Lord Heseltine addresses Chelsea Flower Show on potential of horticulture to benefit deprived communities

Lord Heseltine has highlighted the positive role that horticulture can play in the renewal of deprived communities - while warning government structures are missing the "place-based challenge" such communities present to local people.

Lord Heseltine
Lord Heseltine

"There is huge opportunity here but it is a journey half completed. Our structure of government rests too much on the functional monopoly of the Whitehall Departments," Lord Heseltine said.

Former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine told lunch guests at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show: "The Royal Horticultural Society’s gardens, scientific expertise, educational and conservation initiatives enjoy international esteem. Kew, Edinburgh and other arboreta, our great parks and countless public and private gardens are one of mankind’s finest partnerships with the natural world.

"Most of my political life has focused on urban development, renewal and regeneration. There is a remarkable interrelationship with horticulture.

"Agriculture and horticulture developed side by side to provide food. Medicinal and culinary monastery gardens, pre-dated the landscapes and gardens of the great estates. Over fifty pleasure gardens were created after the restoration of Charles II in 1660. The Industrial Revolution brought the concept of gardening to an ever larger urban middleclass.

"The need to protect commons enjoyed public support – Hampstead Heath, Clapham and Wimbledon remain today. William Pitt in 1808 is credited with the description of the parks as the lungs of London. In 1842 London public parks were added - Victoria Park in Hackney, Battersea and Finsbury. The Public Health Act of 1875 introduced loans to acquire land for recreation. You can walk the 3 miles from Parliament to Olympia through Parks that are part of London’s 1,700.

"Ebenezer Howard after 1898 ensured horticulture was central to the Garden City movement and planning of the New Towns.

"Professor Abercrombie’s wartime work anticipated the reconstruction that peace would enable.

"I have referred frequently to the changes as they affected London but similar changes were to be found throughout the United Kingdom’s towns and cities.

"Nearly one fifth of the land in our towns and cities are parks and gardens.

"There is nothing new in Politics. The Garden Festivals of 1979 mirrored earlier initiatives. It is a shame the idea disappeared. The RHS Bridgewater Garden project in Salford, Greater Manchester is a glowing example of imaginative urban renewal.

"There is a clear linkage with horticulture. A myriad of innovative projects involving urban communities in horticulture are being developed by socially minded groups for cultural and therapeutic purposes.

"We can now truly say we are a nation of gardeners. But what is a garden?

"We have the great public and private estates. Millions of our citizens own gardens ranging from tens of square meters to small numbers of acres. Many more live in flats with balconies or window boxes. Allotments are much more than just food producing plots. They are communities of friendship and yes, let’s say it, human competitiveness.

"But there is something more. In my view – much more!

"In whichever form, they are expressions of ourselves. They are statements of pride and responsibility. They are definable spaces often requiring easily acquired skills. They provide talking points for communication with neighbours. They impose a year round discipline. They provide a therapeutic escape from daily pressures.

"A huge number of organisations have grasped the significance.

"Since 1964 the RHS’s Britain in Bloom competitions have involved different communities across the UK creating greener and more beautiful surroundings and a growing sense of community pride. Over 200 communities participate in RHS’s "It’s your neighbourhood", a community gardening project helping people to make lasting improvements to their local environment, whether that’s the street they live in, or a small patch of communal land.

"And their latest campaign, Greening Grey Britain is doing much to encourage others to turn paved over gardens and derelict land into beautiful green spaces.

"The Federation of City Farms began in the 1960s and now has nearly a thousand community gardens. Its first urban farm was established in Kentish Town in 1972.

"It was my privilege to help with the launch of Groundwork in St Helens in 1981. Groundwork has plans for allotments in Speke as part of their programme of over 2,500 projects to help urban communities make better use of their environment.

"Kew, backed by the Big Lottery Fund has developed "Grow Wild" to grow of wild flowers in urban, particularly deprived, areas.

"There are many local organisations.

"Oak Farm in South Shropshire, OrganicLea in London’s East End, Scotswood Natural Community Garden in Newcastle upon Tyne, Teesside Town Farm Community Allotment and Training Centre in Middlesbrough. There are many, many more.

"All these organisations recognise the creative and therapeutic capacity of horticulture to stimulate interest, energy and commitment for countless of our less privileged citizens.

"There is huge opportunity here but it is a journey half completed.

"Our structure of government rests too much on the functional monopoly of the Whitehall Departments.

"Take deprived urban communities. Horticulture is sponsored by DEFRA. The Home Office deals with drugs and crime. The Health Department mental health. Department for Communities and Local Government with local government and the Department for Employment with unemployment. There are two gaps. Insufficient attention will focus on the place based challenge of living in a deprived community in the first place. Second, little attempt will be made to involve the local people themselves.

"If I had been elected earlier this month to one of the new mayoral authorities – a job in my view more exciting and powerful than half the Cabinet – I would have established an effective coordinating body to tackle the challenges of the deprived communities. 

"That is where you will find the truly forgotten people of our time. The challenges of such concentrated deprivation – unemployment, lack of skills, low education attainment, obesity, loneliness and mental health issues - all focus on the question how do you help people feel a sense of purpose, an interest in what their life holds.

"There are no simple answers to complex questions but gardening can play a part. Derelict land is all too present. Provide them with the tools to plant it. If they plant it they may feel a pride in what they did. They may wish to defend it, even extend it. The work requires little skill but it offers ladders. If a person starts by tidying the garden of an elderly pensioner, there is a short journey to a full time job with elderly folk willing to pay someone to do the same in nearby more prosperous suburbs. Mental health is often associated with the condition of people living in deprived communities. It is a serious problem with many causes. It can be a consequence of joblessness or financial poverty. Giving people a purpose in life may counter the pressures they feel.

"Step by step as urban living has created the huge conurbations, people have sought to use nature to humanise the built environment. I think this is a lesson with still much to teach us.

"We know the pleasure we get from gardening. We know also the therapeutic sense of purpose and personal satisfaction and the pride of achievement we derive.

"If it does so much to enrich our lives imagine what it could do for others."


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