Allotment holders dig in to protect their patch

A parliamentary committee will investigate the plight of allotment gardeners this month as their plots are eaten up in the rush to build new housing. Enthusiasts hope MPs can persuade ministers to act but, writes Fran Abrams, there has been little sign that this will happen.

Almost 50 of England's 7,800 allotment sites have been sold off to developers with ministers' blessing since last May, it emerged last week. In some areas allotment holders are "digging in" to protect their land as the bulldozers prepare to move in.

Although the1925 Allotments Act protects the plots, set up so that working people could grow their own food, in reality it has done little for them.

All plans to sell off "statutory" allotments must be approved by ministers. But Angela Eagle, the environment minister, revealed in a parliamentary written answer that she had approved the sale of 47 sites since last May and had refused none.

In fact, under both Labour and the Tories it has been almost unheard of for ministers to turn down allotment sales. Geoff Stokes, secretary of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, said he could only remember two occasions on which a request had been refused, out of hundreds over the past decade.

He said that although interest had declined over the years, food scares had led to new interest among young people. But councils looking for sites for an estimated 4.4 million homes needed between 1990 and 2015 are eyeing the prime land, often on the outskirts of existing housing. The society will present evidence to the Commons Environment Committee this month.

"Because of its location this land is actually needed not just for allotment purposes but for its ecological value to the community," Mr Stokes said. Although gardeners are offered alternatives when the developers move in, many of them are pensioners and do not want to move.

The society has presented the parliamentary inquiry with a survey of allotments just completed for it by Professor David Crouch of Anglia Polytechnic University. It shows that since 1970 the number of individual plots has dwindled from 530,000 to fewer than 300,000. The loss of "non- statutory" plots which are either temporary or privately owned has been even sharper. In 1970 just half the total number were statutory, compared with three-quarters today.