Monday, 5 December 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt III

DEFRAs vision for food

A number of submissions, mainly from the retail and manufacturing sectors, made clear that DEFRA should articulate the role of securing food supplies in the long term. Waitrose drew attention to the governments improved rhetoric on the matter, but called for clarity in guiding sustainable food production. Sainsburys called for greater leadership by DEFRA and centralised policies. The Co-operative group, which is the UKs largest commercial farmer as well as running stores, called for DEFRA to adopt a leadership role between the various parties involved in improving UK food security. These sentiments were echoed by the Food & Drink Federation. The Country Land & Business Association expressed a slightly different point. It commented that the government was still grossly-underestimating the scope and role of policy to address in this area. They expressed concerns about the over riding EU policies affecting UK food production and distribution.

The EU has also shown signs of elevating the issue of food security in reports of its own [Why can’t farmers just farm?] though some proponents claim the EU has no issue with food security and policy should be dictated by national governments.

In conclusion the committee felt that the UK should develop a stronger UK policy whilst considering EU directives.

DEFRAs progress

Though it is easy to conclude that DEFRA has fallen short on the issue of food, it should be noted this has mainly been due to a previous preoccupation with climate change, which has been since moved to another government department. Bearing that in mind DEFRA set itself a target date for developing strategy policy of October 2009.

A reflection of the direction DEFRA was taking was indicated at the Oxford farming conference in January 2009 by Hilary Ben:

The best way for the UK to ensure its food security in the 21st century will be through strong, productive and sustainable British agriculture, and trading freely with other nations. And just so there is no doubt about this at all, let me say the following. I want British agriculture to produce as much food as possible. No ifs. No buts. And the only requirements should be, first that the consumers want what is produced and, second, that the way our food is grown both sustains our environment and safeguards our landscape.

Impressive as this sentiment was, as Professor Lang commented, it was just a speech and not directed DEFRA policy to encourage corporate powerhouses, supermarkets and farmers to plan long term sustainable partnerships.

In fact the cabinet office report Food Matters set out the governments future objectives for food. Domestic production is not even mentioned which, state the committee, underlines the importance of DEFRA taking firm action to employ the policy frameworks needed to see Hilary Bens aims become a reality.

This is not without its challenges as DEFRA is faced with making short term swift policy decisions yet is tasked with applying long term vision. The short term political cycle is cited as a frequent disruptive hurdle in the process of longer term policy aims. Securing food supplies is not about implementing policy that will last for 5 years, but 40-50 years. This particular challenge places even more focus on building consensus of opinion between parties in order to maintain order in policy despite the ebb and flow of the political cycle.

The report then goes onto to outline DERFAs approach to assessing risks and the structure it needs to employ to see its vision through.

Acting on the Vision

This chapter discusses the effectiveness of food production targets, the Common Agricultural Policy, the focus for Research & Development, Genetically Modified Organisms, Agricultural Skill Development and the UK Food Supply Chain. [Though a substantial chapter I have omitted details here].

The report ends with a conclusion covering all the points mentioned. On Local and Home production in particular, the commission concludes that:

We welcome the increasing enthusiasm among customers for buying food that is local to a particular area of the UK, and also for growing their own food. In terms of overall production, these trends are a small contribution to a huge challenge, but they are a way of reconnecting people with food production and have an important part to play in encouraging the sorts of behaviour that will be necessary for a sustainable system of food production. The role of local and home production, and of educating people about food, should be incorporated in DEFRAs vision and strategy for food. When it has been established that their has been an unmet demand for allotments in a local authority area, the government should require the local authority to publish, within three years, a plan setting out how it proposes to meet that demand.

It's very clear where we stand on this issue in Cowling. The PC provides an inadequate number of half sized plots that are badly kept and poorly managed.  This is a state of affairs that predates my involvement of going on 6 years.  A look back through their own records shows the PC does little more than acknowledge the lack of provision, whenever the issue is raised, before ignoring the matter completely.  Yet the facts remain:
  1. Allotments are a statutory right of those UK taxpayers wishing to claim them.
  2. Allotments are an important community resource and are promoted by government.
In a change of direction since we pushed this subject more public while resisting attempts to manage our involvement; the PC have closed as many doors of communication as they are able whilst making so far hollow public claims of "doing their best" on the matter.

As we've done the right thing by paying our taxes and waiting patiently for more years than is considered constitutionally acceptable by our government, any chance of those that wanted to be representatives of their local community doing the right thing as representatives of the local community?


Friday, 2 December 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt II

The Challenges for the UK
Given the challenges presented in the previous chapter the committee wanted to explore how the UK should best respond to both secure its own food supplies and help the global situation. The UK could do nothing and adopt a Head-in-the-Sand approach. Do little or nothing to improve the situation at home and leave other countries to respond to the problems, trusting in the ability of the British to respond to the world market. This may seem an irresponsible approach, but this actually was the UK governments approach until very recently.

Though it is accepted that Britain is unable to play a major role in increasing global food supplies, it is generally agreed that there is [2008] much land available for food production that is as yet unused. Such land can be found in land rich countries like Ukraine, Russia and parts of Latin America. In 2009 Vladimir Putin claimed that in Russia alone 20 million hectares [total UK land mass is 24 million hectares] of agricultural land, unused since 1991, could be re-launched. Brazil also makes claim to have 144 million hectares available for agricultural enterprise [presumably clear cut rain forest] despite its current sizeable input to global foodstuffs.

Despite land rich countries appearing to offer a solution to the challenge of feeding us into 2050, the reality is not so clear cut. Several issues were raised about future Brazilian production the most prominent being transportation, storage & sustainability. The poor roadways, waterways and rail network in Brazil posed a major problem [post harvest waste] as does their largest port which is not deep enough to accept the large ships used for large scale commercial shipping. The issue of sustainability revolves around the current Brazilian agricultural practices of clearing land for agriculture and the intensive methods used. As previously mentioned, intensive farming merely provides short term relief whilst building long term troubles.

