Following the publication of my most recent book Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies, I am often asked to give examples of what alternative locally owned platforms for public good might look like. I still live in the London Borough of Hackney (though not for much longer) so thought I might sketch out an example based on what I think could be done here, to develop a project that might be able to combine improving local services with improving the quality of local jobs, supporting local businesses and helping to build more inclusive and equal local communities, while also contributing to green objectives by helping take motor vehicles off the road and shortening supply chains. I offer it as a goodbye present to the borough that has been my home for the past 12 years.
Hackney is one of the most ethnically and socially diverse boroughs in London and, indeed, the UK (and probably Europe). Its proximity to the City of London has made it a target for gentrification and it has some very affluent residents, who are prepared to spend a lot of money on fine dining and sampling some of the diverse dishes on offer both from hipster establishments offering alternative and ‘ethical’ menus and from the rich array of ethnic cuisines that abound in the borough.
These include, to name but a few, a huge variety of Turkish, Caribbean, South Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese, African, Italian, French and other European restaurants providing food to eat-in or takeaway customers, many of which have been badly hit by the pandemic and may struggle to remain viable in the future.
Hackney also has many people in extremely deprived circumstances, including recently arrived refugees and asylum seekers as well as more established households, some experiencing multigenerational poverty.
Hackney residents include many people requiring social care, hit by recent cuts in welfare spending (including things like meals on wheels and day centres), as well as households whose children are eligible for free school meals. There are also large numbers of homeless people. All these groups have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.
The pandemic has also shown that local communities are prepared to come together to support each other. During the first lockdown there were truly impressive efforts to organise, often using local WhatsApp groups or other social media, to help ensure that isolated residents were checked up on and that food and other necessities were delivered to those who needed them.
Finally, Hackney has a high proportion of the workforce working precariously, many in local restaurants, cafes and bars, and many in the so-called ‘gig economy’ including delivering food and ready meals by bike, scooter or van to local residents.Their working conditions are often dire, and have deteriorated still further during the pandemic. For example delivery riders and drivers now face increasing competition and may have to spend hours of unpaid time waiting on the streets for an order, barely earning enough to survive, as well as being deprived of basic rights such as sick pay, social security contributions, paid holidays and the right to a minimum wage. These precarious workers are disproportionately from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, making this an equality issue, as well as one of basic social justice.
The concept: Hackney Meals
The idea is to use the kinds of technologies that provide the business model for online platforms such as Deliveroo or Uber Eats to link up the supply and demand for food services in Hackney. Instead of giving a cut (typically 20-25% of the value of each transaction) to a company that may not even be paying any tax in this country and is certainly contributing little to the local economy, the idea would be to develop a not-for-profit model in which any surplus is reinvested locally, to improve working conditions and the quality and scope of services.
For the time being, I am calling this new putative service Hackney Meals, but I am sure somebody could come up with a better name.
The aim would not be to try to impose a new business model from the top down, in a way that would no doubt alienate many of the existing stakeholders (ranging from local authority trade unions to local businesses that are doing quite well using existing services). Rather, it would be to build from the bottom up, working with local people at every step, and offering the new service as a complement to existing ones, building consensus and consent along the way. Private consumers would be able to choose which food service they want to use from the existing range of options, to which this would be added. However there would also be public customers and here the fact that the local authority is a large consumer of local services could add the weight that helps get the new service off the ground and give it the scale to be viable.
Who would be involved?
At an early stage, it would be important to bring together as many as possible of the key stakeholders involved in the supply and purchase of food services in Hackney.
On the purchasing side, this might include school meals services, care services (including residential care homes and day centres), health services and in-house canteen services and possibly also local hospitals and other institutions (such as emergency services). Local private businesses that provide meals for their staff or residents could also be invited to join the consultation process.
On the supply side, it would be important to involve local businesses already in the hospitality and food supply industry, including microbusinesses. It would also be useful to invite representation from projects involved in job creation in the food sector, for example people trying to set up co-operatives among refugee communities to build businesses using their cooking skills and knowledge of traditional ethnic cuisines.
Technical expertise would also be a vital input. Here it might be possible to recruit people with experience of developing systems for other online platforms, or to link up with a local IT co-op such as Outlandish.
Finally, it would be important to engage with organisations representing workers, including the existing local authority trade unions, trade unions representing workers in the food and hospitality industries, and the App Drivers and Couriers Union representing ‘gig economy’ workers (which was more or less ‘born’ in Hackney where it held its monthly meetings from 2016 to 2020 at the Hackney Chinese Centre).
