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  There was agreement that some of the main restrictions on the use of allotments should be repealed, particularly: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.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Nature or Nurture?

Poppies, cornflowers and North African scarlet flax sway in the breeze, bumblebees and butterflies go about their business and field mice scurry around. The roundabout is a kaleidoscope of colour, wilder and nicer to look at than any number of tired-looking council bedding efforts. 

It’s the work of landscape designer Brita von Schoenaich, who for the first time has had her efforts sanctioned by authorities. In late April, with the help of Transport for London, which rotovated the soil for free, she and a small team scattered just under £300 worth of seed across the space, a mixture of native annuals and plants from North America, Africa and Europe. 

The German-born Schoenaich has attempted this project twice before, with mixed results. In 1996, she had the idea to use the wasted green space for an innovative urban gardening project. “We wrote to the authorities,” she says. “And they wrote back saying 'we don’t have any money’. Then we wrote again saying we’d raised the funds, and they wrote back saying it was too dangerous. So we just went ahead and did it.”

Read the rest of this story here

21st Century solutions meet 21st Century challenges

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Summer Soup's On

Two Soups
Its a satisfying moment, pulling your own veg and brushing the dirt off to see what you've got.  Long passed is the anticipation that follows sowing and the steady nurturing of spring seedlings.  With veg on the table it's time to decide what to do with it!

Soup's a regular in our house because it's nutritious, quick & easy to prepare; and right now we are enjoying two old favourites:

Carrot & Corriander Soup
  • 1 Onion, 2 Garlic Cloves & 1 Tbsp Corriander Seeds
  • 600g Carrots, 1L Veg Stock, Tbsp Olive Oil & Seasoning
  • 1 Tbsp Double Cream, 2Tbsp Greek Yoghurt & Corriander
  1. Put the oil on a medium heat and add the chopped onion & garlic.
  2. Crush the corriander seeds in a pestle & mortar, stir into the pan and turn the heat to low for 5 mins. 
  3. Add the finely chopped carrots & hot stock to the pan - simmer until soft. 
  4. Season to taste, blend & add the cream. 
  5. Garnish with yoghurt & freshly chopped corriander.

     Beetroot & Carraway Soup
    • 1 Onion, 1 Garlic Clove, 2 Tsp Carraway Seeds & Balsamic.
    • 500g Beetroot, 1L Chicken Stock, Seasoning & Greek Yoghurt
    1. Sweat the onions in a pan on a low heat for 5 mins with a lid on.
    2. Remove the lid, add a splash of balsamic vinegar & reduce.
    3. Add half of the carraway seeds & mix well.
    4. Add stock & the peeled, chopped beets to the pan - simmer until cooked.
    5. Blend and season to taste.
    6. Garnish with the yoghurt and the remaining seeds (toasted).

    Two great summer soups that go well with freshly baked bread and a glass of the spring made Dandelion & Elderflower wine. Enjoy!

    Monday, 1 August 2011

    The Radical Gardener by Michael Parsons

    Glusburn Allotments

    Our peaceful hobby of allotment gardening is the result of centuries-old struggles for land access."He who controls the land controls the life of the people": and our land in the past has been alienated by enclosure movements, and by the Victorian Highlands Clearances; until weak checks were built into the Victorian Enclosure Acts whereupon began today's allotment movement, though much remains to be done.

    More land cannot be produced by landlords no matter how high its price goes, so charging more for it is no remedy for its scarcity, a fact ignored by those who argue for allotment rent increases. The better future lies in fairer access for the majority, not restricting it to the wealthy by excluding or patronising the poor, and fairer access is what allotments aim for.

    Read the rest of this article - here.

    Finals of the RHS Britain in Bloom 2011

    RHS Edible Garden

    Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Judges are embarking on the finalists judging tour, for RHS Britain in Bloom 2011, supported by Anglian Home Improvements, the largest horticultural campaign in Europe.

    They will be visiting 76 finalist communities, chosen from 1,000 cities, towns, villages and urban communities throughout the UK, from August 1-13.

    Green-fingered troops will be deadheading, pruning, watering and putting their final touches to Bloom projects all over the country, in order to wow the RHS judges, score top marks and be announced category winner come late September.

    Roger Burnett, RHS Britain in Bloom UK Judges Chairman, said: ‘It’s an absolute privilege and joy to be an RHS judge involved in this hugely worthwhile campaign.

    Read the rest of this article - here

    Good Luck to all those taking part.