How a small Sussex town became the first in Europe to endorse the Plant Based Treaty

May 1, 2024

Richard Nicholson is an astrophysicist with a career behind him in technology and the financial services industry. He was also involved in Greenpeace for many years. Then, in 2019, he was elected as a town councillor for Haywards Heath, representing the Green Party. Thanks to his strong commitment, Haywards Heath, a small town in West Sussex, became the first municipality in Europe to endorse the Plant Based Treaty.

“Even for me, who has always been interested in green issues, it took a while before I really got the animal rights issues and the consequences of animal agriculture on land. We were early vegetarians. But when we become completely vegan, the whole mindset changes about all sorts of things. Since then, I have been interested in the cognitive tipping point for people. It varies, depending on what their value system is. It is a difficult problem.”

Richard was a member of the Green Party in Haywards Heath but was inactive. In 2019, the local Green Group contacted him and asked if he wanted to stand for the local election as a town councillor. Although the area is strongly conservative, he was voted in as one of two Green councillors. 

“That was my unexpected and unintended move into local politics”, he says with a smile.

But very soon he understood that despite the urgent climate crisis we are facing, he would not be able to convince the council with the political rhetoric.

Richard (seen wearing his Plant Based Treaty t-shirt) introduced a motion for Mid Sussex Greens to endorse the Plant Based Treaty. The Press Release from the endorsement can be found here.

“Instead, I went to science and argued that we should acknowledge the science that the climate crisis exists, put out a statement, and write recommendations as a working group. Even if some of the councillors were a bit uncomfortable about it and did not want to worry the local population about the climate emergency, they could not argue with science”.

The Green Party understood that this was a mechanism they could use in general. To focus on the science, make it apolitical, make a working group recommendation, push it through the system, and step back and see what happens. The US-based Project Drawdown provided this starting point.

Drawdown publishes research on ~100 solutions that have a material impact on reducing CO2 emissions. It is science-based and peer-reviewed research.

“We read through the list looking at what we could possibly do as town councillors, with minimal funds and minimal political hour, to educate the local population.”

They found that two of the most impactful things they could do were to reduce food waste and promote plant-rich diets. The council started from a blank piece of paper and formulated a strategy forward. Within their environmental framework they included a comprehensive spreadsheet which they completed with what they could do locally and where to start.

“This spreadsheet was filled with all sorts of things. Everybody agreed that this was how we should formulate our strategy forward. One of our recommendations was endorsing the Plant Based Treaty. The environment framework was signed off by the working group, by the environment committee, and by Haywards Heath town council.”

He explains that at the time, it was not quite clear how to navigate forward. Even if he himself was clear that the Plant Based Treaty was something that they should sign, he was not sure that they could get it through the local council.

Haywards Heath became the first town in Europe to endorse the Plant Based Treaty on 22 of July, 2022. “Looking back, it looks like a well-choreographed strategy. But to be honest, it was not. We were trying to find out how to continue.”

When all was signed and ready, the next question came; what do we do now to move this forward in the community? At this point, some councillors stepped back, and everything stalled. But even though it was frustrating, Richard could see how important the decision was. Haywards Heath Town Council lit a fire which emboldened other UK cities to follow. Los Angeles also used their references when they endorsed the Plant Based Treaty in October 2022.

“I like to think that other UK cities and city councils that have endorsed the Plant Based Treaty after us, would have done it anyway. But the fact that we went before made it easier.”

The new council revising the Treaty

Deanna Nicholson was elected as a town councillor for the Green Party

In 2021 they had the town council re-elections. A number of seats were reduced, and Richard ended up competing head-to-head with a Tory city councillor for one seat.

“I lost. But inexpertly, my wife, Deanna Nicholson, was elected as a town councillor for the Green Party instead. I handed over the baton to her.”

Deanna Nicholson was elected to the Haywards Heath Town Council in May 2023. The new council wants to revise the Treaty and is keen to support it. They also plan to reboot some of the things that Richard initiated as a councillor. One of them is the school’s Environment Award which heavily focuses on food waste and plant-based food, and things that the children can do to help. 