Another concern with this as a working solution is the question of concentrated food supply. If Brazil were to supply 90% of the worlds chicken by 2018 for example, any disruption in the supply [disease closing export for example] would have a substantial global impact. Though there are issues and wider concerns with focussed production in certain areas, the committee concluded that as regards agricultural production, any land capable of such an enterprise should do so. Although land rich countries may offer a way to boost global food supplies, they felt that a healthy domestic food supply is essential to ensure a secure food system in the UK.

The Self Sufficient Approach
Instead of relying on potentially vulnerable food supplies from abroad the opposite approach is to source our food supplies from our own resources. The UK has not been self sufficient in the strictest sense for over 200 years and the rate of self sufficient output has dropped steadily since the mid 1990s.

Here it should be pointed out that self sufficiency should not be taken to mean 100% self sufficiency, rather a high level of self sufficiency. This is very important for similar reasons as not relying entirely on imports – should anything substantial happen to affect the output of “home” crops, the problem would be large scale. So in the interests of healthy diversity this approach is seen to be promoting a high level of self sufficiency in order to help spread risk. This still leaves the UK with substantial work to do.

In 2006 90% of UK food supplies came from 26 countries, this was up from 22 in 1996. The highest importer is the Netherlands accounting for 13% with EU countries making up 69% in total. Although spreading risk does involve spreading your supply around between countries, stable trading can’t be expected [Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe - Angela Merkel Oct 2011].

The report then goes on to detail “Land Grabbing”, the “emerging phenomenon” of corporate buying of large scale landmass in order to grow food for export to home countries. Whilst this is underway in a number of countries concerns arise as to the negative effects on the host country despite the initial benefits to the governments there. Local populations may lose property rights to land upon which they depend and investors may not consider the long term implications on the land in return for short term profits.

The Sustainable Production Approach
This all makes the claim for increased production of food in the UK with fruit and vegetables highlighted as priorities with cereals less so, as 90% of UK wheat consumption is already grown here. For that reason the report goes on to focus on fruit and vegetables.

Concerns have been raised about the level of UK fruit and vegetable production not least because only 10% of fruit consumed is grown here. For some products, production is actually receding despite demand for export. An example given is that of apple production:

Several sources also pointed out that not only is consumed UK produce low but the percentage of UK consumers eating healthy levels of fruit and vegetables is below international guidelines. If we followed such guidance we would actually eat 50% more in the UK than we do currently.

The report then goes onto cover meat and dairy production [omitted for brevity].

The Environmental Impact of Increased Production.
This is a short section essentially acknowledging that increased production should have some added impact on the environment, however as the increase we are speaking of in the UK is relatively small the impact is expected to be also. The NFU stated that increased production need not come at an unacceptable environmental cost. The committee feels that DEFRA should study what production increases are most likely in the UK estimate any impact on the environment that may occur.

Local and Home Production
So far the discussion has centred on production at a national level, here the committee turns its attention to local food networks and home production – either in gardens or allotments. Both types of production being acknowledged as being beneficial to the security of the UK food supply. Monty Don, President of the Soil Association said:

If you can devolve the production and consumption so that they are as close together as possible, and the obvious example of that are of farmers’ markets or farm gate sales, that is a healthy, very flexible way of supply and demand

The supply and demand relationship is even closer in the case of home production, contributing to food security by providing access to affordable fruit and vegetables for people. Local food networks and home production also have the advantage of greater reduced emissions from transport [food feet not food miles]. Another aspect of local food production is to make more use of traditional sources of food which have declined in popularity over recent years.

There is another even stronger argument in favour of local and home food production, the committee maintains – that of active involvement in food production. As they are all too aware, the consumer will have to change their behaviour toward food going forward. Making a real connection with their food is a vital part of this process. This was further supported by an argument put forward by Waitrose – that a sea change in consumer behaviour was necessary to guarantee the sustainability of UK producers. The UK government feels compelled to promote this formidable task [hence the grow your own scene developing since 2008] with specific emphasis on school children.

End of Part II

I hope you found this article on the Securing Food Suplies to 2050 report interesting.  The next article should conclude my summary.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, 28 November 2011

Allotments - A Vital Community Resource, Pt I

In 2009, Securing Food Supplies up to 2050: The Challenges faced by the UK, was a report put together for the House of Commons. The report was ordered by the House of Commons and was compiled by the relevant select committee – The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. The report outlines precisely what the title suggests and over the course of a few blog articles I shall present a brief look at it with a view to underlining the importance of allotments to local communities. Especially helpful for those unaware of the current value placed on this valuable community asset. All text is taken from the report with any personal comments in squared brackets.

The report begins with a summary and goes on to have five main parts:

· Introduction: The Global Challenges.
· The challenges for the UK.
· DEFRAs vision for food.
· Acting on the vision.
· Conclusion.

The world faces an unprecedented double challenge, it needs to produce more food but in a way that does not degrade the natural resources upon which agriculture depends. Meeting this demand will require a fundamental shift in thinking about food by government and consumers. The UNs World Food security conference of 2008 chose to draw attention to projected population and food production figures, not as targets, but rather to focus attention on key issues. Generally, the feeling is that growth in overall output is less of a solution than an increase in particular commodities in particular areas.

Therefore the choices faced by the UK are to increase its own output of fruit, vegetables and cereals whilst securing global supplies. An essential factor in increasing home grown output is sustainability. After admitting that DEFRA has, due to other commitments, neglected the issue of food for some time, the committee now intends to focus attention on this issue. The intention is to produce a vision and strategy for food that provides a long term framework that goes beyond the short term political cycle. Tackling the existing weakness in the current UK food system is considered to be a fundamental issue as is fostering stable relationships in the food supply chain.

Increasing interest in home and local food production is considered a vital element in encouraging consumers to think more about the environmental issues around food production and consumption. Not least for the part it plays in reconnecting people with their food - a vital component in understanding for people facing a fundamental shift in perspective about food.

Introduction: The Global Challenges.

With supermarkets lined with well stocked shelves, restaurants supplying every type of cuisine and the wealth of instantly recognisable food brands; disruption of the food supply is not generally considered by consumers. Yet rationing started during the Second World War continued into 1954 and there were widespread shortages of sugar in the early 1970s. Until very recently, the government also took food for granted. There is a growing awareness in the governments of developed countries that the food supply that has appeared to work well since 1945 and the issues associated with it, may not continue to do so without urgent political attention.

