Flying the flag for allotments

A man tends to his allotment

A man tends to his allotment

First published in Nature Notes

THIS summer, during National Allotments Week, many gardeners will be flying the flag for all those who love their allotments with commemorative events and grow-your-own celebrations.

But the event organiser, the National Allotment Society, is also promoting a much more serious message, highlighting the need to strengthen the protection for our remaining allotment sites and emphasising the benefits allotments bring to people and the environment.

Reports vary as to how many allotments there are in the UK today, with estimates ranging from 150,000 to 300,000.

In 1996 there were four people waiting for every 100 plots, but reports claim that has risen to 57 today, as the economic downturn and television programmes such as Gardeners' World and The Big Allotment Challenge have encouraged people to try self-sufficiency.

Allotments are protected by legislation, so if a statutory site - bought by the local council to use specifically for allotments - is sold off, the council is obliged to provide a replacement plot. However, what sort of site it is replaced with may be an issue for gardeners.

Di Appleyard, the society's marketing manager, explains: "Moving an allotment site could mean dismantling thriving, socially cohesive allotment communities that, as recent research has shown, are situated on land that is high in bio-diversity with healthy soil, producing a significant amount of locally grown food.

"Although legislation dictates that the plot-holders must be offered an alternative growing space, it does not take into account the historical value and sense of place of the site or the damage that is done to the existing social networks. This element needs to be recognised and existing allotment sites should be valued and protected from disruption."

The real threat to plot holders, it seems, lies in the loss of council-owned land classed as a temporary site - which the council has claimed for something else, such as a school or a cemetery, but on which allotments have been built as a temporary measure.

"In such cases, plot holders should get the land registered as a community asset, which will give them a level of protection," Appleyard advises.

"A lot of councils have been offloading allotments to groups of plot-holders to self-manage. Locality, a network for community-led organisations (www.locality.org.uk) is a good starting point if you need help doing this."

The society is concerned that the recent relaxation of the planning regulations, along with the pressure on local councils to build much-needed new homes, may result in more councils opting to sell allotment land rather than allocating previously used land for that purpose.

"Don't wait for the rumours to start that an allotment in your area is going to be sold off to make a car park. Form an association or get together with other sites to get involved in a local plan. It's hard for a national organisation to lobby and change things because it's down to local councils to make their decisions about planning and development. Unless the community gets involved in it at an early stage, then it's probably too late," she adds.

"An allotment association can be a really dynamic group, keeping allotments in the public eye, lobbying councillors and organising fund-raising charitable events."

:: National Allotments Week runs from August 4-11. For details go to www.nsalg.org.uk

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