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Scandal of our allotments

PUBLISHED: 17:58 25 April 2014 | UPDATED: 21:07 29 April 2014

In the second feature in her series on allotments, KATIE BEAT looks at their history, and at the growing threat to allotments, despite their supposed legal protection. She argues that their wholesale loss has become a national disgrace.

In the second feature in her series on allotments, KATIE BEAT looks at their history, and at the growing threat to allotments, despite their supposed legal protection. She argues that their wholesale loss has become a national disgrace.


 Allotments are an integral part of the fabric of British culture. Their story reaches back through British history to the parliamentary enclosures of the 18th and 19th centuries, which dispossessed the ‘landless poor’ by fencing and parcelling out what had previously been common land. As compensation they were given ‘allotments’ attached to their tenant cottages.

Allotments were heartily encouraged by the Victorians – both as a means for urban migrants to feed themselves cheaply, and also as a means of occupying the ‘idle poor’  – growing vegetables supposedly kept them away from the pub (although, after extensive personal research I haven’t found this to be the case!). The Allotment Act of 1887 was the first to lay down an obligation for local authorities to provide land for allotments, if there was a demand for it. However, the act was not enforced and was later strengthened by the Smallholdings and Allotments Act of 1908, which forms the basis of the rights we have today – basically, that if six people on the electoral roll put in a request to their local authority, they must be provided with land, ‘conveniently’ situated, for cultivation.

Gradually, through further acts and increasingly protective legislation, allotments have become an enshrined part of our cultural heritage, hitting an all time high in popularity during the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign during WW2 – 1.4 million plots, producing an estimated 1.3 million tonnes of food for a hungry populace blockaded by German U-boats. Allotments were actively promoted through the cartoon characters of Potato Pete and Dr Carrot, and vegetables were unrationed throughout the war years. Funnily enough, after eating so many vegetables, the British population finished the war healthier than when they started it!
Sadly, in the following decades, as food became cheaper and more widely available, allotments gradually declined in popularity. Plots all over the country lay unused and some councils sold off derelict allotment land and houses were built where, once beans had blossomed. The 70s and, 80s saw an upsurge in interest following the TV sitcom The Good Life. It was around this time that my dad dug up his front lawn and started growing vegetables, much to the astonishment of the commuter neighbourhood in which we lived!

Since then allotments have risen in popularity. The Guardian reported recently that allotment ownership now stands at a recent high of 330,000, with another 100,000 people on the waiting list. 100,000 people on the waiting list? How is this possible if councils are obligated to provide land?

The answer comes down to (yes, you guessed it) – money. We live on a small and rather overcrowded island. We have one of the highest densities of population per acre in the whole of Europe. There is huge pressure on housing. The price of land has sky-rocketed and, as we all know, house prices have risen out of all proportion. Allotments are very often sited where land is most ‘valuable’ – in the middle of cities (what had once been the edge of cities in many cases!). And councils, often struggling to balance budgets or make a fast buck (you decide which!), have seen the opportunity to sell off allotment land. In 2007, for example, Redbridge Council in London announced their intention to sell off four allotment sites in their borough, and estimated that they would make £25 million from the sale. In the face of £25m, the paltry income generated by a handful of plots looks measly, even inconsequential. After huge protest from allotment holders, however, this particular ‘initiative’ was quashed.


OLYMPIC SQUEEZE

Manor Garden Allotments in London were not to be so lucky. A century of cultivation was suddenly threatened in 2007 when the site had the bad luck to find itself within the perimeter of the proposed Olympic development. Plans revealed that the allotments were to be bulldozed and replaced with … a concrete path, to be used for crowds to move from one part of the site to the other. Huge protests ensued. 7,846 people signed a petition which was presented to the Government. The campaign received huge publicity, coverage in the national press, and was even debated in the House of Lords. Proposals were put forward to save the allotments by integrating them into the Olympic plans – by using them as a showcase for a healthy, environmentally friendly, and, above all, profoundly British institution. Surely these Olympics, which promoted themselves as ‘green’, would want to protect the greenest thing on the site? Apparently not. Sadly, ideas for preservation were brushed aside. Excuses such as ‘insurance’, ‘budgets’ and ‘health and safety’ were used. The allotmenteers were forcibly removed to another site, and the concrete mixers moved in. 

How is this possible? Allotment land can be designated either ‘statutory’ or ‘temporary.’ Land owned by the local authority and designated purely for allotment use is granted ‘statutory’ status and, as long as there is a demand for the allotments on it, it ‘cannot’ be sold – or, at least, that is the theory. Other land which is leased for use as allotments, but may be privately owned, is designated as ‘temporary’ and is less protected by law. Manor Garden allotments were created by a philanthropist who gifted the land to the community ‘in perpetuity,’ for use as allotments – it was a statutory site. In the face of the might of the Olympic machine, however, this was meaningless. The sale of statutory allotment land is regrettably permissible – but only with the permission of the Secretary of State. If necessary an alternative site is provided, compensation must be paid for lost crops, and sufficient notice must be given. Unfortunately, a replacement site can never be as good as the one people already have – as anyone who has turned a piece of field into a garden knows, it takes many years to improve soil quality and get on top of weeds. The Manor Garden allotmenteers have been moved to a new site which is now beset with problems – the soil is compacted, heavy with clay and suffers from drainage problems. One plotholder has put up a sign saying ‘Danger of Sinking’ between the mass of puddles that cover his plot. Compared to the rich soil they left behind (that had been tilled by some plotholders’ grandfathers), this is very poor compensation.


