Even before Covid-19 the number of people needing the food bank in Exeter was rising – which as one of the Devon County councillors representing Exeter was of a significant concern. Then Covid-19 hit. With people isolating and others losing income there was a huge need to support them. Locally city and county councillors were doing their best to support the community and charity efforts to provide food to those who needed it. Other councillors and I were doing much to support the community and charities which provided food for those who needed it, but I had a sense that there was not enough strategic planning. What support there was emerged organically, reacting to need – after a bit of asking around I found out that Devon County Council did not have a Food Strategy policy.
At around the same time I became aware of the Co-op Party’s Food Justice campaign. Of course, I knew other councillors that were members, and being someone with co-operative views, I felt it was time I joined them and became a member. I wasn’t at the time expecting my fellow County Councillor Hilary Ackland to ask me at my first Co-op Party meeting what I was planning to do as a councillor to demonstrate my co-operative principles! Thinking quickly on my feet, I explained that I was considering putting the Co-operative Party’s Food Justice Motion to the next Full Council meeting in October.
I researched the topic thoroughly. Hilary kindly guided me to the Co-op Party zoom session on Food justice and encouraged me to contact Cllr Jack Abbott from Suffolk County Council who had taken a motion to council in an authority like ours where the Conservative party are the majority. With advice from Jack and the Co-op Party’s staff I went about tailoring the motion and set about winning over councillors from the ruling Conservative Group. With statistics from council officers to back my case, I persuaded the Leader of the Conservative Council of my good intentions and that the proposal for a lead member and a food partnership was a genuine one and that I did not seek to score political points on this issue – and that I would be happy to accept reasonable amendments or for Cabinet to consider the issue.
Although pleased that the motion was referred to Cabinet in October, I was also a little sceptical that we would see a positive outcome. When the word came back that it would be possible to find common ground at the December Council meeting and agree an amended motion which retained much of what we wanted I was delighted. With over 40 Conservative Councillors and just 7 Labour ones on Devon County Council it is a challenging and at times extremely frustrating political environment. I’m thrilled that we’ve managed to get political agreement and that Devon Council has made a significant step forwards to tackling food insecurity with commitments to a lead member for food insecurity and support a working group to consider a Devon Food Partnership and a food resilience strategy for the County. It was a genuinely co-operative endeavour which I could have only done with support from my fellow co-operators in my own council, Cllr Jack Abbott from Suffolk Labour Group, and from Co-op Party itself.