Spread across the UK and employing millions, the food sector could play a pivotal role in ‘levelling up’ the nation. But to do so, it will need the government’s help

In the early 1980s, the seas off Newhaven’s Sussex coast were bustling with life. Dover sole, scallops, plaice and turbot filled the local waters, helping to support close to 100 boats and their crews’ families back on land.

These days, it’s a much quieter affair. A combination of industrial fishing, Brexit and a lack of investment in local infrastructure has devastated fisheries, halving the value of the local catch since 2015, and leaving many of the remaining 30-something boats struggling.

In a town where many rely on the sea to make a living, the impact has been disastrous. Newhaven is now one of the most deprived towns on the British coast – and a clear candidate for the UK government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda. Put simply, that means addressing regional inequalities by stimulating “more growth, more jobs, and higher wages”, as Boris Johnson said when he launched the policy back in February.

Just as the food industry caused decline in Newhaven, it could be the key to regenerating areas such as these. Food, fishing and farming are increasingly being seen as vital in the ‘levelling up’ agenda. As Defra secretary George Eustice told the Food & Drink Federation conference in March, there is a food manufacturer in every parliamentary constituency except Westminster – and the industry’s economic value exceeds the automotive and aerospace sector put together.

living standards

The food industry must work to address the low pay that still exists in parts of its own ranks

“If you go into some of these areas that are economically struggling, often you’ll find the businesses that are left, the ones providing apprenticeships, providing career structures, creating the wealth of that area, are those in the food sector,” he said. “We’ve got to recognise the real role the food industry can play as a building block to bring wealth back to some of those parts of the country.”

Newhaven, at least, is now on Whitehall’s radar, having received £12.7m last year through a newly launched Levelling Up Fund. It will help revitalise the town as a fishing hub by funding a new processing site and market, plus two new landing stages for 16 more vessels.

“We’ve got to recognise the real role the food industry can play as a building block to bring wealth back”

Yet in many ways, the investment feels symbolic of gaps in the levelling up agenda at large. Fishers welcome the money but are clear it’s just a drop in the ocean compared to what is needed in the industry.

“They need long-term sustained investment,” says James MacCleary, a local councillor and its lead member for regeneration and prosperity. “This £12m doesn’t reach the level they need and when you think how much is needed across the British [fishing] industry, the government isn’t showing any real intention of making the level of investment that would make fishing a sustainable industry.”

Similarly, while George Eustice has insisted the food industry is critical to the UK’s plans, exactly what this means remains unclear. The government’s 332-page levelling up white paper referenced ‘food’ just 33 times while ‘fishing’ notched up a measly two.

Cluster together

Despite food’s scant mention, there are still ideas within the document catching the industry’s eye. Take economic clusters, for one, described by government as the “geographic concentration of interconnected companies and institutions” that will enable the “local exchange of ideas, goods, and services”.

In practice, this could mean not just government and industry working together, but the conscription of schools, universities, local governments, or in fact, any other body involved in boosting skills and innovation.

FDF Cymru, for example, is working with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), part of the University of Sheffield, to support food and drink manufacturers to invest in automation and technology by collaboratively identifying both the challenges and solutions facing the sector.

Looking further afield, in deprived regions where labour shortages are especially acute, clusters could see local businesses brought together with local colleges and universities to build courses focusing on the types of skills and training they need. These could become particularly vital alliances in the years to come as the need for skills such as data science, net zero and artificial intelligence continues to grow.

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The British coast is home to some of the most deprived areas in the UK

This kind of work is already underway in Scotland, where Falkirk Food Futures is running a Youth Food Ambassador Programme to help give young people skills in areas like food production or barista work. The project, run by the Forth Environment Link, recently received £550k from the government’s Community Renewal Fund, which is targeted at pilot projects that will stimulate economic growth.

While the amount of money may not be huge, says Emily Harvey, Forth Environment Link’s development manager, “it’s actually quite significant at a hyper-local level” to fund “the physical and social infrastructure”.

Extending this to a national level, however, is no easy task. That’s one reason why the Department for Education launched its ‘Unit for Future Skills’ in April – a new multi-year project that will look to build a database of the national labour market’s needs and help match it with local provision.

While the initial focus of the project will be primarily on publicly available information, food industry bodies are starting to work with Whitehall to feed in sector-specific information.

Such focus on skills and innovation will certainly make a difference in rural areas. At the same time, NFU president Minette Batters believes there is a more fundamental issue at play. The success of the policy will ultimately be determined by whether food production levels can be maintained, she argues: “Unless there’s a statutory underpinning that maintains current levels of self-sufficiency, then levelling up just doesn’t work.”


The food industry could get a boost if the government hits its target to have 200,000 people completing training each year

If legal protection isn’t in place, food production may quickly lose out to initiatives like solar farms and tree planting, Batters points out. “Agriculture may appear to be a small amount of GDP but the more rural, the more isolated the communities, the more important agriculture becomes in terms of the allied trades, the village schools, the fabric of life that it underpins,” she says.

And the loss of agriculture will not just be felt by those whose livelihood relies on the farmyard, but the thousands of people working for the major processors. “The likes of Dunbia, ABP, Müller, Arla, they are only here because the raw ingredients are here,” she says. “They’re not here for any other reason. It’d be far easier to base their businesses in Europe.”

National Food Strategy

Answers to her points may be on their way in June, in the long-awaited government response to Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy.

Eustice has promised the role of food industry in levelling up will be addressed in the document, which is likely to set the direction of travel before it falls to the Food and Drink Sector Council – a formal industry partnership with government – to determine exactly how that work is done.

Dimbleby’s strategy argues it is possible to boost Britain’s rural economies while simultaneously helping farmers reach net zero ambitions. He pointed to innovation and technology as a means of achieving both goals.

Among his recommendations was a call for government to invest £1bn in innovation “to create a better food system,” on top of £280m already announced by Defra to support innovation as part of its Agricultural Transition Plan away from EU-based subsidy schemes.

As well as accelerating work on policies such as reformulating processed foods, Dimbleby argued the £1bn could develop new methods of food production such as vertical farming and precision fermentation. Developing and manufacturing alternative proteins in the UK rather than importing them could also create around 10,000 new factory jobs and secure 6,500 jobs in farming, according to the report.

Well being

Wellbeing is one of the key missions in the levelling up strategy

Dimbleby also turned his attention to public procurement reform. While he did not address the issue in the context of levelling up, many of his proposed policies could help boost domestic jobs and prosperity. After all, the UK’s public sector feeds 13 million people each year and “is the government’s most direct tool to shape the food system” says his report.

For Ben Reynolds, deputy CEO of Sustain, mandatory standards on local, healthy food purchasing in schools, hospitals, and prisons must be put “front and centre” of the levelling up agenda to make sure public money is spent on the government’s self-described “defining mission”.

This will not only address health inequality across the UK, but support local farms and food businesses while simultaneously encouraging a pride of place in local areas, Reynolds says.

For now, food’s place in the government’s levelling up strategy has been at best piecemeal, at worst ineffectual. But if food is to play its necessary part in the transformation of the UK, it is vital that a cohesive strategy is brought forward that gives a clear vision of its future.

All eyes will be on this summer’s National Food Strategy white paper as a crucial first step.

How the food and drink sector will play a part in ‘levelling up’ the UK