WORKING ON THE LAND:
Allotment legislation for the 21st century
(First published in Allotment and Leisure Gardener, no 2, 2008)
Introduction and background:
To work the soil on one’s allotment offers a radically different experience of the world. Typically, we experience the land as ‘landscape;’ something picturesque to view at arm’s length from a passing car or, at best, as pedestrians on defined rights of way. As such we move around the land, skirting its edges and borders. To work an allotment is to be occupying the land, taking physical possession of it and looking out from within. This is not just a matter of perception.
By and large, the countryside of England is a depopulated place of empty fields from which we have been alienated, physically removed through the historical processes of Enclosure, the move away from smaller to larger farms and agricultural mechanisation. Allotments, not only in rural areas such as mine, but also in towns where open community space is at a premium, remind us of what we have lost. More specifically they provide something of the experience of the old open field system of strip farming. This was a land of intensive human endeavour, a ‘peopled’ land of small-scale producers; not a landscape to be viewed passively, a mere act of consumption.
The entitlement to rent an allotment and the capacity it provides to grow one’s own food is the only means whereby the majority of people, if they so wish, can occupy a piece of land and work it. This is a precious thing, affording great personal contentment and self-fulfilment. Allotment growing also contributes towards wider ‘social goals’ connected with physical fitness, healthy lifestyles and community renewal.
Legal origins and development:
It’s a legal entitlement that originated in the mid nineteenth century as a limited form of compensation to rural labourers, cottagers and smallholders for the loss of common land arising from parliamentary enclosure.
In the later nineteenth century legislation was enacted to enable local government to provide labourer’s allotments where there was sufficient demand. In the early to mid twentieth century this entitlement was widened to include all persons and various protections were added to give tenants greater security of tenure and restrict the conditions under which local authorities could sell off allotment land for development.
Since 1997 the government has strengthened the policy and planning guidelines in an attempt to protect allotment sites and provides advisory support to local government, allotment associations and tenants on best practice. Limited funding initiatives have been set up to support the development of allotment sites through grants. Allotments have been recognised as an important element in a strategy to promote open spaces, community renewal and healthy lifestyles in urban areas. But is this enough? If we discount the boost to allotment growing caused by German submarine blockades in the two world wars the total amount of land cultivated as allotments, what we might consider the normal peace time level, stood somewhere between 60, and 50,000 acres. Between 1978 and 1996 the figure in England was halved, decimated might be a better description – to 25,000 acres. In 1978 the total number of plots (including Wales) stood at 480,000. In 1996 the total for England alone had fallen to 290,000.
In 2004/5 the Department for Local Communities and Local Government instituted a ‘Survey of Allotments, Community Gardens and City Farms,’ which was carried out by the University of Derby. The intention was to provide a comprehensive update on the previous national survey of 1996, with accurate figures for the number of sites in England and details on their characteristics. However the response to the questionnaire sent out to local authorities was too low to provide meaningful data. Only 62% of councils replied. We are therefore in a position where we have no proper statistical data on the current level of allotment provision. The summary report states that two-thirds of respondents have not disposed of any sites, wholly or partly, since 1996. But a third have done so and what about the 38% of local authorities who did not bother to reply?
Only three in ten authorities who responded said they have a formal allotments policy, incorporating such items as the active promotion of their allotment sites and effective day to day management. Most authorities (77% of the 62% who responded) stated that they promoted their allotments in some way or other, using websites, leaflets or notice boards. But again, that leaves a large number who are doing very little or nothing to carry out their responsibilities effectively.
The report concludes rather timidly by ‘suggesting’ the lack of readily available information on allotment sites requires a procedure to be established by local authorities for the keeping of data. Also, that ‘local authorities should be encouraged to place more emphasis on the importance of allotments,’ adding that the poor response to the survey ‘in part reflected a lack of staff resources within local authorities.’
In fact, what the survey response ‘suggests’ is the need for strengthening the law on allotments to reinforce the responsibility of all councils to carry out their duty to effectively promote and administer allotment sites. The best councils already have good management systems in place. The worst are not simply going to do so because of a new government website offering guidelines on good practice.
Since the Second World War two formal enquiries have called for legislation to consolidate and strengthen the law on allotments: the Thorpe enquiry of 1969 and the parliamentary select committee report of 1997-8. Neither was acted upon. Governments have taken the view that allotment provision is essentially a matter for local government and have been disinclined to impose greater central supervision. Yet both reports concluded that a general tidying up of the present law into a single act would be of great practical use to local authorities in making their legal responsibilities simpler and clearer to understand and implement. Apart from the Allotment Acts of 1908, 1922, 1925 and 1950 there are numerous relevant clauses under local government and town planning acts dealing with allotment provision, some of which are in contradiction to the intention of primary allotment legislation. Since 1950 there has been a general weakening of the legislation. For example the 1972 Local Government Act removed the requirement upon local authorities (under the 1925 Act) to establish allotment sub-committees with one third consisting of allotment gardeners. The 1981 Local Government Planning and Land Act removed from the Department of Environment the obligation to collect local authority statistics on allotment sites and waiting lists.
