Victoria Summerley: City Life

'By the time they get around to my application for an allotment , I'm likely to need a plot in the cemetery opposite'
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The Independent Online

So you've seen the television series Grow Your Own Veg and been enthused by the wonderful Carol Klein. You grew up on The Good Life and possibly (depending on gender) been filled with lust or envy by Felicity Kendal's ability to look good in a pair of dungarees. You long for the inimitable taste of your own beans and potatoes; the crunch of homegrown cabbage, the scent of a tomato leaf.

Or you may, like me, have wandered down the road to look at the produce at your local horticultural society's annual flower and veg show the other weekend and wondered whether you too could grow those prize-winning carrots or dahlias. All you need now is the allotment. No problem; just ring up your local council, or download an application form.

Ho, ho, ho. Excuse me while I writhe around helplessly for a couple of hours in the grip of hysterical laughter. Because, as far as I can make out, there just aren't any allotments – or, at least, none that are vacant.

Initially, I thought this was an inner-London problem. The cost of land, pressure on sites, need for housing, blah blah: it seems unrealistic to expect to find your own little plot just sitting there waiting for you if you live in the city. However, it seems to be the same picture nationwide.

In the last major survey of allotments, carried out on behalf of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners in 1997, it was discovered that plots across England were disappearing at a rate of 9,400 per year. It was also found that the number of people waiting for an allotment site had more than doubled since 1970.

However, the quite astonishing waiting lists in London came as a bit of a shock. I know, because I'm on one of them – in fact, I am No 263 in the queue for the allotments just round the corner. By the time they get round to my application, though, I think I'm more likely to have been awarded a plot in the cemetery opposite.

The Greater London Assembly compiled its own survey of London allotments last year and came to the conclusion that not only were allotments disappearing (there was a loss of 32 sites in 10 years), but also that the remaining sites were growing smaller – nibbled away for road-widening schemes and so on. The GLA report estimates that 1,534 plots have gone in 10 years, the equivalent of 54 football pitches.

Indeed, the only reason the councils can keep pace with demand at all is by splitting the plots in half or even into four. The traditional size of an allotment is 10 rods (a rod is 5.5 yards), but the argument for splitting is that people have less time these days and so want a smaller slice of land to cultivate. Wandsworth allotments, for example, tend to be two or three rods.

This tendency to halve plots is in itself controversial. The reason allotments were 10 rods is because that was reckoned to be the amount of land one family needed to support themselves. Opponents also argue that it is more difficult to practise crop rotation – which prevents the build-up of disease and pests in the soil – in a smaller plot.

All this comes at a time when the clamour for vegetable plots is huge. The report cites what it calls the "embourgeoisement" of allotments, driven by lifestyle supplements, television programmes and an interest in healthy, if not organic, produce. Many of the new allotment-holders are women, or the parents of young families, or belong to ethnic minorities.

So what's anybody doing about it? Not very much, it seems. The GLA report rather feebly suggests that wannabe allotment-holders apply for plots in boroughs with vacancies, which of course are those on the furthest edges of London. This is impractical, especially if you have a young family, or want to get in an hour or so's digging in the evenings after work.

It's not much consolation to me, living as I do in Wandsworth, that there might be an allotment going in, say, Hillingdon. By the time I got there, thanks to weekend Tube closures and/or roadworks, it would be Christmas, never mind time to harvest my maincrop potatoes or plant out the spring cabbages and broad beans.

However, there is a lot that both local authorities and government could do about it if they really wanted to. According to Section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotment Act 1908, if allotment authorities "are of the opinion that there is a demand for allotments... the council shall provide a sufficient number of allotments to persons... resident in the borough district or parish. In determining demand, an authority must take into consideration a representation in writing by any six registered parliamentary electors or rate payers." In other words, in theory, I and five neighbours could go and demand that the local council supply us with allotments.

Furthermore, Section 25 of the same Act gave a local authority the power to compulsorily purchase land for allotments if land could not be acquired by private agreement. And further legislation in the Land Settlement Facilities Act 1919 (which was brought in to help returning servicemen), allowed authorities "to appropriate for allotments any land held for other purposes". Hey, now you're talking.

What are the chances of my local authority acting upon these clauses? Zero to sod all, I'm afraid – in London, councils can use their discretion, more's the pity. But it's nice to dream – perhaps of an army of would-be allotmenteers, brandishing giant parsnips and massive cucumbers, battering down the doors of town halls across the capital and demanding the right to grow.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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