In the light of this new political interest in food policy DEFRA has held meetings with experts in the associated fields, key players and accepted submissions from interested parties in order to develop a “Food Security” strategy. Here we can define Food Security as:

“..existing when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy lifestyle

Food Prices
The reason for the sudden interest in food is clear – an escalation in global food prices. According to the World Bank, wheat prices were up 171% between 2005 and 2008 with global food prices increasing by 83% over the same period. A Chatham House report, Rising Food Prices: Drivers and Implications for Development, from April 2008 stated that:

the unusual feature of the current situation is that the price spike applies to almost all major food and feed commodities, not just a few of them

It noted that Wheat was at an all time price high, corn the highest in 11 years and soya the highest in 34 years. Contrasting sharply with the period between 1974 and 2005 when food prices fell in real terms. Food price escalation was blamed for violent protests in Egypt, Haiti, The Ivory Coast & Cameroon. Demonstrations were seen in Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen, Bolivia & Indonesia. Argentina joined others in imposing export restrictions and rising prices began to affect the UK.

The Soil Association compiled a report published in August 2008 showing food inflation to be running at 13.7% annually. Prices for oils and fats rose by 29%, meats 16.3%, bread and cereals by 15.9%, vegetables by 11.1% and fruit by 10.7%. Professor Watson, DEFRAs chief scientific adviser, outlined 6 factors that he believed contributed to the rise:

· Poor harvests in the US and Australia.
· Increased biofuel production
· Rising energy prices
· Changing demand (China buying more meats f.ex)
· Export bans
· Food Speculation

Chatham House concluded that the “jury was still out on whether price rises would continue or not”. DEFRA did expect food inflation to fall but expected higher and more volatile food prices are here to stay. Chatham House expected medium and longer term food rises were “poised to rise again”.

At the UN Food & Agricultural Organizations – Food Security Conference, held in Rome in June 2008, two projections became generally accepted and repeated. The first was Ban Ki Moons announcement that food production needed to increase by 50% by 2030 to meet demand. The second by Jaques Dijouf stated that food production needed to double by 2050. The claims made by both men were drawn from reports compiled by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the UNs F&AO, which were published in 2006 as the Future Scenarios for Agriculture. This was fed into the World Banks development report for 2008.

Although DEFRA does consider the projections as valid for focussing attention on the realities of food supply, it does make every effort to question the sound bites presented by the UN. Especially as food supply and demand is subject to wide margins of error due to the many factors involved in compiling projections. DEFRA also sought wider opinion on the matter which generally agreed that although food production is likely set to rise, the presented figures could not be accurately relied upon.

Andrew Wood, Natural Englands Executive Director for Evidence & Policy, raised a number of issues one of which was to point out that if the substantial number of obese people followed WHO healthy eating guidelines, food consumption would actually fall. The Soil Association followed similar reasoning and stated that:

Globally more than sufficient calories are produced – whilst nearly 1 billion people are malnourished in the south, 2 billion people are clinically over weight in the north

Although this reasoning over simplifies the problem it does raise the issue that a balanced diet plays in the wider world, especially in the face of growing numbers of people. Particularly drawing attention to the fact that growing numbers does not necessarily imply growing demand – there is no way to be sure that the populations of India and China will follow the habitual consumption practised in the West for example [see the report for greater detail].

The projections made by the UN really serve to focus attention on what can be done to improve the global situation regarding food. Improving diet and reducing food waste are considered key issues. Post harvest losses due to poor storage, transport and infrastructure could be improved. As could the estimated 30% food wastage by consumers, half of which is considered edible.

Concerns about food production are not new, the World Bank in 1982 stated in a report that it had concerns about, “whether agriculture would be able to provide enough food for the worlds growing population”. However, looking back, agricultural performance between 1980 and 2004 was “impressive”. Not that everyone had enough to eat, but that was due to affordability and access – not production. Professor John Beddington, the Governments chief scientific advisor, stated that global production had doubled over the previous 40 years, illustrated by the following graph.

Since the availability of food has kept apace with population growth it is prudent to ask what is different this time. Some suggest that despite population growth trends of 1.5-1.6% over the past 50 years, there is in fact no implication that the trend will continue. The generally accepted threats of climate change and diminishing resources form the main basis for concern with the world facing an:

Unprecedented double challenge of meeting a huge growth in food demand whilst respecting far higher environmental standards than in the 20th century. Production increases in the last half century have been achieved at considerable economic cost and only with the heavy use of energy and oil inputs.

Such methods of production are widely accepted as being unsustainable, with sustainable in this context best defined by the Brundtland Commission of 1987 as:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations

The committee concluded that to secure food in the manner we have up to this point merely creates a short term illusion of security and accepts that genuine food security cannot exist without sustainability. This poses some challenges as summarised by Chatham House.

  1. The need to radically reduce greenhouse emissions produced by the food system.
  2. The need to reduce the end-to-end dependency on fossil fuels in the food chain.
  3. The need to address the depletion of natural resources & the ecosystem on which agriculture depends (soil & water).

With respect to these concerns in particular the connections have been made between organic farming methods and sustainability. The Soil Association added that a low carbon diet could be delivered through a wholesale shift to organic farming in sufficient quantities to feed the UK population, according to independent research done by the University of Reading. The scenario proposes a drop in commercial chicken, egg and pork production to roughly a quarter of current levels with an increase in wheat and barley for human consumption.

Despite some objections raised by the committee about widespread organic production they accept one aspect of this question of food production remains as being of prime importance – sustainable food production.

End of Part I

I hope you found the first part of this report summary interesting and will post a continuation soon.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Answers on a Postcard....Please!

Cowling Parish Clouncil have now updated their records to include Septembers aforementioned "missing" minutes. Well done, Bravo!

As it would seem there is someone "in the office" at the moment I wonder if there might be anyone prepared to consider the following questions:

  • What does the PC, (as a pro-allotment local authority in charge of allotment provision), think of the failure of the District Council to respond to the annual data collection by the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners?  
Surely, as a proud local authority that is content with its current efforts regarding allotment provision, Cowling feels sold short by not being able to boast its best efforts nationally?  You can read all about it HERE and check out an interactive map built from the data (Screenshot shown above. Grey areas failed to respond - sometimes its best to say nowt!).

