Allotments are not for building on

Paul Kingsnorth on the battle to keep land for people to grow their own food, rather than for developers to grow rich.

I was recently contacted by the man who runs my local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). He’d got hold of a document which he thought I ought to see. ‘Have a look at what your city council are planning,’ he said. ‘Unbelievable, isn’t it?’

The document he attached was the council’s first foray into what it knows will be extremely controversial plans for massive levels of housebuilding. Oxfordshire, where I live, is planning to build at least 2,500 new houses, every year for the next two decades. The situation is similar in many other places across the country. The question is: where to put them?

None of the options are palatable. You can build all over the green belt, or even build new towns, but environmentalists get very unhappy about that. Because of the protests that tend to ensue, and because of high government targets for building houses on ‘brownfield’ sites – those which have previously been built on – as many new houses as possible will be built within town and city boundaries. Oxford City Council, like many others around the country, has just finished reviewing potential sites within the city for future building. The list of these sites was the document I received from CPRE. The reason that they were unhappy about it was that four of them were allotments.

It didn’t take long for the people who grow their food on the allotments to get wind of the plans. Within a few days a protest group was up and running and on the front page of the local paper. With any luck, this will make the council think twice about building new houses on Oxford’s allotments. But whatever happens, this little local difficulty is merely representative of a much wider trend going on all across Britain – a smash and grab raid on our vegetable patches.

We are in the middle of both the biggest building boom since the postwar period, and the biggest property boom for decades. This combination of high land prices and a desperate desire to build new houses has led to land that was previously ignored, overlooked or regarded as valueless being suddenly worth millions. In this new gold rush, allotments are under serious threat. Many of them are huge, and very close to the centres of cities and towns. For a developer, they are almost insanely desirable. This, combined with increasing pressure from central government to build ridiculously high levels of housing, puts a frightening amount of pressure on local councils to consider building on the carrot patches of the nation.

This would be a disaster. After many decades of decline, allotments have rocketed in popularity in just the past five years. When I first took on my plot, four years ago, half of the others were unused. Now you can’t get one anywhere in the city for love or money, and I know that the situation is similar across the country. The interest in eating locally and organically and, perhaps, boycotting the supermarkets, is leading to an explosion of interest in food growing.

What few people know is that everyone who lives outside central London has a right, in law, to an allotment of their own. Every council is required, under a piece of legislation that dates back to 1908, to provide enough allotments to meet local demand. Very few of them do, perhaps because this legislation has not yet been tested in court. Nevertheless, in law you are entitled to an allotment if you want one. If everybody knew this, and if councils met their obligations, we would currently be seeing a process of mass allotment construction across the country. Instead, we are having to fight to prevent their loss to greedy builders and spineless local officials.

This is, it seems to me, a crucial battle. If we lose it, and our allotments disappear under a tide of brick and concrete, we may lose our best chance to become, as we once were, a nation that grows and appreciates its own food. Plans to build on allotments are underway countrywide. Fortunately, plans to thwart them are underway too.

Perhaps the most famous current example of horticultural resistance is the campaign to save Manor Garden Allotments in east London. Manor Garden Allotments, a beautiful 100- year-old site, has the misfortune to be right in the middle of the proposed Olympic Park. For the sake of three tiresome days of discus throwing and long-jumping, it is to be bulldozed into history. Its plotholders, though, are not going without a fight. The campaign that they set up to save their allotments has had national and even international media coverage, and has inspired many others to fight a flawed vision of progress that replaces soil with concrete and calls it development.

The Olympics is a special case, but the attempt to destroy allotments is not. Yet there’s a fightback among the bean rows and onion beds. The growers of the Ley Allotments in Baxenden, Lancashire, are battling their council’s future plans for housing, too, as are campaigners in Tilehurst in Berkshire, Preston in Lancashire, Eastleigh in Hampshire, Bicester in Oxfordshire, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, Acton in Greater London… the list is as long as you want to make it. The longer it gets, the more depressing it can seem.

But the more campaigns that spring up, the more the authorities know how much people value allotments and the less they are likely to destroy them. I have long had a dream of a spreading landscape of vegetable beds covering the country, taking up space currently used by car parks, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. It’s a dream of people working off their stress, growing and eating their own healthy food, claiming independence from the machine, and all for £16 a year and a fork and spade.

But I have a nightmare too: of our hard-won allotments being built on one by one by development sharks and cowardly councils, while our backs are turned. Which will come true? That’s up to us. Hammer your ploughshares into swords, my friends. It’s time to fight back.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist September 2007

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