Making room to grow

How should councils respond to the huge rise in demand for allotments?

Abundant Amelia set to transform London's Elephant & Castle - photo: DPQ
Abundant Amelia set to transform London's Elephant & Castle - photo: DPQ

When displaced allotment holders in north-east London became the unlikely heroes of the BBC documentary Building the Olympic Dream, shown earlier this month, one could sympathise with the Games developers as well as the smallholders.

For all the project's green credentials, it seems that it is the loss of the allotments that has impressed the public mind. But when the Olympics was awarded to London back in summer 2005, few would have anticipated that allotments would have such a high profile, and be in such demand, four years later.

The National Trust has responded to the trend, offering to create 1,000 plots at 40 of its sites over the next three years, although these are likely to have more of a "community garden" style than traditional allotments.

The UK currently has around 330,000 allotments, down from its heyday of 1.5 million during World War One.

The National Society of Allotment & Leisure Gardeners (NSALG) estimates that a further 100,000-150,000 people are on local authorities' waiting lists. It bases this figure on a recent survey of 50 councils, which showed that waiting lists had increased tenfold on the same survey in 1997.

NSALG chairman Allan Rees says this shows local authorities are falling short: "They are duty-bound to provide allotments, but they have sold off a lot of them, and now they say they haven't got the land or the money to bring the allotments back. But they have made millions from selling the land - they should have put that aside."

With the exception of inner London, English local authorities are obliged to make "adequate provision" of allotments for residents, thanks to a law that reached its 100th birthday last year.

"These waiting lists show (councils) are not meeting the 'sufficient number' that the law requires," says Rees. "They fear that if they buy or lease land then, when demand falls off again five years down the line, they'll be stuck with (the sites). But the revised Act from 1925 does allow for change of use."

The law provides a basis for a direct challenge to local authorities that fall short, he says. "We are waiting for an opportunity to take on a local authority and say, 'You are not making that provision'. We can't take them on ourselves, but we'd look at funding someone who would. And we have told the Government they should make councils comply."

He adds: "We are not against community gardens. If you leave an acre in the middle of a development, you can use that as a cooperative and a lot of people can garden. But they are not protected."

Further pressure will come from another direction as the BBC's Gardeners' World launches a campaign to persuade councils to develop more allotments when the series restarts next month.

Presenter Joe Swift, the programme's allotment gardener, says: "There's a huge demand. My whole site in Enfield is full for the first time in years. It's so fantastic. There are a lot of newcomers. There is a lot of information, knowledge and community spirit.

"People value growing spaces for health and educational benefits. I hope this is no flash in the pan - I can't see any negative side to it," he enthuses.

Yet councils' spend on allotments comes to barely £76,000 a year on average. "That statistic does surprise me, certainly from the value everyone gets out of it," says Swift. "Enfield has 3,000 plots and I see people get value for money from what the council spends on it."

London Parks & Green Spaces Forum director Tony Leach believes that alternatives to allotments need to be found to meet demand in the capital. "There's no way you can provide everyone who wants one with an allotment in the traditional sense, because urban boroughs are short of land," he says.

"But some are working to use land around social housing for growing, which can reach more people. The traditional allotment has quite a restricted audience - not everyone has the knowledge and wherewithal for it. We need to be more flexible."

London mayor Boris Johnson's Capital Growth project is one move in this direction. Announced in November, it foresees the creation of 2,012 vegetable plots city-wide by 2012. Already, 72 such sites have been secured, says Leach, though he adds that funding for the project is "peanuts".

"It's a question of perception. People turn their noses up at the idea, but it's been done in other parts of the world. It's better to start gradually - with vegetables for ornamental value. It becomes a talking point and can widen people's horizons. It can have social benefits like bringing different generations together. It ticks all the boxes," he explains.

Leach is co-author of Open Space Strategies: Best Practice Guidance, to be published by the Mayor's Office and CABE Space at the end of March. It will, for the first time, make explicit the need for local authorities to factor space for growing into their plans.

While many new housing sites already include food-growing areas, parks managers should consider finding room for such areas in their parks, Leach says. "Where parks are being redesigned, community gardens should be included by default.

"You can't just annex part of a park for allotments - that would constitute change of use. In fact, I see allotments being mainstreamed back into green space. Often they are not part of the parks department, so don't figure in green-space strategies."

Leach was impressed by a recent visit to see how community gardening works in the US. "They're much more hands-on," he says. "They just start digging, without asking, 'Am I allowed to do this?' We have a huge amount to learn from them - and from their mistakes."

Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) principal adviser Mo Baines agrees that alternatives to traditional allotments are required to meet demand. "Local authority members were asking, 'Is it just us (facing a shortage)?', but from our survey it's clear that it has caught the imagination of the general public, and that has led to a severe shortage."

She says that the broadly-worded Clause 3 in the Local Government Act 2000, which empowers local authorities to promote or improve the economic, social or environmental well-being of their area, "could provide a hybrid option - a stop-gap for those stuck on waiting lists" by adapting existing green spaces within the region.

Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council head of parks Steve Smith says demand for allotments "has gone through the roof" in the Lancashire town. "We are reviewing our allotment strategy to see how it can be extended," he says.

Already two sites - a former nursery in a cemetery and a bowling green - are being redeveloped, adding to the borough's existing portfolio of 19 allotment sites.

Self-management reduces the burden on his department, Smith says. "There is a strong allotment association, which manages the allotments itself, although we liaise with and part-fund it."

Smith believes fruit and vegetable growing is here to stay. "There have been fads in leisure, like skate parks, but I don't think this is a flash in the pan. People are asking questions, financially and environmentally, about the way they live."

Councils such as Oldham are aided in pushing forward such moves by other organisations which stand to benefit, including primary care trusts and schools.

"We have just put in 24 large raised planters for kids to grow their own edible crops," Smith points out. "It gets them active and fits in with diet and health topics on the curriculum."


- Ninety-four per cent of councils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland manage allotments. In Scotland, the figure is 65 per cent.

- Two-thirds of councils plan to increase the number of allotments available (58 per cent in Scotland).

- Three-quarters of councils that manage allotments have an officer for the job, the rest relying on site committees or associations.

- The average council budget for all aspects of allotment management is £76,353.

Source: APSE


Designed to encourage the local community to grow all of its own food produce, the design proposal Abundant Amelia won the Architecture Foundation's competition last month for a revamp of the public realm in Amelia Street in the inner south London borough of Southwark.

The design, by architecture practice dallaspierce+quintero, further greens up the area with window boxes and climbing plants. Work will begin early next year and will take until the following year.

According to a representative of the practice: "By using the idea of the community growing its own food as a strategy for designing the public realm, we seek to create interventions that bring maximum social benefit and human interaction to what are often overlooked as in-between spaces."

He adds: "We hope this may encourage more creative initiatives using Section 106 agreements throughout the country."

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