Gardening: Kitchen gardeners lose the plot

Developers' un-green fingers are meddling with allotment holders' rights, reports Anna Pavord
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One of the lesser known acts of Harold Wilson's government in the Sixties was to appoint a Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. Its findings became known as the Thorpe report - not the Liberal Thorpe, but a professor of geography at Birmingham University.

The committee made 44 major recommendations, none of which was acted on by Wilson's government - or any subsequent one. Just as well. "Each site," said the report sternly, "should be subjected to a programme of landscaping and improvement under the guidance of a landscape architect." And, "no tenant should be permitted to erect any form of structure on his leisure garden without the prior approval of the planning authority and such approval must cover design, materials, size, colour and location."

Such faith in landscape architects! Such faith in planning authorities! And such evident terror of the anarchic free spirit that to many people is the whole point of being involved in allotments: the makeshift fences, the sheds run up from old doors and sheets of corrugated iron, the greenhouses tacked together with battens and tatters of polythene. Scruffy, but resourceful.

Recycling is a moral imperative now - almost a religion. You don't go to church. You go to the bottle bank to get your weekly shot of uplift. But on allotments, recycling has been going on since they were invented. Pride here comes, not from boasting how much money you have spent, but in demonstrating how much you haven't. Allotments are part of a self-help movement that, in more idealistic times, produced the co-operative societies, the trade unions and the WEA.

The allotment's finest hour came in the Second World War, when 1.75 million plots were cultivated under the banner of the "Dig for Victory" campaign. On these small patches, allotment holders raised a tenth of all the food produced in Britain during the war years.

Since that peak there has been an inexorable decline in the number of holdings: 85,000 acres in 1960, 58,000 in 1970, 49,000 in 1980. A major survey recently completed by the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners shows that the present level marks a dramatic drop to 25,416 acres. The current obsession with health and fitness and the sort of food that we are putting in our stomachs has evidently not manifested itself as a rush to allotment sites, to a grow-your-own culture. Simpler to buy organic vegetables scrubbed and wrapped at Waitrose, and resolve the health question with a jog round the park.

Under the Smallholdings and Allotments Act of 1908, local councils have a statutory duty to provide allotments where there is a demonstrable demand for them. These statutory sites are supposed to have protection in law. If a council wants to turn an allotment site into a building site, which many of them do, they are supposed to get approval from the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The Government tried to lose this safeguard in the verbiage of the 1980 Local Government Planning and Land Bill. Fortunately it was retrieved. But the central problem remains. Allotment sites, which at the beginning of the century were perhaps on the fringes of cities, are now prime development sites. Once they have been turned into car parks, or slip roads or offices, they cannot return to the spade. The 68 residents of the Hazel Grove Allotments in Stockport have been fighting a long-running battle against the supermarket giant Tesco, which wants to cover their carefully tilled plots with another giant superstore.

Councils (or, in the Stockport case, Tesco) may offer alternative sites to allotment holders, but these are often farther away from where people live. To be used properly, allotments have to be handy. You should be able to get to the site in the evening after work almost as easily as you could stroll into your back garden. If you had one. These are the back gardens of 300,000 gardeners, most of whom have nowhere else to grow things.

The recent survey shows that demand does not necessarily equal supply. In Lancashire, where only 89 plots (2 per cent) lie untilled, there are 899 hopefuls on council waiting lists. There's a mismatch in Northumberland, too, where just 94 (3 per cent) of the county's 3,428 plots are vacant, but 325 people want to garden. The figures show that the allotment tradition is still much stronger in the north than in the south. Outer London has more plots to offer than any other area in the country, but 18 per cent of them lie idle.

Leslie Beresford, who grows all his own vegetables on his plot at the Palewell and East Sheen Allotments, points out that people don't keep their plots as long as they used to. He's had his for more than 50 years. In the Fifties, tenancies lasted for about 22 years. By the Seventies, tenure was down to 10 years. Now the average is two years. Tenacity and steadfastness are unfashionable virtues, but without them allotments would be dead. Dig now, for victory against Tarmac and steel.

The National Allotment Survey Report is available, price pounds 10, from the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, O'Dell House, Hunters Road, Corby, Northants NN17 5JE (01536 266576).

Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South (and secretary of the House of Commons gardening club) has instigated an inquiry into allotments by the Select Committee on the Environment. Among other issues, the committee will consider whether tougher legislation is needed to protect sites from development. If you have a view, make it known to Elizabeth Payne, Clerk of the Environment Sub-Committee, House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Allotment lottery

There are 7,796 allotment sites in England. Together, they offer 296,923 plots and cover 25,416 acres. On average there is now just one plot for every 65 households, 15 for every 1,000. Allotment-lovers should move to County Durham, where there are 32 plots for every 1,000 households. Essex householders care least about them - 28 per cent of plots are vacant. The longest waiting lists are in Tyne and Wear, where 1,118 people are fighting for 236 vacant plots. Inner London has only 5,479 plots, but Outer London has 30,954, more than any other area; 18 per cent are empty, and only 65 per cent have water laid on.