Gardens: Growth industry

After decades of declining interest, allotments are now seeing a comeback all over Britain. Anna Pavord charts their popularity and meets the people who are digging for victory
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One of the lesser-known acts of Harold Wilson's government in the 1960s was to appoint a Committee of Inquiry into Allotments. Its findings were published in the Thorpe report, not the Liberal MP Jeremy 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 cooperative societies, the trade unions and the Workers' Educational Association.

The allotment's finest hour came in the Second World War when a million-and-three-quarter plots were cultivated under 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. The last major survey, carried out in 1998 by the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), suggested there had been a dramatic drop to 25,416 acres. And yet in most areas there are long waiting lists for allotments. Demand is vastly outstripping supply.

Under the Smallholdings and Allotments Act of 1908, all councils (except those in Inner London) have a statutory duty to provide allotments where there is a 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 did in the boom years before the current bust, they had 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. But once they have been turned into car parks, or slip roads or offices, they cannot return to the spade.

Councils may offer alternative sites to allotment holders, but these are often further away from where they 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 more than a quarter-of-a-million gardeners, most of whom have nowhere else to grow things.

And there's another problem. Alternative sites are by definition on ground that hasn't previously been used for allotments. All the hard work of breaking up ground, mulching, bringing the soil into good heart has to be done all over again and it will be several generations before the new ground is anywhere near as good as the ground left behind. That tilth that vegetable gardeners keep going on about doesn't arrive in a bag from the garden centre.

The 1998 survey showed that there were 7,796 allotment sites in England, offering 296,923 plots. On average that works out at a plot for every 65 households, 15 for every thousand. But the plots aren't always where the demand is. Eight hundred people are waiting for allotments in Greater Manchester, 700 in Plymouth. Bath and Northeast Somerset Council's website (an exemplary one) gives stark figures for the 38 sites they list. No vacancies anywhere and a 10-year wait for one of the 50 plots at Claremont Road, Bath, 10 years at the Upper Bristol Road site, 10 years at Banwell Road. As Bryn Pugh says (he's legal consultant to the NSALG) it's time the 1908 Act was properly enforced. There needs to be a set period within which councils have to provide the necessary land and sanctions if they don't. He sees salvation coming from an unlikely quarter. Private landowners, no longer getting payments for setaside are beginning to offer that land for allotments instead.

Four years ago, Ben Chapman, the Labour MP for Wirral South, asked some searching questions on allotments in Parliament. On 22 July this year, he asked them again. Where is the land promised in the 1908 Act? Why are people having to wait so long? "The sad paradox of increasing demand and decreasing opportunity must not be allowed to continue," he said. I'd ask another question too. What's happened to all the money from the sale of allotments in the past, which under the provision of the Act, was supposed to be set aside to fund new ones (or bring better facilities to old ones).

As it happens, the very same day Mr Chapman was speaking, I was at the Longbarrow Allotments on the northern outskirts of Bournemouth, talking to Peter Whiting, who recently won the title of Allotmenteer of the Year in a competition organised by Garden News. This is quite a new site, handed over in exchange for land that the Bournemouth council wanted to build on. But Mr Whiting, a railwayman and chairman of the Longbarrow Allotment Society thinks they did quite well out of the deal. The council prepared the ground, laid out hard paths and taps for every five allotments, and built a big shed where the society has a gardening shop and a coffee bar.

His plot is immaculately laid out, with everything you hope to see on an allotment: gladioli, dahlias in orange and sulphur yellow, leeks like truncheons, rows of unblighted potatoes, sheaves of celery, sweet peas, runner beans. But there's a lot that's more unusual: cordon gooseberries and redcurrants, beautifully trained stepover apples and pears either side of a path lined with a dwarf box hedge. He grew it from 160 cuttings he took from a plant he was given. He's at his allotment for a couple of hours every day and it shows. It's beautiful. And immaculately maintained.

The Longbarrow site is big – there are 130 plots – but nevertheless there are 50 on the waiting list. In other ways too, says Mr Whiting, the site mirrors what's going on in the rest of the country. Once exclusively male territory, now 25 per cent of the plot holders are women. I met a remarkable trio of 90-year-old men who still work their own ground but they are, they explained, the mid-week contingent. The average age of plot holders here has plummeted, to include a new generation of young, blogging diggers who want to give their children food that's fresh and free from chemicals. They could be the salvation of the allotment movement. Provided they don't give up.

National Allotment Week runs from 11-17 August. Various allotment sites will be opening their doors during the week, including a beautiful one at Craflwyn, Beddgelert, Snowdonia (Tel: 01766 510120) which is open on 17 August (12pm-4pm). Check other openings on

The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners is at O'Dell House, Hunters Road, Corby, Northants NN17 5JE Tel: 01536 266576, Plots (a standard plot is 250square metres) cost from £6-£50 a year. Rent at the Longbarrow allotment site, north of Bournemouth is £30 for a full plot; the Bath rents are twice as much – £30.55 for a half plot with £2.80 extra for water. Despite all that digging, allotment holders seem to have masses of time to blog: Valentine Low of East Acton at; Steve Partridge in Stourbridge at ; others at and