  • Has the vacant plot (mentioned in August) been dealt with yet?  
 As I am sure the PC are aware, there are standard procedures for dealing with such simplicities and solution seeking local authorities have a very simple system to move people into new plots within weeks!  I know that seems lightening fast, but there you go. That's what enthusiasm gets you - results!

  • Does the Council consider the village newsletter to be good value for public money?
I understand that the editor is the wife of a current PC member (former member of the abandoned Allotment Working Group) and expect the council is happy with it generally.  But as I have had two notices on behalf of the Cowling Allotment Group excluded from the village newsletter in the last 6 months, it is beginning to smack more of "jobs for the boys" than a community newsletter reflecting actual views in the village. Over £500 a year for a few sheets of A4 black and white print once a month. Which fails to include two pro allotment notices, in spite of the PCs claim of pro-allotment sentiment! Poor value and pitiful execution, in my humble opinion. 

  •  What is Cowling Parish Council doing about:
A - The appalling state of the currently mismanaged allotments?

B - Providing the LONG overdue new plots to accommodate the growing number of villagers (and the Council Tax [amongst other benefits] they provide) on the waiting list?

Go on..  Give us some answers!


Monday, 14 November 2011

Well Done.. Kind Of!

At last!  The Parish Council have finally published the outstanding minutes for Octobers meeting and both October and Septembers extra ordinary meetings.

Shame Septembers meeting minutes are missing, but then it wouldn't be Cowling if everything was done "by the book" and you can't expect to have everything can you?

Any chance of those people that so wanted positions on the Parish Council doing the few duties asked of them.. properly?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Food Miles?

How about food yards?

Not sure where we stand at the moment with allotment provision in Cowling, it seems we are still in the "doing our best" phase.  It's true to say that the Parish Council are very good at doing their best, they have been doing it for well over five years! Despite government guidance on the matter stating that even a failing local authority should go from failure to provide sufficient allotments to an acceptable solution in three years!

But I do find it interesting whenever I look into what doing their best might actually mean.  A strange question to a straightforward statement, you would think.  But a little look at certain claims made versus records kept during this process, suggests otherwise.  

For example, in September we had a piece in the Craven Herald. I found the few words issued by the clerk to be telling.  He went on to list all that had been done by the PC which contrasted somewhat with the answers we got when we questioned them on the subject earlier this year. His claims had now grown to include each of the things WE have presented them with as viable options over the past few months.

Still, they are doing there best aren't they?  Maybe they are, but if they were previously unaware of the obvious avenues we made them aware of (and they publicly claim to now be pursuing) what are the chances of them discovering the equally simple avenues that have not yet been presented to them?

Unfortunately I am unable to say much more.  Under the direction of the Chair, the PC now refuses to communicate directly on the matter. The clerk has difficulty in actually receiving mail that goes through his letterbox. The PC meeting minutes for September remain unavailable in November and anyone unfortunate enough to witness one of these meetings knows that even when the minutes do get published they will bear scant relation (on certain matters) to what actually happens. Still, they are doing their best!

Which is more than can be said for the Allotments Working Group, which has been disowned since it was shown up for the sham that it was.  Three Parish Councillors deciding what's "best" over tea and hobnobs until, hoisted by its own petard, someone joined that wanted to actually DO something about:

A) The poor state of current allotments and their management.
B) The woeful lack of provision suffered in the village.

The Councillors then each resigned from the Working Group, one by one in another dramatic display of "doing ones best" to solve the problems faced by the Parish Council.

As for the statutory claims made for allotments, we have submitted another group of representations. But as I have been reminded by one of the enthusiastic amateurs that we sadly rely on to get an allotment in the village:

"our only statutory obligation is to consider the claim"

Most local authorities, seeing where this argument is headed, avoid it like the plague - God Complex strikes again!

Will Cowling see a solution to the pathetically poor provision suffered for so long in the village? I am beginning to think some people are too busy with other irons in their fires to be able to represent the ALL the villagers of Cowling fairly.

Anyone wanting an allotment in this village should consider making themselves heard loud and clear on this issue.  You have a right to an allotment and your government has been acknowledging the need to improve provision of this community asset for years now. Yet your local representatives in charge of providing allotments, amongst their Duties & Responsibilities; consider that what they are currently failing to provide is "Doing their Best".  It's time to ask them not do their best, but to do what they are there to do!

Do nothing and you can be sure of the results!


Sunday, 18 September 2011

An Incredible Inspiration

Today Emma and I had a drive over to Whitaker Park in Rawtenstall and met Paul, the driving force behind Incredible Edible Rossendale.  We have been interested in the rise of Incredible Edible initiatives for some time and have been inspired by the way it has grown into the runaway success that it has become today. With an interest in learning more about getting such a scheme accepted, supported and eventually put into action, we arranged to meet Paul to see how things are going on the community beds in Whittaker Park and to chat about his experiences so far.

As we walked through the gates and into the park we were struck by the well tended gardens in front of the 19th century house built by the Hardman family which overlooked their woollen mill at that time at New Hall Hey.  The house and grounds were later bought by Richard Whitaker with the house opened as a museum in 1902.  Long established trees shade well kept lawns which present flower beds that, although beyond their peak splendor at this time of year, are a testament to those managing the park.  We followed the winding road up towards the museum heading for the community gardens which are found to the right of it. 

There we found Paul busy in the beds and after exchanging greetings were kindly shown around.  The garden currently comprises a Victorian Herb garden to the far left with a bench for anyone wanting to take the weight off.  The centre space is planted with various edibles, a few picnic benches and the area to the right has a series of raised beds and planters containing various herbs and vegetables.  The layout makes good use of space with blackberry canes growing up the sun loving back wall, which also supports plenty of strawberries in planters and a mixture of fruit trees sit amongst the beds.  

