Urban gardener, Cleve West: Losing the plots

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The Independent Online

The plight of Manor Gardens Allotments, which face destruction to make way for a footpath within the 2012 Olympic complex, makes the story of David and Goliath look quite tame by comparison. Land that was granted to the allotment association in perpetuity by the philanthropist Major Arthur Villiers is about to be lost at a stroke. Their plea to the London Development Agency (LDA) to incorporate the allotments into the bosom of the Olympic ideal (think tolerance, friendship, co-operation, understanding) has been met with bureaucratic incredulity that they should even think of interfering with their plans.

Julie Sumner, co-ordinator of the campaign to save the allotments, recently invited Vincent Bartlett of the LDA to attend a feast at the allotments. She heard nothing - although she received a misdirected e-mail that said: 'I'm presuming we do nothing apart from despair at this persistence!'

At the moment they face temporary relocation to Marsh Lane, Leyton - too far away for most of the existing plotholders - where they have already encountered a certain amount of 'nimbyism' from local residents. Then they have been asked to move back to a corner of the Legacy Park too close to the noise and pollution of a busy road network. With the 2 April eviction deadline looming, a petition to the Prime Minister has over 1,500 signatures from those outraged at the lack of vision by planners.

Villiers, a friend of Winston Churchill and a director of Barings Bank, was so disgusted by the way the working class were treated, both on the battlefields of the First World War and when they returned home, that he donated land in and around the Lea Valley, and created sports facilities for deprived children and allotments for their families on which to grow food. Such was the strength of his vision that when directors of neighbouring Oxo wrote to say they liked the idea of buying the allotments in order to build another factory, he wrote back to say he liked the idea of buying their premises to turn them into allotments.

The link between sport and growing food locally was obviously seen as an essential ingredient for healthy living at Manor Gardens, and the plotholders don't see why the two shouldn't be seen standing proudly together as London celebrates the 30th Olympiad, particularly when organisers claim it will be 'the greenest Olympics ever'.

The problem, I suspect, is that we preconceive 'greenness' to be something that is sustainable and beautiful. While no one would doubt the allotments' sustainability credentials, some may feel that a ramshackle collection of sheds, plant supports and compost heaps resembles a 'shanty town' and shouldn't rub shoulders with neat paths, mown grass, shiny steel and glass. But why not? The contrast would be a masterstroke. To see, on your way to watch the final of the 100m, a real slice of London where people of all races, colours and creeds work as a community (a rare notion in any city) could be celebrated as a feature in itself. Plotholders at Manor Gardens have suggested they could even feed an Olympic athlete during the course of the Games to offset some of the guilt of allowing fast food sponsors such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola to sell their not-so healthy products.

With David Mackay, architect for the Barcelona Olympic Village and Port, complaining that the scheme has some of 'the silliest architecture seen for years with no real concern for legacy', the campaign has caught the imagination of Londoners who want to see the Olympics hailed as a benchmark for future games and other developments, instead of just another bunion on an inappropriately placed foot of thoughtless planning. Goliath stands tall over Manor Gardens Allotments, but if the LDA is concerned about embarrassing U-turns, they needn't worry for it's plainly a win-win situation. Let's hope they don't squander it.

If you want to sign the petition to save Manor Garden Allotments visit www.lifeisland.org and follow the links

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