We have had an allotment for the past 5 years. As well as enjoying the fruits of our labour in terms of the produce we have grown, I have also been an active member of the allotment colony’s association committee which has provided some insight into the issues associated with managing an allotment site. This blog is a reflection on the role of allotments in modern life and why, in my view, they continue to be an important feature of our national culture in the UK.
A little bit of history
Allotments were originally created in the 19th century to provide land for the working poor allowing them to grow food for their families. There have been various pieces of legislation introduced over the years to establish the rules of their use, most significantly in the early 20th century when a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide sufficient allotments according to demand was introduced. The 1925 Allotments Act then prevented local authorities from selling or converting land established for allotments without ministerial consent. This requirement remains in place today meaning that councils cannot sell off land used for allotments without the approval of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government which will be granted only in “exceptional circumstances” and where “adequate provision will be made for allotment holders displaced”.
The situation today
Clearly motivation for applying for an allotment today is quite different to that of a family in the 19th or even early 20th century. Whereas then fresh fruit and vegetables would have been hard to come by for most people unless they were either very affluent or grew their own, today we have easy access to a wide range of food, and often at a cheap price in supermarkets. For the majority, allotments are more of a leisure activity or lifestyle choice providing an escape from stressful and sedentary jobs, or a satisfying retirement project. That said with food prices increasing, and predicted to continue to do so as the UK leaves the European Union, perhaps growing produce will become an effective way of keeping household costs down for more people once again. Either way demand for allotments currently outstrips supply by some margin. Waiting lists are notoriously long – we waited four years for ours which is pretty standard in our area – and the National Allotment Society estimates that an additional 90,000 plots would be required to address this.
Despite this, the provision of allotments by local authorities is under threat. As a consequence of swingeing cuts to council budgets allotments have inevitably slipped some way down the list of priorities. In many areas there has been a concerted effort to encourage allotment colonies to convert to self-management in order to reduce the administrative burden on the local authority. Indeed at my own site an allotment association was established with this in mind, though ultimately it was decided that this was not going to work for us due to the over-reliance this would place on a small number of plot holders willing to take an active role in the association. Having retained the direct management of the council though it is clear that there are ever diminishing resources for overseeing allotments resulting in delays in getting vacant plots re-allocated, and the burden of ongoing maintenance shifting ever more to the association. In other areas local authorities have sought to sell allotment sites for development and, despite the provisions of the 1925 Allotments Act, in some cases such as that in Watford, have won the right to do so.
Some would argue that the requirements on a local authority to continue to provide allotments for use by its residents is no longer relevant, after all the country is very different to what it was in the inter-war years. Is it really a priority to provide council-owned land for the use of a self-selecting group of people to use at their leisure and for their pleasure?
The benefits of allotments
Unsurprisingly this is not a view I would share. Although their purpose to many has changed, with few being used to grow food out of necessity, I would argue that allotments provide many societal benefits which continue to make them relevant and worthy of protection.
- Health and wellbeing – from the physical activity involved in cultivating and maintaining a plot to the nutritional benefits of having a steady supply of fresh produce, allotments are a great way to keep fit and healthy at any age. I can also testify to the positive impact gardening can have on mental health. When we first took on our allotment I was going through a period of struggling with anxiety and nothing settled my mind as well as immersing myself in the plot. It remains a key factor in my maintaining a balanced outlook on life.
- Social cohesion – allotment colonies bring together people in the local area, from all walks of life, with a shared interest in gardening. They provide an opportunity to meet people who might not cross your path otherwise and are small communities in their own right. For older plot holders they can be a way of counteracting the sense of isolation that some feel following retirement, and for those who are bit younger an opportunity to engage with people of different generations. They also provide an opportunity for the increasing numbers of people who cannot afford to buy their own property, or live in housing which has no outdoor space, to engage with gardening.
- Urban greening – allotments are very often found on pockets of land in urban and suburban areas creating a green ‘lung’ in a developed area. Green space in otherwise built up locations can have a positive impact on how residents feel about where they live and can contribute to reducing air pollution, flooding and other environmental issues.
- Wildlife habitat – allotments can be a haven for wildlife in towns and cities, particularly where plot holders adopt an organic approach to growing. They can provide a rich source of food for pollinators – at my own site we have recently agreed to host a beehive which is sure to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
Whilst there is a cost to local authorities in providing allotments for local residents I would argue that all of the above benefits provide great value for money. Using them to promote health, community and environmental benefits could potentially even save money in terms of reducing the need for plot holders to engage with more costly services. If they were not provided by councils then they almost certainly would not exist at all which would be a great loss to our national culture, and would diminish opportunities for local residents. Allotments are key local assets and deserve to be protect.
See more of my allotment at my Tumblr site
All photos taken by Ann Cooke