Vegetable growers should stand their ground, but they're threatened by housing

The threat to allotments amounts to the largest seizure of common land since the 18th century

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Save our allotments!

Last weekend, I took part in a round of judging for Britain’s Best Allotment competition. I saw some amazing plots tended by some very proud allotmenteers – gigantic onions, perfectly straight cucumbers, resplendent dahlias in cut-flower borders, neat bark-chip paths. But at nearly every site I saw something else, just beyond the boundary: the developer’s bulldozer.

At one site, the scaffolding that framed half-built houses was so close to a plot that the poles jutted through the branches of an apple tree. At another, plotholders talked warily of how developers were keen to get their hands on their allotments which are worth millions for housing. The sites I visited were all safe, for now – but it was impossible to escape the feeling of encroachment, with next-door land being built on.

Land, particularly in the south-east of England where my judging took place, is in such demand for housing the pressure on cash-strapped councils and private owners of allotments is immense. According to information obtained by allotment campaigners, a parade of secretaries of state between 2007 and 2013 turned down just four out of 199 applications by councils and other owners to close sites (a total of 128 were approved, while 67 were withdrawn or invalid). It is easy to think that allotments are sacred, and to believe David Cameron when he said in the Commons, in 2011, that he would do everything he could to protect British allotments, but all the evidence is to the contrary. We take them for granted.

Those FOI figures were obtained by Sara-Jane Trebar, who has led the three-year campaign to save Farm Terrace allotments in Watford from development. Despite winning a High Court battle last year, Farm Terrace is still not safe – Watford council has applied for a third time to replace the site with housing, new facilities for the local hospital and a replacement car park for Watford FC (which would still be viable with the allotments in place) and the decision now rests with the new Communities Secretary, Greg Clark

Across the country, new campaigns are forced into existence by yet more development applications, including in the Prime Minister’s own backyard in the Cotswolds. Coombe Allotments in Wotton under Edge, which can claim to be the oldest site in the country, dating back to 1763, is under threat after the private owner applied to sell off the land for housing. Campaigner Martin Clarke describes the threatened eviction to plotholders, some of whom have had allotments there for 40 years, as a “dagger in the heart of the community”. This time the council, Stroud District, appears to be the hero and is helping to fight to save the Coombe site.

Without these community-led campaigns, allotment sites would just slip from our grasp as quickly as a secretary of state going through his or her red box. Because they are small-scale, piecemeal campaigns, there is no nationwide awareness that what is on the cards is the largest seizure of common land since the enclosures of the 18th century. It is misleading to argue that the housing crisis can be solved by building on allotments, when alternative land is being banked by developers and supermarket giants. And in the end, without an allotment site or other shared green space in the heart of a community, can it be called a community at all?

There are steps that allotment-holders can take, as recommended by the National Allotment Society. If a council controls the waiting list and wants to sell off the site, they have the power to put it into managed decline, allowing plots to become overgrown without chasing the list. Plotholders can group together to take over the waiting list and make sure their allotments are kept viable. They can also apply for their site to be registered as an “asset of community value”, which gives them some, but not absolute, protection from development. While hundreds of sites are at risk, it is Farm Terrace that has become a cause célèbre in the modern allotment movement, which marks National Allotments Week next week. If Greg Clark rules in favour of Watford council, he will have a nation of plotholders to answer to.

All choked up

In a poignant interview with Mary Riddell in The Daily Telegraph on Friday, Ed Balls revealed that, after his shock defeat on 7 May, he couldn’t play the piano, which he had learnt as a way to let off steam while shadow chancellor, for several weeks. Messages of condolence from Tony Blair, George Osborne, the Archbishop of Canterbury and even his old mentor Gordon Brown telling him to “get back into politics quick” weren’t enough to bring him out of his creative slump. When he was in office, Balls was always portrayed as a machine politician, with unkind opponents claiming his piano playing and crying at the Antiques Roadshow were manufactured, yet he is one of the most “human”, and by that I mean emotionally charged, individuals to have served in Parliament. The last time I saw him was in a children’s bookshop in Hove during the election campaign, when he gave a tour-de-force reading of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. If this was acting, then it was of the method variety.

A Cornish curse?

With David Cameron due to start his holiday today as the Calais crisis still swirls around him, I wonder whether the Prime Minister has taken on board the lesson of recent history. Cameron is shunning Cornwall for another staycation - my money’s on Jura - after a string of West country mishaps. Cameron was in Cornwall when David Davis resigned as shadow home secretary in 2008; and again, in 2009, when his close aide Andrew MacKay quit over expenses. A year later, while the PM was in the county, Lord Young was forced to resign as a minister after saying most people had “never had it so good” while the Camerons’ family holiday in 2011 was cut short because of the escalating crisis in Libya. Last summer, Cameron was hit by “Isis, what crisis?” headlines as he surfed on the beach in Polzeath amid growing concern over Islamic State and the hostage-taker who later became known as “Jihadi John”. Perhaps pre-empting another Cornish vacation cut short, the Prime Minister is wise to give Cornwall a wide berth. At least it’s not Kent.

Twitter: @janemerrick23