Growing pains

Allotments were once a space for working-class families to grow cheap, wholesome food. Now a trendy new tribe of gardeners is encroaching on their territory, and all in the garden is not so lovely
June 21, 2010

In 1952, a small group of men set to work in a field near their homes in south London. Centuries earlier, the field had been the last grazing point for cattle on their journey to slaughter at Smithfield market. But over the years the land had become fallow, and oak trees and scrub had crept in from the nearby woods. The men felled the trees, scythed the long grass, cut back bramble and cleared away tons of wartime scrap. Then they dug and fed the soil—and turned the field into allotments. These men, who included our friend Ben and his father, were white working-class men, “mostly postmen and policemen.” They grew potatoes, beans, carrots: staple crops to feed families still on rations in the postwar years. When his father died, Ben took over his plots, as often happens. The allotments are still there today. So are some of the original group, now in their eighties and nineties. But alongside the traditional vegetables grow chard, raspberries, asparagus, chilli peppers and many others. And the allotmenteers themselves represent a modern nation: working and middle class, black and white, middle eastern and Mediterranean. In recent years, Ben and his friends have looked on in bemusement as allotments have become fashionable. Michelle Obama started one in the White House garden shortly after taking up residence. Last year, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, called for people to reconnect with the land and for more sites to be made available for allotments. The National Trust, British Waterways Board and Tesco have all offered land for plots. In June, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver added his support for the growing number of people who want to produce their own fruit and veg. Even the Queen has an allotment now, although its shapely semicircle of potatoes hints more at aesthetics than need. This enthusiasm is evident in our shops, too. In March, B&Q said its sales of vegetable seeds were up nearly threefold on the same period last year (itself a record year). The “grow your own” movement has inspired television shows, newspaper columns and books, which in turn fuel demand. But the supply of land has not kept pace. There are around 200,000 allotments in Britain. Most are council-owned and some are run by charities or farmers; others are self-run but on council land, while Ben’s allotment is owned by a private estate. A 2009 report from the think tank New Local Government Network, “Can You Dig It?”, estimated that 100,000 people are on a waiting list for an allotment. A recent survey by the main allotment pressure group, the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG), tells a similar story. Researchers Ian and Margaret Campbell used freedom of information legislation to question local authorities in England—and found there were 59 people waiting for every 100 plots, up from 49 per 100 last year. Campbell, a doctor who lives in West Kirby in Merseyside, has been on an allotment waiting list for four years. As Donna McDaid of NSALG says: “In some areas of the country you’re more likely to get a burial plot before you get an allotment.”

article body image

Allotment holders on Clapham Common in 1940 It wasn’t always thus. The number of allotments peaked at 1.4m during the second world war, when Britons were encouraged to grow their own. After the war ended, and particularly when rationing stopped in 1954, demand for plots dropped; food became easier to buy again. Aside from a brief spike in the 1970s inspired by the television comedy The Good Life, the decline continued until the end of the century, abetted by rising prosperity. At the same time, high land prices tempted local councils to sell off unused allotments to housing developers. By 1997, a survey for NSALG found that only four people were waiting per 100 plots—and that both supply and demand were falling. So why the rebirth? The recession is the most recent driver, combined with the rising interest in environmentalism. Eco-worrying spiked in the late 1990s, with deaths from BSE in the headlines and, in 1996, the first GM product (tomato purée) coming on sale in Britain. People started worrying about pesticides and the possible dangers of GM crops, as wells as where food comes from and the miles it has travelled to reach them. A new type of consumer emerged who demanded information about supermarket produce and questioned intensive agriculture itself. Peter Melchett, former executive director of Greenpeace UK, who was arrested for pulling up GM crops in 1999, says: “There has been a reawakening of our food culture, a reawakening of interest in how food is grown. People want seasonal food now as well, and they want to grow organic.” Margaret Campbell’s desire for an allotment is motivated by a more recent concern about food security. In Britain, around 38 per cent of vegetables and 91 per cent of fruit is imported. “The crunch time—past peak oil—is on the horizon… we will need to provide our own food,” she believes. But allotments have deeper roots in a radical history, going back to the ruling classes’ land-grab at the time of enclosures (see “Common Cause,” overleaf). And the rebirth of interest in allotments has also brought with it political and cultural conflict. Allotments are one of the few places in which the country’s different tribes—working men, affluent mothers, immigrants, hippies and, increasingly, the professional middle classes, rub along together. Dave Morris, of NSALG, calls the middle-class arrival a “culture shock in the allotment world.” “It’s one of the few places where a bin man might work alongside a brain surgeon,” he says. “Mostly it works just fine.” But does it? The old boys like Ben, caricatured as “all flat caps and Thermos flasks,” have held sway since before the war. Ben works his allotment every day rain or shine, as do Laurie and Will, despite being in their nineties. Gardening overalls (and hip flasks in the winter) are much in evidence—but so are new signs of prosperity and alternative lifestyles. Allotments were always places where things are recycled: sash windows become makeshift cloches, sheds are hammered together from bits of wood. But to the old boys’ horror, some newcomers hire landscape gardeners to design their plots. There are wind chimes, ponds and bee-friendly plants. One hippie mum, a yoga teacher, dug a pond to encourage frogs and other wildlife only to find that someone stuck a garden fork through the liner in protest at this use of growing space. The new allotmenteers, it is feared, are squeezing out the old-timers—those who kept allotments going in their darkest days.