Role of Central Government:
The sole area where central government has maintained a role is in regulating the disposal of ‘statutory’ allotment sites (under the 1925 Act). The present government has attempted to strengthen the criteria for the disposal of statutory sites with revised planning and housing guidance (PPG17 and PPS 3) but again there has been a general reticence to go further in the direction of central supervision. In its response to the select committee’s recommendations of 1997-8 the government replied that although consolidation would be useful it would not in itself ‘ enhance the protection of allotment land’ and was not a legislative priority, adding that, ‘allotment gardening already enjoys far greater legal protection than other worthwhile leisure activities.’ Given the precipitous fall in acreage to 25,000 between 1978 and 1996, this is an extraordinarily complacent attitude.
Concerning the demand for allotments the government, despite all the evidence then and subsequently, rejected the select committee’s conclusion that this was likely to increase and asserted that the loss of allotment land since the high point of the Second World War was due to a long term decrease in demand. However, it has never been suggested that the wartime figure (and for some years after, due to continued rationing) in any way represented a natural level of demand. The issue is rather what figure constitutes an acceptable peacetime level, a level that has ‘critical mass’ behind it and is sustainable in the long term. 25,000 acres for the whole of England is dangerously low. Most of the present generation of allotment tenants took up spade cultivation in the boom of the 1970s. Who will take over from them if the number of plots is allowed to decline further? The government has no view on this.
The select committee report concluded from the evidence that ‘the performance of local authorities with regard to allotment provision is best described as patchy. Some authorities pursue an active approach…whilst others appear at best lethargic and at worst to be instrumental in encouraging the decline of interest in allotments. Without a positive local approach, it seems likely that much of the demand for allotments will always remain latent.’
It is quite remarkable, when reading the reports in the journal of the National Association of Allotment and Leisure Gardens, how many councils appear ignorant of their responsibilities and the proper procedures, when trying to dispose or change the use of allotment sites.
In fact the government conceded this point since in 1998 it introduced a new test by calling on local authorities to demonstrate what steps they had taken to promote sites before they could obtain the Secretary of State’s consent to dispose of statutory allotment land. In addition the government has welcomed the work of the Local Government Association (LGA) to produce best practice guidelines on allotments for its member councils. The poor response to the 2004/5 survey, where only three in ten councils who bothered to reply stated they had a formal allotment strategy, indicates this permissive approach is simply not working.
Nor was anything done by central government to take up the select committee’s recommendation that local authorities keep accurate statistics on allotments, beyond encouraging the LGA’s ‘positive approach on the issue, which reinforces our opinion that allotment provision is an issue best dealt with at local level.’ As has already been noted, such was the lack of response from local authorities to this mild encouragement that by 2004-5 the government sponsored survey was still unable to collate any meaningful data. All in all it looks pretty obvious that something more needs to be done than sending out guidelines and offering words of encouragement.
What would a new general act on allotments look like? The broad outlines of such a bill would include consolidation of existing legislation which defines the central role of local authorities in providing allotments where there is sufficient demand; to allow for local petition by residents in favour of allotments as a security against neglectful councils; to enable councils to purchase and maintain land for the purpose; to provide tenants with improved security of tenure and compensation for disturbance; to set out basic minimum requirements in terms of site facilities and what may be considered a suitable level of rent. The bill could also include a clause updating the uses to which allotments may be put, such as poultry and bee- keeping and the sale of surplus crops.
Beyond this the act would require local authorities to keep accurate figures on the number of sites, waiting lists etc and provide an annual return to parliament; the act should stipulate that local authorities must be pro-active in assessing the level of local demand and have effective policies and strategies for the promotion and administration of allotments. The template for this would be the present voluntary guidelines worked up by the LGA. The old allotment committees with tenant representation could be reinstituted to provide local oversight of the implementation of allotment policy.
Recent strengthened criteria for the disposal of allotment sites, affirming the regulatory and supervisory role of central government, would be incorporated and strengthened where possible. Measures should be added to prevent the ‘erosion’ of sites by planning ‘blight;’ that alternative sites must always have improved facilities and that local authorities take effective measures to prevent vandalism by means of proper security measures.
The act should have as its stated central purpose the expansion in the acreage of land devoted to allotment use, subject to local demand and regional variation. Planners should have a legal obligation to consider the provision of allotments when setting out new development proposals, including local assessment of demand. Ratios for the number of plots per thousand of the population could be suggested as a guideline or minimum standard when planning for new towns and additional residential areas in existing towns.
Finally the act would have to consider the question of funding. The Big Lottery Fund recently announced a £100 million investment in locally produced food and the environment. This would include money for local initiatives in community schemes and redeveloping open spaces. However the money is not specifically earmarked for new allotments.
Wider aims and conclusion:
Given that it is the stated policy of government to encourage healthier lifestyles and community renewal and to market these policies as national goals with wider social and economic benefits, a new allotments act should allow local councils to draw on a central capital fund, subject to annual limits, to purchase land for new allotments or make improvements to old ones. Such a fund would provide the necessary financial impetus to enable local authorities to improve and extend the provision of allotments for their communities. Such legislation would do much to safeguard a vital community resource and help it thrive in years to come. For a government constantly telling us to ‘eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day’ and take regular exercise, particularly for the over 50s, a national strategy on allotments would appear to be a first priority – ‘joined up thinking’ in fact.
As the secretary of a newly established allotment association, which has taken on the management of a site in South Cambridgeshire I am aware that improved legislation backed up by some extra financial resources is not by itself going to safeguard the future of allotment growing in this country. That depends on local people in their communities getting actively involved in the process. But we need a positive legislative framework for this to happen. From our own experience, simply leaving local authorities to carry on as they are; some good, some neglectful, some positively harmful in their attitude, should not be allowed to continue.