It was soon apparent that Paul has worked very hard to promote this initiative and seems to share our enthusiasm for raising community spirit through community initiatives such as this.  A supportive local authority have provided more than just the beds currently in use in the park.  They have improved paths, relaid paving and continue to look to offer other spaces with potential for the scheme.  The combination of a supportive council and Pauls drive has really paid off and with more options on the cards, the future for Incredible Edible Rossendale looks set to grow.  

Whilst we were chatting to Paul you could see the interest in those walking by.  Later a young family walked by and asked about what was growing, so I busied myself with a bit of weeding whilst Paul explained the concept to them.  They left a short time later with a handful of herbs and hopefully that's a few more community gardeners willing to enjoy a few edible rewards for a few minutes weeding or planting from time to time when they are out for a walk.

As tends to happen, time with those with which you share an interest is soon spent and in no time at all we seemed to be saying our goodbyes.  But Emma and I were grateful that Paul had taken time away from his family to spend some of his Sunday with us and hope to keep in touch.  We then walked back to our car (I now know you can park next to the museum!) with some new ideas and plenty of inspiration, which was when I realized - I hadn't taken any pictures!  So we both headed back to the gardens whilst the sun was breaking through and I was about to get some shots of the beds when a lady came by walking her dog.  

We smiled and said our hellos and then she asked us about the beds.  What was growing, what was ready to eat, how to tell when the cabbages are ready, who does the gardening etc.  We explained that they were community gardens and that she was free to help out planting and weeding in return for taking some produce.  We chatted for a good while about strawberries, kohlrabi, courgettes and fennel. We learned that there used to be peacocks kept where the beds are now and threw a few more weeds in the compost bin.  Eventually we said our goodbyes, both sides a little happier for the unplanned encounter and hopefully Incredible Edible has another community gardener now - especially as she walks by 4 times a day!

I didn't get my pictures though in the end, or at least nothing worth using here, which had been my intention.  Instead though I got a fantastic insight into the positive value of community initiatives such as this.  The mutually beneficial collaboration between an enthusiastic group, a supportive local authority and local businesses is inspiring.  Each side adds something to the scheme and all benefit from the positive association of active participation. But the real winner, it would seem to me, is the community.  

People of all ages and abilities are able to take part on their own terms and learn from those they bump into while they are at it.  Some will spend an afternoon and chat, others ten minutes weeding with the dog and some will have a place to plant spare seedlings & cuttings.  Various options become available when a community has such an asset.  I think the tale of the Whitaker Park blackberries just about sums up the spirit of it all.

A lady got on a bus at Waterfoot and traveled to Rawtenstall (I guess 2-3 miles) before making her way up to the Incredible Edible beds at Whitaker Park.  She brought with her a number of blackberry canes and a garden fork.  Despite her rheumatism, this lady went on to plant a row of blackberry canes along the back wall of the beds.  Those canes will provide fruits for many years and should go on to propagate countless new plants in years to come.  

No one can tell what the future holds, but maybe someone will take a battery drill and some wire and fix something on the wall to train the canes along or perhaps a local business will donate a trellis system.  We can't know for sure, but I can say that lady has improved that community garden by her efforts, that she will continue to have a positive effect for a long time to come and that her efforts will hopefully be the motivation for someone elses input.  She certainly inspired me!

Thanks again for taking the time out to meet us Paul, it was a good morning.

Mark & Emma

Monday, 5 September 2011

Councils Urged to Hand Over Land

The UK Government has urged local authorities to hand over land to support local groups set-up community orchards to grow their own produce.

The call was made as a new, simple 'how to' guide for communities wanting to start up, share or save their own community orchards that could help reverse the national decline in traditional orchards has been published by Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles.

The community orchards guide - part of a series of booklets being produced by Government in the coming months to cut out red tape and make it easier for people to get the information they need to get involved - brings together in one place practical advice and guidance for green fingered enthusiasts who want to make the most of green spaces in their area.

The guide outlines what new and existing support and powers are available for communities wanting to conserve or create community orchards. It provides links to expert organisations, information on where to go for funding and examples of communities across the country busy preparing to harvest their latest crop.

Ministers are also keen to see local authorities freeing up existing unused or under utilised land to communities. Successful community projects like the Todmorden Incredible Edible scheme have already shown how scrubland and verges too small to be used as allotments or open spaces can be 'greened up' by local people and transformed into growing space.

Councils, by making land available, can help communities grow their own and improve sustainability whilst fostering a growing sense of community.

Eric Pickles, launching the new guide said: "Community orchards are a brilliant way for communities to get together and grow their own.

“The powers we are putting in the hands of communities will make it easier to transform unloved corners of towns, cities and villages into thriving green spaces, help local people protect the orchards already there and access the land needed to establish new ones.

“The guide is about making all of that as simple and straightforward as possible and about giving a major boost to what is already a quiet revolution in promoting and preserving the nation's orchards."

The guide includes details of the new powers in the Localism Bill that will enshrine in law a package of powerful new rights for community and voluntary groups wanting to play a bigger role in their community or takeover and preserve local assets.

Under Right to Buy community groups will be first in line to bid for existing orchards or new green spaces if they come onto the market and will have the time they need to raise the necessary funds, whilst the Right to Challenge could see groups taking over the running of council owned green space used for community food growing. 

Read the rest of this brilliant article here.

Gardeners Question Time

Thanks to the project leader of Colne In Bloom the Radio 4 show Gardeners' Question Time is coming to the Colne Muni Theatre on the 19th of September.  Michael Osborn applied to the BBC after Colne reached the finals of the Britain in Bloom contest, to offer local gardeners the opportunity to seek advice from some of our best national gardeners.

First broadcast in the BBC northern region from the 'Singing Room' in the Broad Oak Hotel, Ashton-under-Lyne on the 9th of April 1947, the programme was called "How Does Your Garden Grow?" It was inspired by the Dig for Victory campaign and the panel took questions from the Smallshaw Allotments Association.  The programme went national in 1957 and in its time has answered well over 30, 000 questions!

The panel for the Colne show is set to include Christine Walkden, Carol Klein, Bob Flowerdew, Chris Beardshaw, Roy Lancaster and Anne Swithenbank.  