She explains that it has been tricky to work with schools because most schools are not in control of the catering themselves. The idea with the school’s Environment Award is that schools need to improve their plant-based offerings, but also to make these plant-based offerings more attractive in order to make more pupils choose them. 

“It will take some time; at the moment, it is not easy. But one of the local schools has outdoor learning and is planting a community orchard. It’s wonderful and encourages the children to pick fruits to eat,” Deanna says.  

Another initiative is the Business Environment Award, which will inspire more plant-based offerings, reduce plastic waste, examine what people do with their food waste, and encourage them to use the “Too Good To Go” app.

The importance of inclusion

Deanna emphasizes that a huge success since she was elected has been the plant-based offerings at council run events. Every year Haywards Heath has a number of different events when the community comes together. For example last summer, the council held a careers event and offered a plant-based lunch at the Town Hall.

Most foods can be made vegan with a few simple swaps

“An alternative we offered was vegan pizza and a vegan coleslaw, as well as a totally vegan afternoon tea for all. I sat next to a woman who had brought her own food, not knowing there would be vegan options. I could see how much it meant for her to be included in the meal and feel really welcomed.”

Deanna highlighted this to the council. She believes that inclusion must be embedded in the planning of all events.

“Not only are we reducing our carbon footprint and meeting the aims of the Plant Based Treaty when serving vegan food, but all our community is suddenly welcomed and catered for. I realized the best plant-based argument is inclusion.”

Plant-based alternatives have also been served at other town events throughout the year and are always appreciated. Suddenly Jews, Muslims, and people with different food intolerances can eat with their colleagues.

“Once you establish it, people can see that it’s working and how plant-based food becomes the solution.”

Deanna is building up a test case of events where plant-based food has been featured and successful, with the aim to make the food offerings fully vegan in the future.

“We often think that providing people with evidence and knowledge is enough to make them want to change. But it isn’t, for most people,” Deanna says.

Many of the women she meets today are women her age. She can understand them, their life situations, having families, jobs, and responsibilities.

“But I have realized that in my age group a huge thing is personal health, more than the environment.”

Deanna has a background both in science and as a teacher. This is a useful skill when meeting people of different age groups today. She likes to serve people good vegan food in her home as she believes it can inspire others. When it comes to young people, her experience as a teacher has shown that teenagers need agency and the ability to make their own decisions.

“Today, many young people feel overwhelmed in the face of the climate crisis, seeing the generation above them do nothing. Not eating animal products is a decision they can make for themselves, which has a direct positive impact and is good for their mental health as well. This is an aspect that has not been explored enough and is something I would really like to take on board.”

A statement of intent

Today Richard acts as a city ambassador for the Plant Based Treaty. He meets with different authorities who are interested in endorsing the Treaty and can show how Haywards Heath made it possible and the steps they took.

“I have done this with a few councils. You must look at the context of each town council and see what the dynamics are in that council and what is useful in their individual concept. Talking about the Plant Based Treaty and the health benefits, educate and slowly move forward. Don’t expect changes to be immediate and radical. They won’t be. It is a slow job, step by step, towards veganism becoming mainstream. And use children’s nagging power on parents.”

He advises cities considering endorsing the Plant Based Treaty not to overthink it.

“We know what the problem is, we know the science, and we know that we need to shift. Assuming people accept that reality – just do it. Endorsing the Plant Based Treaty is a statement of intent. Move in the right direction because the Plant Based Treaty has given us the northern star. It will go forward. It can never go backwards.”

Anne Casparsson is a writer and ethicist, who has worked with communication and journalism in different capacities, for more than twenty years. She writes about animal rights, veganism, sustainability, justice, and peace related issues. Anne is based in Stockholm where she lives with her family. She is a dedicated voice for the animals.

Anne Casparsson is a writer and ethicist, who has worked with communication and journalism in different capacities, for more than twenty years. She writes about animal rights, veganism, sustainability, justice, and peace related issues. Anne is based in Stockholm where she lives with her family. She is a dedicated voice for the animals.