The decline of allotment gardens – is there anything we can do?
Demand for allotment gardens has increased dramatically over the past few decades (the national waiting list in 2018 had around 90,000 names on it, with some of those on the list expected to have to wait 40 years before being allocated a plot), and several obvious factors no doubt contribute towards that growth: general environmental awareness, the ability to grow organic food at fairly low cost, the positive effects gardening can have on a person’s physical and mental health, the publicising of the benefits of eating fresh and seasonal food, not to mention the fact that the fruit and vegetables taste better than supermarket ones (as long as the plants don’t die before producing food like all my cauliflowers did during last summer’s heatwave).
Contrast this with the rate at which allotment complexes are being sold off for development; apparently two percent of all plots in the UK have disappeared since 2010. Although councils are obliged to provide replacement sites within two miles, gardeners who have tended their plots and improved the soil over many years are transferred to replacement allotments and have to take the soil as they find it. Where the soil on the replacement gardens is poor, the gardeners concerned need to start from scratch and they have no recourse against the council or Secretary of State who approved the sale as there is no breach of the statutory provisions.
So good quality plots are on the decline, whereas demand is still high. What, if anything, can be done?
Unfortunately there is probably not much that can be done to stop a sale of an existing allotment. In order to get central government approval to a sale, the council merely needs to show that it is not “reasonably practicable” to keep an allotment site. That’s not a very high bar to reach. The only route available to affected allotment holders is to object to the relevant planning application and take their chances that (a) the planning authority considers that the objections are on planning grounds so can be put to the planning committee and (b) the committee itself votes to reject the planning application.
However, there is a provision written into statute that allows pro-active members of the public to demand that their council provides sufficient allotment sites. Section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 imposes a duty on local councils to provide allotments where there is a demand for them. The section states that where six council tax payers write to the local council demanding the council establishes allotments, the council is duty bound to take those comments into consideration. It doesn’t sound like much power is given to the people here, but where the council does decide there is demand for allotments, it must provide them.
The hole in the legislation, however, is that there is no time limit by which the allotments must be provided and there is seemingly no other set of rules or even guidance as to what time frames apply. I expect it will take a court decision to set out what duties, if any, a council has in terms of time scale when a demand for allotments has been demonstrated. Perhaps some brave gardeners will one day group together, take a chance and make a judicial review application.