PROMISES UNFULFILLED

In the meantime, what will happen to the original site? Covered with concrete and landscaping designed on a computer, probably by someone who had never even seen the allotments, the Olympic site will shine briefly for around six weeks in 2012, before falling back into obscurity. Despite the assurances of the Olympics bringing ‘regeneration’ to the area, you only need to look at past Olympic villages for some idea as to what may happen. They often fall into disuse, and the promises of wonderful sports facilities for ‘the local community’ are often unfulfilled as the cost of running a site, even in terms of security, is prohibitive, and often only affordable when taken over by a private firm (witness the Millennium Dome, now run by an American company).

By contrast, the Manor Garden allotments were an enduring, community-centred site – 80 plots fed over 120 families. There were community events such as plant sales, parties and barbecues. Friendships were forged amongst the beansticks, and people gathered to discuss the latest at the Community Shed. The allotments served the community at very little cost to local people. Nothing on the Olympic site will ever be able to replace this, even if the allotmenteers are allowed to move back onto the site after 2012. To make matters worse, the Government recently announced that the budget for the Olympics will have to be increased to £9.3 billion (taxpayers money, don’t forget, it’s you and me who are paying for all this) to cover previously unforeseen costs. Yet they could not even entertain the thought of spending just a little bit more to preserve the Manor Allotments.


DISHEARTENING

The money-grabbing, short-sighted nature of these tales is disheartening. Allotments are like parks – they preserve valuable green space in cities, are havens for wildlife and act as ‘lungs’ for cities. They build community spirit, encourage people to take control of their food, and provide an outside space for those who have no garden. They are the perfect antidote to ‘modern’ culture which champions disposability and convenience. The destruction of these breathing spaces is also very short sighted. Our ‘modern’ model of food production is based heavily on the supermarket and on the availability of cheap fuel which is used to transport food around. Much of what we buy in the supermarket is imported from abroad (also relying on oil).

Recent months have seen a huge hike in oil prices. It seems the price has increased by a few pence every single time I fill up my car. If the predictions of ‘peak oil’ are true, it seems that oil prices are going to keep going up. Food is going to get more and more expensive – and it is something we cannot do without! Our reliance on foreign imports will start to hurt us – we simply won’t be able to afford it anymore. More and more people will turn to producing their own food. How can we do this if all the green spaces in cities have been covered in concrete?


A NATIONAL DISGRACE

The destruction of allotment land is a national disgrace. We need to act now to preserve it for future generations. Indeed, we need to demand more allotments to ensure that when they are really required (and that day may be closer than we realise), they will be there for the people that need them. The 100,000 people on the waiting lists need to make more noise, demand their lawful rights more stridently and force their local authorities to take action. It often seems to take the dedicated action of a few individuals to make a difference – but the more people who get involved the better.


GET IN TOUCH

If you have an allotment story to tell, or you are one of those people on a waiting list, we would love to hear from you – how long have you waited and what are your local authority doing to help? Don’t forget that if six people from the electoral roll ask for an allotment site, the local council is legally obliged to provide one (provided they have the resources – unfortunately, in inner cities like London this is not the case). It may take some time to achieve but can be done if you are dedicated enough (and can get the right number of people together).

I have witnessed the creation of some new allotments right here in my village. When I got my plot, it was one of about 30 sites running right through the centre of the village. When the plots were created they were surrounded by fields – now they are surrounded by housing estates. The strip of land terminates in a bit of waste ground (which used to be allotments) and a recreational area. A few years ago (before I even dreamt of owning an allotment) the council made threatening noises about selling off the area of waste ground (and the allotment site) for housing development – and mighty lucrative this would have been. A village-wide campaign to ‘save the allotments’ ensued and, fortunately, thanks to legal advice from the National Society, the battle was won by the allotments and things went quiet for a while.

However, the waste ground was still waste, still a mass of weeds and head high grass. Last year, thanks to the efforts of the Gardening Club, the waste ground was finally reclaimed for allotments. Fences were moved, ground was ploughed, and around ten more plots were created. All the people on the waiting list (including some from neighbouring villages where there were no allotments) were given a plot, and many have been incredibly quick at getting them set up and things growing. Every time I walk past I admire the ‘new’ plots and think how much nicer they are than a modern housing estate, with 16 houses crammed onto an acre with gardens the size of postage stamps.


More information:
To find out more about The Manor Garden Allotments, see the campaign site www.lifeisland.org.

To find out more about allotments and the law, you can contact your local representative at the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners. Visit their website at  www.nsalg.org.uk


National association backs CS campaign


The CS campaign Grow our Allotments is being backed by the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners.

NSALG chairman Alan Rees told CS there is a growing awareness of the need for allotments, and it is important to draw attention to the duty of local authorities to provide them.

“Over the last 50 years local authorities have sold off allotments. They’ve got no land,” he said.

Mr Rees said one of his main concerns is that some local authorities with allotment waiting lists are trying to solve the problem by reducing the size of plots and ignoring legislation which defines an allotment plot.

“The size of a standard plot is 300 sq yds or 250 sq m. What local authorities are tending to do now is to cut the plots down to half this size to accommodate those on their waiting lists. I think that stinks.

“They say they don’t have the land. When local auithorities tell me that, I say they can compulsorily purchase or compulsorily hire. There is no excuse really for not providing where there is a demand.”

Mr Rees said councils need to concentrate on finding more land and not to move allotments to inferior land to make way for development.

“There are a lot of MPs who know what is going on, and they are very helpful, but the majority need to wake up to the issue.

“It’s not only the environment we are considering. When you grow your own you know exactly what you area eating. When you buy from the supermarket or shop, you don’t know what the products have been sprayed with. That is why a lot of people want allotments, espcially women with young children.”

MORE: www.nsalg.org.uk


 


TELL US YOUR STORY


Do you have an allotment story to tell? Is your local council failing in its legal duty to meet requests for allotment plots? Tell us about it by emailing editorial.csh@archant.co.uk 
Mark your email ‘Allotments’

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