Councillors of Manchester’s “Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee” met on Tuesday 8th July to discuss “sustainable food.” There was waffle and spice. MCFly editor Marc Hudson gives a blow-by-blow account, with a garnish of snark.
Most people have an opinion (or three) about food. So it was no surprise to see that there was a tasty [Ed; that’s enough dire puns] debate at the Town Hall
The “Neighbourhoods Scrutiny Committee,” the biggest of the six scrutiny committees, heard a brief presentation about the 12 page report which had headings on “Benefits of food growing schemes, community orchards and food waste– further information” and “Future developments in sustainable food”
They then got stuck into questions. (All councillors, since the May elections, are Labour).
Cllr Anna Trotman (Higher Blackley) welcomed the report, and extolled the virtues of Carbon Literacy training.
Cllr Mary Watson (Whalley Range) started as she meant to continue. She pointed to page sixteen-
“a number of officers attended a workshop to discuss the issue [of short term or emergency responses to family poverty in Manchester .] The conclusions were that although there are some good examples of joined up working, the current system needs to place the family at the centre. A number of large and small scale improvement initiatives that could be implemented by a group of officers were suggested and these are due to be discussed with relevant Executive members.”
Could the officers present give some example of these initiatives?
It turned out “no.” The relevant person was not available. After a certain amount of hand-waving and flapping, the questioning continued, with Cllr Watson also asked that since this issue also concerned procurement (page 17, 3.4) , a report should go to Finance Scrutiny Committee (now chaired by Councillor Carl Ollerhead) “sooner rather than later.” This request will be conveyed to the FSC.
Next up was Cllr Dan Gillard (Withington), donning his “Councillor for intergenerational issues” hat. What involvement did over 65s have in the community schemes, as growers rather than mere recipients.
And how, precisely, was Manchester A Certain Future supporting this work?
The answers were, predictably vague, with a reference to the first Annual Report of the group (established five years ago) for a “comprehensive overview.”
Next up, new councillor Emily Rowles (Moss Side) asked about the ins and outs of meanwhile sites and the commercial responsibilities and risks around this. Cllr Rowles cited the “community orchard” on the old bus depot (which is distinct from the Moss Side Community Allotment
The answer was (#patternemerging) vague. There is”vibrant food growing in Moss Side” and there will be an “exit strategy” around meanwhile sites.
Next up, Councillor Kevin Peel expressed alarm about figures (page 10) that showed obesity levels – “39.4% of children in year 6 are overweight and obese ” and the fact that “20% of an individual’s carbon footprint in greater Manchester is attributed to food ”
He said there was not much evidence in the report on how people on the lowest incomes/worst health were benefiting from community food growing schemes as they stood, and asked for an additional report that addressed this.
He was particularly concerned to know of specific outcomes for projects, with a suspicion that they are mostly used by “people who don’t need it the most.” (Fwiw, it’s a very valid suspicion.)
He pointed out that £70,000 for “Growing Manchester” is not actually that much, spread over the four years. He wanted to know more about the vaunted “food board”, and called for a report and/or the people on the board to come and talk to the scrutiny committee.
Where, asked Peel, is the funding for the most at-risk groups?
The officer who responded agreed with Councillor Peel and agreed to produce a “supplementary report.”
The head of City Policy, Jessica Bowles, explained that the report in front of the committee was specifically about orchards. She agreed to liaise with the head of Food Futures and the Executive Member responsible about responses to his questions.
Next up, Cllr Matt Strong raised concerns about “Love Food Hate Waste.” While happy with its existence, he wondered if the emphasis was too skewed to consumer waste rather than business, and gave the example of “buy one get one free schemes. What work, he asked, was being done on engaging supermarkets.
The answer was long-(winded) and closed, honestly, with the immortal sentence “I know that doesn’t address your specific question.” Yes, quite.
Next up, Cllr Mick Loughman, speaking in his customary and welcome robust manner, asked “who is getting the produce? The report doesn’t say anything about the end product.”
The Executive Member for the Environment, Kate Chappell, fielded this question. She said that the view is that orchards are a ‘staging post’ to attitude change. She gave the example of Birchfields Park Forest Garden, where anyone can come and take produce. It would be impractical, she said (reasonably!) to get good data, therefore, since it is an open access resource. However, it would be possible to monitor any increase (or decrease) in requests for trees and allotments. Councillor Chappell noted that allotments fell within the remit of the Executive Member for Culture and Leisure, Rosa Battle.
Councillor Mary Watson then pointed out that it is hard to capture the transforming effects of food growing on a community, before giving the example for age-friendly “casserole clubs”
Picking up on a general discussion around local food growing, Councillor Kevin Peel suggested that rather than asking people from Moss Side Orchard to come to the committee, the committee should organise a visit to it. This was met with acclaim/approval and will happen at some point.
Finally, at the invitation of the chair, a representative of Steady State Manchester asked about the claimed “reduction in emissions” (page 11) and how this related to overall targets.
The answer came “We’re working with GM colleagues to understand this more fully… what kind of measurements….” Which is fair enough. I mean, it’s not as if the Climate Change Action Plan is five years old or anything. No, wait…
MCFly says: From an anthropological perspective, it was fascinating. The “councillor tribe” and the “bureaucrat tribe” facing off, each deploying their own rituals etc.
The councillors kept asking specific questions, which is what you are supposed to do on a scrutiny committee. They often seemed less than satisfied with the answers they got, but since the committee has a packed agenda and time is limited, they were content (or resigned from long experience?) to asking for further reports.
Perhaps what needs to happen is a cultural change so that when the answer is not known there is simply a commitment to give the answer as soon as possible, on a publicly visited website, and then move on, rather than flannelling.
If and when the Council moves into the 21st century and starts live-streaming Scrutiny Committee meetings (as per suggestion here), then we may see some behaviour change from participants in meetings….
Finally, few words about the report and reports in general.
This report, about “Sustainable Food” does not mention the following terms
- meat-free Monday (even though this used to be Council policy, sort of)
And to follow this up why don’t all reports that come before committees
give a score for their readability (for example, https://readability-score.com)
have a section that says clearly “what has been going well, what has been going badly and why and what we can do about that, what other parts of the UK might we learn from”
have a section that says “We have sent this report to the following groups, and invited them to come here today”
have a box on how this report relates to the City’s Climate Action Plan (as per Community Spine.)