article body image

A new generation of food writers like Celia Brooks Brown, author of New Urban Farmer, encourage green lifestyles The lowest point for allotments came in the late 1990s, but things changed soon after. In 1999, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage series championed the “grown your own” movement, and other television programmes, such as Monty Don’s Fork to Fork, spread the word. By 2007, the Observer newspaper had begun an allotment, worked by staff and photogenic children. The BBC’s Gardeners’ World followed in 2008. The NSALG and the Allotments Regeneration Initiative (ARI) worked together to bring in new blood, questioned outmoded ways of running sites and came up with ways of making plots more accessible to new groups (raised beds for the disabled, for instance). Local authorities were challenged when they tried to sell allotment land off to developers. Richard Wiltshire, a geographer at King’s College London and an allotment holder for nearly 30 years, was an ARI stalwart during this time. His allotment began as “a place we took the kids, where I could grow food when we didn’t have much cash. Then it was the place we protected when it was under threat from developers—and it’s a good thing for it to have been threatened as people realise what they are fighting for.” Rocketing demand, however, has created a different set of problems. Wiltshire says that allotment officers are “screamed at” on the phone and others are besieged by people desperate for a plot. “My survey of allotment managers shows that the demand is driven by celebrity, sold by celebrity and it is misrepresenting what working an allotment involves. People are coming in with unrealistic expectations driven by the media.” Councils must provide allotments if six or more people ask them to, under the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908. The NSALG is considering legal action against those that fail to meet this duty. But as McDaid explains, if a council says it is looking for land, there’s no timetable for it to deliver. “Our suspicion is that local authorities are stringing residents along, thinking it might all be a flash in the pan.” While you might expect city dwellers to have the most problems finding a plot, the shortage is nationwide. Totnes in Devon was the country’s first Transition Town (a movement for sustainable living; see the box below) and is the hippie capital of Britain. Yet people had to demonstrate to get more allotments. Residents in David Cameron’s constituency of Witney, Oxfordshire, created an instant garden outside the town hall last year to protest against the lack of growing space. Wiltshire reports that older allotmenteers are being offered help by younger people. This seems like a good idea, but it can be a form of queue jumping. And if a pensioner’s plot starts to look “untidy” (a dread word in allotment-land), officials come under pressure from those on the lengthening waiting list to force him or her to down tools. Other praiseworthy initiatives, such as Channel 4’s Landshare website, carry pitfalls too. The scheme, promoted by Whittingstall, pairs people who have spare land with those who want to grow produce. The site carries many messages from people offering to work other people’s gardens. But someone unscrupulous could use this access to gain control over an older person’s property. And those working in other people’s gardens have no security of tenure if the owner dies. Morris, who is NSALG’s representative in the northwest, has talked to market gardeners, farmers and garden centre managers in a search for more land. He finds that they tend to see it as a commercial opportunity and wonder how high they can push rents. Most council-owned allotments charge £30-£40 a year for a standard plot of 250 square metres. Morris met one farmer who wanted to charge £1,000 a year per plot; another is already charging £250 a year for a half-plot. Garden centre managers have asked him whether, if they rent land to allotmenteers, they could insist on supplying all their equipment. Morris is uncomfortable about a “two-tier” system, but feels it is inevitable with councils failing to buy new land. As most council allotments are run at a loss, he advocates raising council rents to around £50 a year. Everyone agrees that the growing demand needs managing. One solution is a points system, similar to that used for housing, so that disadvantaged people get priority. Those who could dig up their lawns and plant carrots should be encouraged to do so instead of clogging up waiting lists. Another sensible solution is to create half-plots to manage the peak of demand, and return to full-size plots once natural attrition has taken its course. This is already happening in some areas. Melchett, now policy director of the Soil Association, has another idea: “Some people might be happy to participate in community supported agriculture, working on an organic farm in exchange for food… a step up from the box scheme.” But that could smack of exploitation. The Transition Towns movement, which created some of the demand through its emphasis on self-sufficiency, may have a better solution: that people “apprentice” themselves by working in community gardens or orchards before they get a precious allotment. In its report “Food 2030,” published in January, the Labour government proposed a “meanwhile lease,” which would allow voluntary groups to create temporary allotments on land awaiting development. Similarly, Capital Growth, the scheme launched in 2008 by the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and his food tsar Rosie Boycott, aims to create over 2,000 gardening plots, many of which may be reclaimed in time. But those schemes don’t appeal to many allotmenteers, who want to reap the long-term benefits of their toil. The new coalition has yet to unveil an allotments policy. At their best, allotments bring together the different peoples of Britain. At their worst, they bring out Little Englander attitudes about territory, race, class and age. In the south London field where Ben and his friends work, tensions have risen since the arrival of new plot-holders. One ethnic group has become a lightning rod for discontentment. They have netted over their plots and bring their large, vocal families down to help. Gossip holds that they wheel-barrowed away the last of the precious horseshit in a well-timed manure grab. This has led to tut-tutting from the white working and middle-class plot-holders, sometimes spilling over into racial conflict. Class tensions also thrive. Many middle-class plot-holders have sacrificed high production in favour of prettiness and wildlife conservation. They disdain the “industrial methods” of the peasants at the bottom of the field. Theft is a problem, too. Pumpkins disappear at Halloween and cherished soft fruit in summer. Pettiness, bureaucracy and other sinful attitudes flourish in such fertile ground. Demand for allotments should subside, as the media and the dilettantes move on. Earlier this year, the National Trust admitted that the flagship allotment at its London HQ, dug by Monty Don last spring, had fallen into disuse. A spokesman said: “The garden, which is very shaded by tall trees, will probably be returned to plants and grass.” The Queen’s allotment is also on shady soil and may quietly return to lawn. In south London, as the sun goes down and plot-holders hoe weeds, pick the gourmet purple sprouting broccoli, earth up their potatoes or just sit and admire the blossom on the fruit trees, it seems positively bucolic. And it is, despite the problems. Working the land, even on a small scale, links people to the cycle of life, from raising plants from seed and seeing them thrive or fail, to harvesting and then the compost heap. There is something of substance underneath the hype. The old boys remember why they “broke the field” all those years ago, when rationing was still in force: real, bone-gnawing hunger. Feeding your family is a basic human instinct. And if oil-fuelled agriculture does come to an end, the ability to work the land will become more valuable than ever. Some names have been changed in this article