Tickets are available from the Muni box office on 01282 661234. Doors will open from 5.30pm on the 19th of September when the audience can submit their questions with recording starting at 6.30pm.  The show will be aired on September the 23rd at 3pm, repeated on the 25th at 2pm and as always the podcast is available
online to download.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Future for Allotments

A Modern Allotment

Whatever our reactions to, or opinions about, the history of land ownership in Britain; there's little practical chance of turning the clock back in relation to common land access. It would require a hugely charitable act by the minority now claiming possession of the land and very clear legislation by parliament.  But faced with the difficulties of increasingly strained world resources, something has to give and so it's logical that some think tank came up with sustainable development as a way forward.  

On a local level that means building healthy community values & relationships. Cutting the negative impacts we have on our environment and accepting responsibility for our choices.  Food often plays a major role in this outlook.  How far we travel for it, the waste it creates, the nutritional value of it and our ability to maintain provision are regular factors when considering sustainability.  

Many argue successfully that local produce is set to become a pivotal issue as food and fuel costs continue to rise. Though local box schemes and farmers markets offer a sustainable commercial solution, allotments are without doubt a key aspect of sustainable community development for a number of reasons.

The title of this piece is also the name of a government white paper published in 1998 by the Department of Environment Transport & the Regions.  That report intended to outline the framework of allotment provision in England, publish the allotment statistics of the time and lay down the governments preferences for allotment policy going forward.

The commission acknowledged that allotments form a component part of healthy neighbourhoods and that the undisputed health benefits associated with them should be promoted at a local level, determining that this should form a part of a Healthy Neighbourhoods Policy.

The report also raised concerns over the system at that time and recommended changes to ensure a fairer and clearer system for all involved.  There was agreement that some of the main restrictions on the use of allotments should be repealed, particularly:
  • The use to which plots may be put.
  • Site shops and the sale of extra produce.
  • The keeping of livestock.
The commission also noted an expected (long since current) increase in demand for allotments and expressed concern at the failings in provision at a local level. They described provision by local authorities as "patchy", something which they decided should be remedied.  

Whilst they acknowledged and supported those authorities that maintain vibrant allotment sites and communities there was a clear demarcation with others that, in the  words of the commission: 

"..appear at best lethargic and at worst to be instrumental in encouraging the decline of interest in allotments".  

They made note that a positive approach by a local authority is vital in order to fulfill provision and avoid latency.  A solution was put forward.

It was suggested that a Best Practice Guide along with publicly available annual figures outlining allotment provision would best help to raise standards in those local authorities failing in their duty to a community.  They also made clear that local authorities should adhere to those guidelines.

The report also pointed out the value of media coverage and their role in promoting the value of allotments in Britain, particularly in encouraging Best Practice by local authorities.

That paper is dated now but did lead on to the publication of a Best Practice Guide shortly afterwards. That has gone on to become an important guide for local authorities, helping them to provide a better service in relation to allotments.  It's also a lead in to the importance of sustainable community development, something local authorities are charged with overseeing through the Sustainable Communities Act 2007.  

That act empowers a local authority to do anything they consider will improve the economic, social or environmental well being in their area and saves them the effort of searching for specific powers by providing a first instance solution.  

Again we find sustainable development defining policy and improving methods of application; it looks set to continue.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has said that it will remain his top priority during his second term at the head of the UN.

As for the future of allotments, they may have fallen from favour for a few decades and in some areas may still suffer from stubborn outdated attitudes towards them and those that use them. But they have a lot to offer communities and are a resource we should all fight for, encourage and protect; for future generations.  

In a world in which the UN and national governments predict far reaching changes caused by, climate change, dwindling resources and growing economic uncertainty; those bodies have charged local authorities with building sustainable communities.  Communities that are able to withstand difficulties, shock and thrive during the expected adversity.

The guidance is there and the powers to execute are in place as is the encouragement (especially for deprived areas) for authorities to take a lead.  So why, over a decade after the report was published and 5-6 years after it became generally accepted & implemented, would any local authority not promote and develop sustainable community initiatives?  

Faced with a working model, local examples and government support, just how in touch with reality is a local authority that provides assurances and not allotments for year after year after year? 

It takes more than solar powered Christmas lights to make a sustainable community.

Thanks for reading.


Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm - but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. - T.S Elliot. 

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A Brief History of Allotments

Fair Fields Full of Folk

I have written an article on the Future of Allotments to help define why allotments are an important community resource. It explains why a government report described allotment provision at local level as "patchy" and it should present a modern outlook on the subject. But it seemed to lack perspective on its own; so here's a primer.  A quick run down of how we got here - A brief History of Allotments.

The right to an allotment is compensation by the state to British Citizens for the loss of common land into private ownership due to enclosures.  Common land is collectively owned land upon which people have long held rights.  These usufructory rights allowed people to graze livestock, collect food, fuel and under certain circumstances, build homes. Access to commons are ancient rights that predate modern law and monarchy. Common rights contrast sharply with modern concepts of land ownership.  Private land can be held to exclude others, the use of public land is determined by a government and open access land affords no one property rights.  

Commons are a unique environment and are handed down to us from a time on earth when man understood he must cooperate with his community to thrive and could not have entertained the concept of paying to be here!

Commons were established sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries.  With the breakdown of the Roman empire Saxon invaders moved in and formed kingdoms within which a system of clan ownership developed. 

With much of Britain covered in dense forest, uncleared common land stood alongside agricultural fields farmed by 'ceorls', free men. 'Hides' of land were owned individually but would often be worked cooperatively. The carruca meant heavy English soils could be ploughed effectively, but as it required up to 8 oxen to pull it, it further encouraged cooperation within communities.

This led on to the common field system of farming with crop rotation, communal hay meadows and communal pastures.  The open field system did not restrict social structure or land tenure and the system continued under Norman rule.  After the Black Death serfdom was replaced by copyhold land tenure, this later became the leasehold we are more or less familiar with.

Sheep Devour People
Through the 14th - 17th centuries wealthy landowners worked to alter the open field system. They wanted to convert arable land to grazing for sheep, supported by the Statute of Merton 1235.  This led to hundreds of English villages being completely depopulated through the evictions of those working the land. Driven out to be replaced by a few tenant shepherds.  

