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  There was agreement that some of the main restrictions on the use of allotments should be repealed, particularly: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

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