Allotments are currently held by 250,000 people in the UK. Some figures suggest there are a further 200,000 people now on waiting lists who would like to grow their own — and spend money on gardening products.
But how many allotments have grown over in the 60-odd years since the war — the last time that grow-your-own was as popular as it is now?
Back then, grow-your-own was a necessity. Now it is a hobby. Few seriously suggest they can save much money. But the everlasting satisfaction of producing food for yourself means the allotment is the new must-have commodity for the upwardly mobile.
This is putting pressure on councils that have neglected allotments for decades as budgets fell and they concentrated on statuary provision for rate-payers. Many allotments have even been sold off as the mood changed from austerity to leisure gardens.
Now, Sun and HW writer Peter Seabrook has launched a campaign to expose the neglect of once-thriving plots.
Seabrook has singled out Bolton Metropolitan Borough Council as having "vacant land waist-high in weeds and brambles". Bolton head of green spaces Malcolm Russell said: "We have procedures if people don't cultivate their plots. We do clear plots to make them usable. The most important thing is getting them turned around as quickly as possible because of the waiting lists.
"We are one of the few authorities that actually do that," he added.
"At the moment we are looking at half plots and working with the health trust and voluntary sector partners so new tenants who think having an allotment is easy don't get caught out when it turns out that it isn't. We use community plots to help reduce failure rate, which is a problem in people's first year or two.
"We don't terminate if we don't have to. One person's overgrown site is another person's untidy plot. Like most local authorities it is an issue. So we're looking at smaller plots and using community plots so people can get an understanding of what it will be like to have an allotment. There are big social and health benefits and we don't want to push people off, particularly older people. It is an issue up and down the country and every now and again it comes to the top of the agenda."
National Allotment Gardens Trust coordinator Neil Dixon says plots in his home city of Plymouth remain under threat from development.
He said councils had closed down allotment land when it was not in demand to earmark for development but were now reluctant to take it out of mothballs even though they had allotment waiting lists.
He called on council park departments to get back to basics and employ "maintenance men" to clear them.
Harrow council is among those that have been accused of neglecting plots. Allotment holder Mike Beech said: "We used to get our grass cut twice a year but this year it hasn't been cut at all."
Harrow in Leaf pressure group representative Georgia Weston said: "People have requested plots and been told there is a waiting list but our records show there are plots available."
Councillor Susan Hall, portfolio holder for environment services, said: "Each year Harrow council spends £20,000 on allotment maintenance. However, we are aware that we need to invest additional resources in this service and have drafted our first allotment strategy." This "allotment strategy" includes half-price allotments.
In Longlevens, Gloucestershire, allotment holder Mike Baldwin said 2m-high weeds on neighbouring plots were a mess. A council representative said there were 350 people on waiting lists and the council is "looking to appoint an allotments officer to bring over- grown and disused allotment plots back into use". The council also plans to work more closely with allotment associations.
Steve Poole writes in his allotments history The Allotment Chronicles about Professor Harry Thorpe, who wrote a wide-ranging allotment report for the Ministry of Land & Resources, published in 1969. Thorpe said the way to address the decline of allotments was to turn them into leisure gardens in the European way. This time has passed; people want to grow their own edibles now. But Thorpe's other main move was to set up model allotments with tenants having a 40 per cent say in their use.
The problem with this is that tenants next to the proposed model allotments did not want them built because they perceived the area they were designated for was seen by allotment holders as a "wildlife area". This sounds similar to Merton's Martin Way allotments (HW, 21 August). Neglected allotments are now in demand and there is plenty of neglected allotment and other land owned in the UK.
The Landshare charity, the Birmingham commercial enterprise Local Allotments (looking to sell land to allotmenteers that developers do not want anymore due to the recession) and councils themselves can solve the waiting list problem. While councils cannot use parks to help because they are for everybody, they have plenty of other land that is not sellable for development at the moment and would be suitable.
It all takes money - but with the likes of Tesco-owned Dobbies Garden Centres and the two-million-member National Trust building allotments on their land, it is clear that businesses see the value of associating themselves with allotments. The cross-sector approach is what is needed.
Allotments Regeneration Initiative-run Allotments Officers Forums are being held in the following regions this autumn:
- London 14 October
- North East 25 November
- North West 11 November
- East Midlands 18 November
- South West 24 November
- South East autumn, date to be confirmed
WHO IS INVOLVED?
The Allotments Regeneration Initiative works with:
- Allotment societies
- Local council allotment managers
- Community groups
- Organisations such as schools, the NHS, SureStart and the police
- NGOs and charities such as Age Concern, BTCV, Friends of the Earth and
- Potential plot-holders, councils, private landowners, developers and
- Government and representative groups such as CLG and the LGA