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Dirty politics

Soil is for growing in, not building on

The Ecologist, September 2007

I was recently contacted by the man who runs my local branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England. He had got hold of a document which he thought I ought to see. ‘Have a look at what your city council are planning,’ he said. ‘Unbelievable, isn't it?’

The document he attached was the council's first foray into what it knows will be extremely controversial plans for massive levels of housebuilding. Oxfordshire, where I live, is planning to build at least 2,500 new houses, and possibly many more, every year for the next two decades. The situation is similar in many other places across the country. The question is: where to put them?

None of the options are very palatable. You can build all over the green belt, or even build new towns as the government is planning, but environmentalists get very unhappy about that. Because of the protests that tend to ensue, and because of high government targets for housebuilding on ‘brownfield’ sites – those which have previously been built on – as many new houses as possible will be built within town and city boundaries. Oxford City Council, like many others around the country, has just finished reviewing possible sites within the city for future building. The list of these sites was the document I received from CPRE. The reason that they were unhappy about it was that four of them were allotments.

It didn't take long for the people who grow their food on these allotments to get wind of theplans. Within a few days a protest group was up and running and on the front page of the local paper. With any luck, this will make the council think twice about building new houses on the allotments of Oxford . But even if it does, this little local difficulty was merely representative of a much wider trend going on all across Britain – a smash and grab raid on our vegetable patches.

We are in the middle of the biggest building boom since the post-war period. We are also in the middle of the biggest property boom for decades. This combination of high land prices and a desperate desire to build new houses is leading to an inevitable result: land that was previously ignored, overlooked or regarded as valueless is suddenly worth millions. In this new gold rush, allotments are under serious threat. Many of them are huge, and very close to he centres of cities and towns. For a developer, they are almost insanely desirable. This, combined with increasing pressure from central government to build ridiculously high levels of housing, puts a frightening amount of pressure on local councils to consider building on the carrot patches of the nation.

This would be a disaster. After many decades of decline, allotments have rocketed in popularity in just the last five years. When I first took on my plot, four years ago, half of the others were unused. Now you can't get one anywhere in the city for love or money, and I know that the situation is similar across the country. The interest in growing your own food,eating locally and organically and, perhaps, boycotting the supermarkets, is leading to an explosion of interest in food growing.

What few people know is that everyone who lives outside central London has a right, in law, to an allotment of their own. Every council is required, under a piece of legislation that dates back to 1908, to provide enough allotments to meet local demand. Very few of them do, perhaps because this legislation has not yet been tested in court. Nevertheless in law you are entitled to an allotment if you want one. If everybody knew this, and if councils met their obligations, we would currently be seeing a process of mass allotment construction across the country. Instead, we are having to fight to prevent their loss to greedy builders and spinelesslocal officials.

This is, it seems to me, a crucial battle. If we lose it, and if allotments across the country disappear under a tide of brick and concrete, we may lose our best chance to become, as we once were, a nation which grows and appreciates its own food. Plans to build on allotments are underway all over the country. Fortunately, plans to thwart them are underway too.

Perhaps the most famous current example of horticultural resistance is the campaign to save Manor Garden Allotments in east London . Manor Garden Allotments, a beautiful hundred-year-old site, has the misfortune to be right in the middle of the proposed Olympic Park. Forthe sake of three tiresome days of discus throwing and long-jumping, it is to be bulldozed into history. Its plotholders, though, are not going without a fight. The campaign that they set up to save their allotments has had national and even international media coverage, and has inspired many others around the country to fight a flawed vision of progress which replaces soil with concrete and calls it development.

The Olympics is a special case, but the attempt to destroy allotments is not. All over the country, the housing and land boom is leading to a fightback amongst the bean rows and the onion beds. The growers of the Ley Allotments in Baxenden, Lancashire, are battling their council’s future plans for housing too, as are campaigners in Tilehurst in Berkshire, Preston inLancashire, Eastleigh in Hampshire, Kenilworth in Warwickshire, Bicester in Oxfordshire, Acton in Greater London … the list is as long as you want to make it. The longer it gets, the more depressing it can seem.

But it doesn't have to be. The more campaigns that spring up, the more the authorities know how much people value allotments and the less they are likely to destroy them. I have long had a dream of a spreading landscape of vegetable beds covering the country, taking up space currently used by car parks, supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks. It’s a dream of people working off their stress, growing and eating their own healthy food, claiming independence from the machine, and all for £16 a year and a fork and spade.But I have a nightmare too: of our hard-won allotments being built on one by one by development sharks and cowardly councils, while our backs are turned. Which will come true? That’s up to us. Hammer your ploughshares into swords, my friends. It’s time to fight back.


Save Ley Allotments, Baxenden: www.allotments.net/allotments/Baxenden/baxenden.htm