The 1381 Peasants Revolt was in part due to enclosure, by 1450 Jack Cades Rebellion was calling for land reform amongst other demands and by Ketts Rebellion of 1549 enclosure was the catalyst as it was with the Midland Revolts of 1604 - 1607.

In the History of the Kings of England written by the priest John Rous, the first written objection to enclosure was made.  Thomas More became the first person in authority to speak out against enclosure in his book Utopia, published in 1516.  Other high profile names that also spoke out included Thomas Wolsey, Hugh Latimer, William Tyndale, Lord Somerset and Francis BaconCharles I did set up a number of anti enclosure commissions as if in response, though he was not exactly anti enclosure himself.

In the early 17th century James I and Charles I wanted to drain fenland commons to create arable land for the crown, in a bid to raise revenue.  Dutch engineers were brought in at zero cost to the crown as developers were paid by being allocated a third of the land enclosed and drained.  Commoners fought back by leveling ditches and fought the engineers in court.  The court cases were paid for out of a common purse into which each contributed according to his worth. Charles tried to prevent this and prosecuted ringleaders.  

In 1642 Sir Anthony Thomas was driven out of the East & West fens and the Earl of Lyndsey was removed from the Lyndsay level.  Between 1642 and 1649 the crowns share of fenland was seized and returned to common. The crown was patient.

Between 1760 and 1840 the crown had it's way, most of the fens were drained and enclosed by act of parliament. 

Back to the 17th century, Gerrard Winstanley and his supporters attempted a new kind of protest against enclosures. They cultivated common and vacant land in Kent, Surrey, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. They then shared their crops at no cost, until hired thugs attacked the "diggers" and destroyed their communities.  

Winstanley pleaded to the government, without success. Though it is clear that the "diggers" had little effect in their time, they did plant a seed of thought that later sprouted in the 19th and 20th century  with the allotments & small holdings movements.

When Watt Tyler confronted Richard II during the 1381 Peasants Revolt the king had agreed to end restraints upon the free use of common forests.  Despite this royal assurance access was eroded for centuries, coming to a head in the early 18th century. During this period wealthy landowners enclosed forests to create private parks and hunting lodges; vigilante bands such as the "Wokingham Blacks" responded.  

In 1721 a gang with a leader known as "King John" took 11 deer from Bishops Park, Farnham and paraded them through the morning market. King John had local support and even held a public meeting to speak out against accusations of being a Jacobite. The authorities did not try to apprehend him and he was never caught.  

The Black Act of 1723 was meant to end this resistance and justified the death penalty for hundreds of people charged with feeding themselves with wild meat.  A century later when the act was repealed, the death penalty was replaced with transportation to the colonies.  

The enclosure of forests was by no means an exclusively English affair either. In France there was mass resistance to moves by the state to control common forests.  In Austria the war between poachers and gamekeepers has continued for centuries, the last poacher to be shot was Pius Walder in 1982.

The Act of Union in 1707 paved the way for the swift enclosure of the Scottish Highlands. Compared to the steady erosion of commons land across England through the ages, the Scottish clearances were more shock and awe than softly softly. Poignantly described by Betsy Mackay:

"Our family was very reluctant to leave this place, and stayed for some time after the summons for evicting was delivered. But Sellar's party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The occupants had, of course, to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were driven away like dogs who deserved no better fate."

The final, and most contentious wave of formal enclosures in England happened between 1760 and 1870. Five thousand acts of parliament enabled 21% of English land to be enclosed, 7 million acres of which were commons.  Millions of people who had previously known lawful access to land lost both access and livelihood. 

William Pitt made one time farmer, Arthur Young, the first secretary of the Board of Agriculture. The board was described as being:

"..not a government department, like its modern namesake, but an association of gentlemen, chiefly landowners, for the advancement of agriculture, who received a grant from the government".  

The ninety plus volumes published by this board up to 1793 were said to be:

"..monotonous in their reiteration of the point that agricultural improvement has come through enclosure and that more enclosure must take place".

Arthur Young had changed his opinion by 1801 and presented a report to the board outlining the severe poverty caused by enclosure. He was told that he might:

"Do with it what he please, but would not print it as a work of the board."  

Young was not the only advocate of enclosure to change his mind.  Along with John Howlett and David Davies he argued that those who lost had lost commons rights should be compensated with small enclosures of their own.

From the Statute of Merton 1235 up to and including the General Enclosure Act of 1846, statutes were written to pronounce enclosure as legal by landlords sitting as parliamentary representatives. Representing a people that were generally unaware of their loss and silenced when they opposed what threatened their way of life - in the 19th century you had to have land to become an MP! Conflict of interests? Not in those days.

Enclosure acts were nearing an end in the 1860s when Lord Eversley headed the Commons Preservation Society which later became the Open Spaces Society.  They employed direct action and successfully fought for commons access.  

By 1876 they had strong parliamentary support and that year the Commons Act ruled enclosure could now only take place if there was some public benefit.  It is hard to be sure just how beneficial this act was in reality. No amount of legislation would regain the commons already lost and an agricultural depression due to cheap imports was hitting Britain hard, so demand for the little scrub land that remained was doubtless in decline anyway.

It was during this time that education and land reformer Jesse Collings MP began his call for "Three Acres and a Cow" as concerns rose about a rising number of "poor" people. That is, people dispossessed of land and the ability to take care of themselves. A series of statutes soon followed. The 1887 Allotments Act, the 1892 Smallholding Act and the 1908 Smallholding and Allotments Act; gave local authorities the power to acquire land.  Since then any loss of commons would probably have been a result of failure to register under the 1965 Commons Registration Act.