What would it do?
Reinvention of Meals on Wheels
Hackney Meals could provide a 21st century alternative to the kinds of ‘Meals on Wheels’ services that were delivered to elderly and disabled residents in the past, many of which have been severely cut. These meals were never ideal. Often delivered at the wrong time, often bland and overcooked, rarely catering to the individual tastes of clients or their cultural preferences and often with the wrong portion sizes, they were often judged only as ‘better than nothing’. Hackney Meals could offer the choice people want, when they want it (and only when they want it) allowing users or their carers to order via a simple app.
If paid for using a voucher system, people eligible for free or discounted meals could have exactly the same choices as any private customer ordering a home-delivered meal.
The voucher service could also be extended seamlessly to cover additional groups who could be issued with a given number of vouchers to take care of temporary food needs. These might include people newly released from hospital, people newly released from detention centres or prison, people in temporary accommodation without cooking facilities, young people transitioning out of care and homeless people. Local centres could be set up where homeless people could eat their meals, with staff who could, if need be, help them with the ordering process.
Local employers wanting to feed their staff well at lunchtime could purchase Hackney Meals vouchers for their staff to use on days they are working on site as an alternative to canteens which might no longer be viable in situations where people are combining on-site work with teleworking from home.They could also use the service for catering for meetings and conferences.
A lot of attention has recently been given to the inferior quality of the meals provided for vulnerable children in poor households during school holidays. Hackney Meals could provide an alternative way to give these households more choice as well as access to nutritious cooked food that is appropriate to their dietary needs and cultural heritage.Where local schools do not have their own in-house cooking facilities, it could be used to supply meals in bulk during term times, or as a supplement to locally-prepared food by those having to cater for the needs of children with specific dietary needs.
An alternative to commercial food delivery platforms
Many local restaurants, including small independent restaurants supplying ‘niche’ cuisines, are unhappy with the demands made on them by large commercial food delivery platforms. It is highly likely that they would welcome the appearance on the scene of an alternative platform run by (or in partnership with) the local authority, where they could have some say in the design and management of the service, including such features as being able to advertise their offers to local residents in their own languages.
Hackney Meals would allow them to sell their products simultaneously both to local-authority-supported clients and to the kinds of regular money-paying customers currently supplied by the commercial platforms (although there would be nothing to stop them also registering on these platforms too). Being visible on the Hackney Meals app could give them a local competitive advantage, making it easier to hold their own in the market against the large chains, many of whom are supplying local customers by using ‘dark kitchens’ (typically remote kitchens in shipping containers in desolate surroundings with poor working conditions for the chefs).
Improving working conditions
Hackney Meals could become an important model for demonstrating that the convenience and flexibility offered by digital platforms need not necessarily be translated into precarious working conditions and bad pay for the workforce.
Delivery workers often say that they like being able to choose when and where they work, often because they have to fit work in with other demands on their time such as family commitments, studying or another part-time job. There is no reason why they should not be able to continue working flexibly for a new platform such as Hackney Meals. The larger the platform, the more scope there is for redistributing shifts into an interlocking pattern, giving people the working times that suit them while making sure that there is always emergency cover. There are many traditional services (ranging from paramedics to telecoms engineers to emergency call centres) where workers may be required to be called out at short notice. But it is perfectly possible to design shift systems that take account of this without turning them all into ‘independent contractors’.
The difference would be that people working for Hackey Meals could be paid for the time they are ‘on call’ and could be provided with other things, such as electric vehicles and other equipment, as well as the basic benefits that all dependent workers should be entitled to (minimum wage, pension contributions, insurance, sick pay, paid holidays, the right to be represented by a trade union etc.).
Hackney Meals could also use non-discriminatory recruitment and management practices as well as providing appropriate training.
Boosting local businesses
Finally, Hackney Meals would complement other strategies for boosting local businesses. The local authority is proud of its cultural industries and what was, at least until the pandemic, a thriving night-time economy. Many of these organisations are involved in one way or another in the supply or consumption of food and could use it to complement or grow their businesses. Hackney Meals could provide a welcome addition to this enterprising local portfolio, bring into being yet another initiative that is innovative and progressive and helping to ensure that Hackney remains the very distinctive and special borough that it is.