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Pitchfork Politics

The fourth in a series of monthly Ecologist columns on the joys of allotmenteering

The Ecologist, May 2006

Looking back, I didn’t know how lucky I was. Three years ago, having decided to take the plunge, I simply wandered through the gates of the allotments nearest to me and asked if there were any free plots. There were, so I took one there and then. I hadn’t thought it was going to be so easy.

It turns out it isn’t so easy for everyone. In fact, one of the most common cries from readers of this column is ‘how do I get an allotment?’ ‘Lucky you’, writes Theresa Bristow from Nottingham , with just a touch of bitterness. Her attempt to get a local plot foundered when she was told ‘there is a waiting list of 13 already and allotments only become available when people die.’ The remarkably patient Ken Finn from Brighton, meanwhile, was on a waiting list for two years before he got his plot. Jodie Pitt has the same problems in Weston-super-mare , where she’s been on a waiting list for a year and is still, well, waiting.

It seems this is just the tip of an iceberg. So what’s going on? Why are so many people finding it so hard to get an allotment? And what can they do about it? I considered it my duty as a responsible columnist to find out.

First, the bad news. It is, indeed, increasingly difficult to find allotments. Demand for them is growing fast, and outstripping supply. Added to this is the pressure for development, spurred by government housebuilding targets and escalating land and property prices, which leads predatory developers to lick their lips over what they see as ‘wasted’ urban land. Applications to develop allotments are currently running at a rate of about 50 a year. This has spurred ‘save our allotment’ campaigns from Bicester to Eastleigh , and Lewisham to Liverpool .

In short, there are not enough allotments to go round. But this is where the good news starts. For it turns out that you – yes you – have a legal right to an allotment if you want one. And if there aren’t enough about – well, you can do something about it.

To understand why, we need to travel back to 1908, and plunge into the text of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act. This legislation, which is still in force, obliges local authorities to provide sufficient allotments to meet local demand. This means, according to Geoff Stokes of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, ‘exactly what it says – councils have a legal duty to provide a sufficient number of plots to meet local demand, and you should not have to wait more than a reasonable amount of time for one.’

If you are waiting, or if you simply can’t find a plot, you can use the law to your advantage. All you need is for six people who are registered on the electoral roll to get together and put a well-argued case to the council: explain that the demand for allotments is not being met and that it’s their legal duty to meet it. Legally, they will have to respond – preferably by providing more allotments. If this fails, according to Geoff Stokes, you would be within your rights to take your council to a judicial review – though you’d have to have a lot of time on your hands and money in your pocket.

There are, of course, a few complications. Inner London boroughs, for example, were exempted from the 1908 Act, so if you live in one you may have a tougher time. Private allotments – which might be owned by churches, companies or landowners – are also exempt. In general, though, the basic principle applies if you live anywhere outside inner London – and judging from my emails, very few people know about it. Hardly surprising, since councils are reluctant to inform you how lucky you are.

So take heart and take note: your local authority has a legal obligation to provide you with an allotment. If it doesn’t do so, you have a legal right to take action to get one! Still on that long waiting list? Find yourself five other people, and give your council hell. The more of us that do so, the faster things will change.

Fighting back: useful links

National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners
Find out what you’re entitled to and how to get it. www.nsalg.org.uk

The Allotment Handbook by Sophie Andrews
Published by Eco-Logic books. www.eco-logicbooks.com
How to save allotments from developers: a guide to the law, with tips and contact

Allotments UK Campaign Forum
The Allotments UK website has a section dedicated to ongoing campaigns, in which plotholders update each other and appeal for help

Office of the Deputy Prime Minister
Mr Prescott explains exactly what you are entitled to. Well worth a browse. Know your rights! http://www.odpm.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1127689

Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society
Law and practice is slightly different in Scotland . This excellent site will help you through the maze. www.sags.org.uk