Unless you enjoy a particularly Malthusian outlook towards society it's hard to see the land reforms of the last 800 years as anything less than the wholesale redistribution of public property into private hands.  The replacement of ancient cooperative land ownership by an elitist system of private ownership. Though that raises many social questions in itself, keeping to the issue of land rights I'll try to validate my assertion with the following statistics:

  • In 2006 0.3% of the UK population owned 69% of the agricultural land mass of 41 million acres (60 million acres in total) - DEFRA(excludes wasteland, bogs etc).
  • The biggest individual landowner is the Duke of Buccleugh with 277 000 acres of the total UK land mass.
  • The wealthiest is the Duke of Westminster with 140 000 acres; 100 of which are in Mayfair with 200 acres more in Belgravia.
  • The Crown estates hold a total of 677 000 acres of UK land between them.
  • Britains 16.8 million householders lease barely 4% of Britain between them.
  • The top institutional landowner, The Forestry Commission, similarly holds around 4% of British land.
Source: Kevin Cahill, Who Owns The World

The legal right to an allotment in England is compensation for the loss of lawful access to common property and it raises an issue worth bearing in mind:  

The only rights you have are the ones that you claim!

right, n
1. That which is proper under law, morality or ethics.
2. Something that is due to a person by just claim, legal guarantee or principle.
3. A power, privilege or immunity secured to a person by law.
4. A legally enforceable claim that another will do or will not do a given act; a recognized and protected interest the violation of which is wrong.
5. The interest, claim or ownership that one has in tangible or intangible property.
Source: Blacks Law Dictionary.

Well that's it for the past, next post will be about the future and if you got this far, congrats & thanks for reading!

Special thanks go to: 
Simon Fairlie whose article A Short History of Enclosure in Britain provided many sources of reference.
Edward Dodson who gifted me a copy of The Great Robbery by Graham Peace, which was gratefully received.
Gill Barron for the swift dispatch of the very well illustrated The Land magazines.


Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Carrot Cake and a Cup of Char

A Brew & A Bite

I love carrots.  Raw or roasted.  In soups or stews; or steamed and crushed with a nob of butter and cracked black pepper. But most of all I enjoy a slice of carrot cake, especially when I have a cup of tea and ten minutes to myself.

In Briton we spend £290 million a year on carrots and plant 22 billion seeds producing around 100 carrots per person.  The land we use for growing carrots in the UK is the equivalent of 18000 football pitches, though we are by no means leaders in the field (pardon the pun).  That accolade belongs to the Chinese who produced 15.168 million tonnes of carrots in 2009 which accounted for 45% of global output.

The first uses of the carrot by humans is uncertain, though it is considered likely that the foliage would have been used long before the root. We do know that the modern carrot originated in present day Afghanistan around 5000 years ago.  Having a bitter flesh this root was not used as a food but was processed as a medicine. We know the Greeks later used it as a "love medicine" under the name of Philtron and later still the Romans adopted the carrot for similar purposes.  India, China and Japan had established carrots as a root crop by the 13th century, but through Europe it was still being used to treat various maladies.

It was the Dutch that hybridized the Orange carrot that we all recognize today, in the 16th century.  Their highly nutritious version quickly spread as a food crop entering England in the reign of Elizabeth I; the root was eaten and the fronds were worn in the hats of the ladies of the court!  The Jamestown settlers introduced the carrot to North America in 1607 and in 1814 founding father Thomas Jefferson produced 18 bushels of carrots from his gardens at Monticello (his estate in Virginia) where he had a flower garden, orchards and a vegetable garden.  

The popularity of the carrot is unsurprising really when considering it's nutritional value, something our vegetable growing ancestors prized highly in the foods they could grow.  They have a high fibre count and contain healthy levels of vitamin C as well as being a good source of Vitamin B6, Folate, Pantothenic Acid (Vit B5) , Iron, Potassium and Copper.  Highest of all however is the level of Beta Carotine (Vit A - specifically needed by the retina of the eye), with 100 grams of carrots yielding a mighty 267% of your RDA.  All very illuminating, but the history of the carrot does have a darker side!

Contrary to what your mother told you, carrots won't necessarily  help you to see in the dark!  Although they are an important source of nutrition for the eye, which may lead to better night vision, mums old wives tale isn't the whole story!  The rumour is thought to have originated during the second world war as a way to help conceal the British state of the art radar stations.  Rumours were spread that the combat accuracy of the British pilots was as a result of them eating lots of carrots.  Whilst this may have improved their eyesight a little, no doubt radar helped a lot!  The same ruse also helped the government to encourage people to eat more carrots in the Dig For Victory campaign, promoted in the poster shown above. Still, it just goes to show the versatility of this little vegetable.  Tasty, nutritious and serving its country in more ways than one!

It certainly serves me well with a brew, thanks for the cake Mrs B.

Nom nom nom!

Sunday, 7 August 2011

A Lot More Allotments

Addingham Allotments

The Giggleswick Horticultural Society celebrate their 70th anniversary this month.  This years show will be held in the Giggleswick Junior School pavilion on the 13th. The show was first held in 1941 and was a part of the Dig For Victory movement which promoted growing your own as a way to boost morale, nutritional intake and to reduce the pressure on the public food supply.  Classes are open to all entrants (schedules available from Giggleswick Tea Rooms) with exhibits being auctioned at 4pm.

The same day (13th Aug) new allotments will be opened in Earby.  The allotments have been provided by the Earby Parish Council and were funded jointly by the Parish Council, Lancashire County Council & Pendle Councils West Craven Area Committee.  The Cemetery Road Allotments cost a total of £8,346 and include a water supply, fencing and sheds.  Councillor Chris Tennant, the Chair, said that he wanted to provide more plots, but due to boundary restrictions 16 plots was the limit on that site. He was however negotiating an extension of the Rushden Avenue site, to add another four to six plots.  The Cemetary Road allotments will be officially opened at 2pm with soft drinks available and will include the annual Parish Council gathering.

Addingham Allotments & Gardens Association hold their annual show on the 14th of August in the Addingham Memorial Hall.  There are both closed classes for residents and open classes for visitors wishing to show vegetables, flowers, floral art, home craft & photography.  There will also be childrens classes and schedules are available from shops around Addingham or online here.  Entries must be registered before the 10th.

Addingham is another allotment inspiration locally and though it has a population just over a third higher than Cowling it provides more than ten times the number of allotments.  In Addingham allotment provision is around 1 for every 30 residents, in Cowling we have around 1 in 187!  The Addingham Parish Council responded to written representation made in May 2009 by providing 34 new plots complete with water butts and rabbit proof fencing in a little over 12 months. 

 Hope you're enjoying the summer and making the most of what's going on round and about.