Hands off my allotment

The city dweller's hallowed patch of land is under threat from developers. But the city gardeners are not just townies with trowels and green wellies. They're fighting back. By Michael Leapman
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The Independent Culture
There are 250,000 of us. We dress shabbily, get mucky in some of Britain's unloveliest urban landscapes and usually keep ourselves to ourselves. But as we enjoy the year's first succulent peas, lettuce, raspberries and new potatoes, a new spirit is sweeping over the nation's allotment holders. We have suddenly become a fashionable minority.

Allotment holders have been embattled for a long time, but until now nobody has noticed. Ever since World War Two, when allotment numbers peaked at l,450,000, local councils and other authorities have been repossessing them. At last, our plight has come to the attention of the Commons select committee on the environment and is being aired in the media. This week, after months of hearings, the committee noted that allotment sites were being sold to developers at an alarming rate, and urged the Government to frame new laws to halt the process.

"We believe the provision of allotments is a national issue," its report declared.

So it is; but we of the grubby fingernails and mud-caked boots have come to realise that New Labour, supposed friend of the downtrodden and advocate of honest toil, has no more sympathy for us than the other lot. Since the Government took office last year, John Prescott's Environment Department has received scores of requests to close sites - and approved all at them.

Under the Allotment Acts of 1887 and 1908, local councils are obliged to provide plots where non-landowners can grow food - an early form of welfare for the virtuous poor. The sites can be closed only with Government approval, and even then the council has to offer alternatives.

Yet too often the dispossessed gardeners are offered a site too far from their homes to be practical. Or it may require years of back-breaking work just to get the soil into a good enough condition.

It is ironic that Mr. Prescott's department should act as our scourge, because his home town of Hull is a stronghold of the allotment movement. At the start of the decade, Bernard Ostler, who had an impeccable plot not far from the city centre, was twice named National Allotment Champion by the Royal Horticultural society.

I remember going to see his hallowed space a few years back, sitting in a cosy wicker chair in the potting shed while he brewed me tea on his Primus stove and reminded me of the philosophy of the allotment gardener: "Once we come through that gate we're all equal. If you're a bank manager or a pauper, nobody's better than anyone else." Surely a sentiment that Mr. Prescott should warm to.

To non-believers, it is hard to explain the appeal of allotments. The tumbledown sheds, the broken fences, the flapping plastic bags tied to sticks to frighten off the pigeons - many find them an eyesore, and would be only too glad to get rid of them.

Yet, as LS Lowry taught us, there can be beauty even in desolate industrial landscapes. Allotments are often the only green spaces for miles around and provide a haven for wildlife. On the plot in Brixton, south London, that I have dug for more than 20 fulfilling years, urban foxes romp among the cabbages.

More importantly for thousands of us, allotments are a way of life. We swap seedlings and shallots, praise our neighbours'parsnips, covet their carrots and share tales of woe about the vagaries of the weather.

Geoff Stokes, secretary of the national Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, says: "They're communities. A lot of people on low incomes without transport don't have access to fresh food at reasonable prices."

Mind you, most of us are not in it to save money. When I added up some sums a few years ago, I found that nearly everything I grew cost me more than it would at Brixton market.

But that is not the point. The passions that our hobby can arouse were revealed last March in ITV's Neighbours from Hell where a Yorkshire allotment holder set up a video camera to catch an ill-wisher doing unspeakable things to his courgettes. "You disgusting bastard rat," he muttered mildly.

Vandalism and theft are common complaints among allotment holders but I have seldom found them a problem, perhaps because my produce does not look good enough to steal or perhaps because it grows just outside the forbidding walls of Brixton prison. Occasionally, I find that local kids have been playing football with my giant red cabbages, but the novelty soon wears off as they find more exciting things to do with their leisure.

The traditional image of an allotment holder is of a retired man spending his declining years tottering among the turnips - but the select committee says this is no longer a true picture. About a third of today's allotment holders are under 50, and many are women.

That was certainly not the case when I first acquired my allotment in the mid-Seventies. I was easily the youngest on the site and my pensioner neighbours would try to wind me up: "We've seen your sort before. After a few weeks you'll find out how much hard work it is and we'll never see you again."

I persisted, just to show them, even going as far as to lend the plot to a friend when I went to live in America so that I would not lose my rights to my precious patch of land. Now I am old enough to patronise newcomers myself.

Our precious urban patches cost an average rent of pounds 22 a year for a standard plot of ten rods, poles or perches - about 90ft by 30ft. No wonder 13,000 people all over the country are on waiting lists: and no wonder the authorities that own them feel they could be put to more profitable use.

I have just received the annual bill for my own allotment, half the standard size and owned by the local water company. It comes to pounds 10.50 and I am saving hard.

Plots are being lost across the length and breadth of the land. At Easineton in Durham (which has more allotments per head than any other English county), 61 sheds will go under the bulldozers in December. At Burwash in East Sussex, longtime home of the poet Rudyard Kipling, a productive site has been replaced by one on a chill east-facing slope, accessible only by a narrow, overgrown path. As its most famous son almost wrote: "If you can keep your patch when all about you are losing theirs ...".

A few enlightened councils have come down in favour of the green-fingered. In Stockport, the supermarket giant Tesco wanted to expand on to an allotment site and offered to build the gardeners spanking new sheds, greenhouses and toilets on a virgin field a mile or so away.

Toilets? What nonsense: a crafty pee behind the blackberries is good enough for anyone. The tenants, entirely unimpressed, dug in their hoes and refused to budge - so the council would not sell Tesco the land.

Says Geoff Stokes: "lt isn't just a few old men in cloth caps who are going to fight it out to the bitter end. There's a lot of support out there. We've put it in people's minds what it is they're losing. There's a lot in the committee's report that should allow the movement to go forward."

I hope Mr. Prescott will heed it. The seeds of protest have already been planted and the report could prove the fertilizer they need. Now we must hope for fair weather and the usual bit of luck.