Common cause In Britain, the conflict over who owns land and what it should be used for is centuries-old. 1500s Since the Norman conquest those in power had been annexing land previously held in common by the poor for growing food and keeping livestock. By the late 1500s this practice became frequent, fuelling feelings of injustice. 1649 Gerrard Winstanley founded the Diggersmovement as food prices hit an all-time high. The Diggers called for the ending of property rights, believing the earth belonged to all. Winstanley’s group planted vegetables on common land in Surrey but were soon driven out. 1845 The General Enclosure Act made the provision of allotments for the landless poor compulsory. In some urban areas, gardens appeared for the poor to grow food in. 1908 The Small Holdings and Allotments Act gave all who wanted it a legal right to a productive garden. The idea, a hangover from the Victorians, was to help the “feckless poor” by giving them the means to stay healthy. 1943 War-created food shortages and the Dig for Victory campaign (endorsed by the two royal princesses in a photoshoot) drove allotment tenancies to a peak of 1.4m. About half of the nation’s fruit and vegetables were grown in gardens and allotments. 1970s The environmental movement, influenced by texts such as Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, spawned interest in self-sufficiency, immortalised by the television comedy The Good Life. 1980s A counterculture emerged, sparked by rising land prices, unemployment and homelessness. A road-building programme creates a new generation of tree-huggers. 1988 Green campaigner Graham Burnett wrote a samizdat booklet Dig for Revolution, claiming that veg growing was a revolutionary act that liberates us from being passive consumers. 1996 Activists from The Land is Ours group, including journalist George Monbiot, took over derelict land in Wandsworth, living and gardening for five months before being evicted. They drew inspiration from the Diggers and the US movement of guerrilla gardening (working someone else’s land without permission). 2000 Reclaim the Streets, the movement mobilising for public space, occupied Parliament Square and planted vegetables and flowers. 2005 The Transition Towns movement started. The project aims to help communities tackle the problems of peak oil and climate change by promoting sustainability, localism, food security and reduced energy use.