(First published in Kitchen Garden magazine, 0ct 2007)
The allotments in the village of Haslingfield, South Cambridgeshire, a small rural site presently numbering about 35 plots, are today a thriving entity. A recently formed and enthusiastic Association manages the site on behalf of the landowner, the local Parish Council. There is a wide mix of plot holders both in terms of age and gender. Our oldest digger is approaching ninety whilst we have a good spread of younger and middle aged couples. Reflecting the recent nationwide trend, there are an increasing number of women digging their own plots, raising food for their families and enjoying the exercise.
However 18 months ago, the situation if not exactly bleak was uncertain. For a number of years the plots had been looked after by a Parish Councillor, working diligently as a one- man band; rents were collected and a minimal amount of maintenance carried out. Many of the plots were either vacant or not being properly cultivated, although a small band of stalwarts were working hard to keep their plots going amidst the encroaching weeds.
When the Councillor moved to another part of the country we had to consider the future management of the site. Given the absence of anyone on the Council with a direct interest in taking over responsibility, the idea of self-management seemed an obvious solution. A steering group was formed and suddenly there was an upsurge of enthusiasm aided by the arrival of some new plot holders. All sorts of ideas were mooted for the development of the site and a new community spirit was born.
Our proposal to take over the running of the site was met with initial enthusiasm by the Council but the devil, as always, proved to be in the detail. It took a further year to thrash out the Agreement under which management would be devolved to our newly formed Haslingfield Allotment Gardens Association. Although content to let us collect the rents, maintain the site and pay the bills, the Council were concerned to retain some important controls, notably a final say on changes in the rent, rule changes that allowed the erection of sheds, and major structural changes to the site. As the landowner and the elected body charged with protecting village interests, the Council were bound to retain some safeguards, yet there was a natural tension with our grand idea to run the site autonomously, tapping the energy and enthusiasm of those with a direct interest in the matter.
There was a feeling that if we were only allowed to do the donkey work why not leave that to the Council whilst maintaining the Association as our collective voice. In the end we decided to proceed with the self-management scheme because it is important that the day-to-day site administration is done well and we are best placed to do that. It is in our common interest that the rents are collected efficiently, maintenance work carried out on time, that the rules governing the proper cultivation of plots are enforced and the allocation of vacant plots handled openly and fairly.
And so negotiations continued. By December 2006 we were able to hold our inaugural annual general meeting where the constitution of our Association and the Agreement with the Council to manage the site were adopted. One important feature of the scheme is that the Council appoints a liaison officer to attend our meetings, provide advice and information and generally support the work of the Association in the development of the site. By this means we hope to build a constructive relationship.
No doubt there will be areas of disagreement. A particular issue with rural allotments is the general antipathy of parishes to changes affecting the ‘Look’ of the countryside – hence the resistance to the idea of sheds on the site. Another area of contention, which must be true of all self-managed sites, is where the division of responsibilities between the Association (as site managers) and the Council (as landowners) correctly lies. In our case, the issue of ditch clearing and proper drainage to prevent winter flooding of the access lane and adjacent plots has arisen. A point of general importance to the debate on self-management is that Local Authorities must remember their responsibilities as landowners and not think they can simply leave the self-managed sites to get on with it. Smaller rural sites like ours simply don’t have the resources for the larger scale tasks.
Of course we are aware that there will never be enough funds to carry out all the permanent improvements that we deem necessary. The financial realities do not change simply because we have taken over the running of the site. However, we have good cause to be optimistic about the future and this lies largely in our greatest asset: ourselves.
Already we have started the work of clearing the uncultivated part of the site, long overgrown with blackthorn and bramble. Working parties have begun to re-open the green lane around the perimeter, thus allowing trailer loads of manure to be delivered, and a communal area is being prepared for a collective composting scheme. All this will take time but we have made a good start. As we clear the ground new plots will be created – an important development since we now have full occupancy of the existing plots. Extending the water supply into the heart of the site from the sole standpipe will then become a pressing need. To this end the council have given us a small grant, which we must augment from alternative income streams. Rather than increase the rents we are considering a ballot of our members, to raise a special one-off levy to meet the cost of this improvement.
There is now a very good feeling amongst our small community of diggers and a great desire to get on and make a real go of self-management. The motivations for this are strong and clear. A well run site will help secure its survival as land for allotments, both for our use and for future generations. From this flow the benefits to diet and health from growing and eating fresh produce. As small-scale producers running our own site we are showing that it is still possible to be independent and self reliant in that most important matter – the provision of our food. Once you taste the freshness and quality of your own fruit and vegetables you never want to buy supermarket produce again.
(Jonathan gives talks and runs workshops on allotments, self management and fruit and vegetable growing – to find out more post a comment)