A lot of fun - why allotments are good for the soul

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Allotments are good for the soul and enjoying a resurgence in interest, says Tony Baldry, which is why local councils and developers should be required to grow their own

Exactly 100 years ago, Parliament passed a Bill that sought to ensure that every local council provided ‘sufficient’ allotments for its area. What Parliament didn’t do, however, was to put in place any adequate mechanisms to measure sufficiency or to provide an accessible remedy to any local resident who felt that their local council was making insufficient allotment provision.

At the time the legislation was enacted, local councils were keen to make adequate provision of allotments, and Town And Country Planning Legislation of 1925 once again made provision for Local Authorities to consider providing allotments whenever they came up with a new town plan. Unfortunately, when at some later date this piece of planning legislation was overtaken by new planning provisions, the reference to allotments got lost.

Since the Second World War and until recently there has been relentless pressure on allotment land. In no small part this was because governments of successive political hues put pressure on Local Authorities to sell surplus assets or to provide matched funding for any capital projects, from sports centres to social housing – selling allotment land for development often looked like an easy way to raise cash for the local council.

Certain allotments have statutory protection. They can’t be sold off without the permission of the Secretary of State, but that has often been achieved by the simple expedient of Local Authorities promising to make similar provision elsewhere.

Local councils, particularly inner city or urban authorities, are quite often put in a difficult situation. For example, when undertaking research on my Bill, I came across some much-loved allotments in Lambeth, but which are under pressure because Lambeth Borough Council is trying to find playing field space for the Nelson Mandela Secondary School. All too often, sadly, it seems it is the allotments that give way rather than land being found elsewhere.

Local councils seem to be able to get away with this continuing erosion of allotment provision, in part because allotment holders don’t seem to have much of a constituency of support. Perhaps, like pigeon fanciers and whippet owners, they appeared to reflect a tendency and a pastime that was dying out – why grow one’s own food when supermarkets are awash with plenty of produce from around the world, irrespective of season?

As with so many deep-rooted British traditions, however, in recent years the doom-mongers have been completely confounded, and there has been a phenomenal resurgence of interest in allotments. Councils around the country now have lengthy waiting lists and are often having to halve the size of plots to help meet the demand.

Young mothers, families and migrants keen to grow their own vegetables have brought new life to allotments. Much recent housing development has occurred with tiny gardens, and this has also resulted in anyone who seriously wants to grow their own flowers or vegetables looking for allotment space.

The difficulty is that many Local Authorities now have little, if any, land left on which to make new allotment provision, and such new provision that has come about in recent years has largely been made by Parish Councils.

Bicester, a town in my constituency, is a good example. Bicester is one of the fastest-growing towns in England.

The Town Council seeks to maximise the use of the allotments that they have, but they have no spare land to create new allotments; indeed, like many other councils, they have a further serious land issue in that the local cemetery will be full in a couple of years’ time, and so they are also having to look for land for a cemetery extension, or new burial ground.

Some land on the edge of the town that had for a number of years been used as allotments but didn’t have statutory allotment protections was recently sold off by the Church Commissioners for development. Indeed, the town is surrounded by some very substantial new housing developments, and it would make every sense for the local District Council to have had the power to required the developers to make allotment provision as part of those new large-scale housing developments.

House-builders won’t necessarily relish having to make land available for allotments, of course, but when they are given planning permission over huge acreages of land they are given very substantial planning gain, and it does not seem unreasonable that the community should require that provision be made for amenities that are seen as being of benefit to the common good.

My Bill – which, as with so many 10-Minute Rule Bills, was destined by lack of Parliamentary time not to make significant progress – was intended to give the power to Local Authorities to insist that in new major housing developments, as part of the planning agreement, the developers made new allotment provision, either on that development or elsewhere.

During the summer, it is worth allotment holders’ trying to persuade their own MPs to go and visit their local allotments, to experience for themselves something of the burgeoning interest in allotments that is taking place, as well as to enlist their MP’s support for encouraging new allotments.

Every year, in the ballot of Private Members’ Bills, as many as 20 Members of Parliament have an opportunity to be given sufficient Parliamentary time to have a real chance of getting a Bill on to the Statute book. Sooner rather than later, hopefully, it may be possible that an MP will come forward to take up one of those slots as an allotment champion.

Local Authorities are already entitled to require developers to make provision for a range of social amenities in return for the very substantial planning gains that they receive when planning permission is granted, and this is entirely in-line with the wording of the 1908 legislation and in the spirit of subsequent legislation relating to allotments.

Interestingly, Members of Parliament from around the country had large numbers of constituents writing to them in support of my Bill. Ministers in the Department of Communities and Local Government have been asked to give a detailed response and I sense that there is a momentum for new allotments. In the future, with steady pressure, this may result in far more people once again having the opportunity to access allotments to grow their own, fruit, flowers and vegetables.

Tony Baldry is Conservative MP for Banbury

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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