can be enlisted within this duty. However, the creativity of Mayors in using their powers (Blick and Dunleavy 2017: 4) explicitly manifested concerning food. In fact, the current Mayor Sadiq Khan promoted a very interventionist policy campaign banning junk food advertisements from Transport for London, relying on its strategic direction over transport policy (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5). This policy action was firstly developed on-the-ground knowledge released by London boroughs (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5) and it showed how the complexity of London governance provides several policy opportunities encouraging the emergence of a complex urban food governance system. Additionally, the current London Plan provides support for food growing, local food production, encourages food waste management, aims to improve Londoners’ access to quality and healthy food (GLA 2016). Moreover, the plan intends to tackle food poverty by increasing the provision of land for food growing in London (GLA 2016: 323). Finally, it calls for the implementation of a new London Food Strategy (GLA 2016: 323). This strategy exemplifies the pan London commitment to food policymaking. The most recent – promoted by Mayor Sadiq Khan – was finally approved in 2018 (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 4). It openly aims to guarantee that “all Londoners have access to healthy and sustainable food” (GLA 2018: 9) and “highlights how food is connected to everything we do as a society: it affects the environment, it drives our economy, affects our health and it is a central part of our cultural life” (GLA 2018: 7). Among its policy objectives, it differs from past food strategies in its promises to “tackle food poverty, child obesity and unhealthy food environments” (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 4).

The implementation of the London Food Strategy has been supported by the London Food Programme, which is part of the GLA Regeneration and Economic Development Policy Unit. The Food Programme team also cooperates with food partners in the private, public and third sectors to deliver and monitor a wide range of projects which may concern public health, social welfare and environmental policy issues. It also works closely with the London Food Board. The board counsels the Mayor on food priorities for London and it is composed of experts from academia, the third and the private sector. Finally, London boroughs’ voice is heard through the Borough Food Sub-Group of the London Food Board (BFSG), which is primarily composed of officials from London boroughs’ public health teams (Hawkes and Parsons 2019: 5). It aims to strengthen the relationship between the GLA and London boroughs as regards food policymaking and reduce policy fragmentation. Since the Mayor has limited powers on food-related issues and boroughs have no obligation to follow his recommendations, the subgroup offers a more democratic arena for discussion (Halliday and Barling 2018). Moreover, the London Food Programme works in partnership with Sustain, an alliance of food and farming organizations, which supports London boroughs developing Food Poverty Action Plans (GLA n.d.). Sustain also releases every year the report “Beyond the Food Bank” to assess boroughs’ signs of progress in meeting food objectives over the year. The report shares every year what each London borough is doing on food to generate positive competition among each other. 

In this context, London Boroughs – like other local authorities in the UK – have a wide range of policy levers to produce long-term food policy change, and address social, economic and environmental issues as well (Marceau 2018: 3). Food Poverty Action Plans represent one of these levers through which local authorities can work with local partners to tackle food poverty at the local level (Marceau 2018: 3). Here, the limited Mayoral powers and resources as regards food policymaking explain how several food policy networks and partnerships emerged, especially in London, to fill the gaps that neither city nor local politics managed to compensate. Thus, a food partnership represents a consortium of organizations, ideally from the public, voluntary, faith and community sectors, who locally commit to working together and tackling food poverty (Sustain 2020). In 2017 around 50 cross-sector food partnerships have been set up in the UK as part of the Sustainable Food Cities movement (Davies 2017: 3). Once established, they are generally constituted by cross-sector bodies. Davies reports that food partnerships may take different shapes, relying on a more formalized or more informal structure. Some are directly housed by public sector organizations and are generally staffed by government’s employees. Others may be staffed and funded by third sector organizations or even fully independent, with minimal available resources and mostly composed by volunteers (Davies 2017: 3).  

Ultimately, the complexity of London’s urban governance represented a fertile environment for food policymaking, especially considering the policy vacuum left by the UK central Government as regards food. Thus, food policies have been recently added to London’s local and city-region agendas. Firstly, the Mayor made food a relevant component of its London Plan and launched the third London Food Strategy. Then, London boroughs started implementing local food policies as food poverty action plans and cooperating with local food partnerships. Evidently, if urban planning neglected food policy for a long time, the case of London shows how an increasing number of local actors from the public, private and third sector have finally recognized the strategic significance of the food system for urban areas and, more in general, of food for communities’ health and wellbeing

References

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