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Getting down to earth - by regenerating allotments
Friday, 15 November, 2002

Our country columnist (and allotment holder) John Sheard applauds a London based charity which is giving £500,000 to regenerate the nation's allotments.

THIS has been a week full of some heavy duty politics: the Government's plans to go head with a regional parliament for Yorkshire - which would almost certainly be a disaster for the countryside - and growing demands by farming organisations to turn over one tenth of the country's farms to the production of green fuel plants for motor vehicles.

    Esmee Fairbairn Foundation
One of the largest independent
grantmaking foundations in the UK
But we have touched on both these subjects in some detail in the past so this week I would like to write about something really important: allotments!

Today (Friday) a London-based charity born out of a war-time tragedy has announced that it is giving half a million pounds to help regenerate the nation's allotments, which are under ever-increasing threat from either a) dereliction or b) planners who want to sell them for building development.

The £500,000 grant to help save these invaluable green spaces is being made by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, founded by a multi-millionaire founder of the unit trust industry in memory of his wife, who was killed in an air raid during World War II.

And, as an allotment holder myself, I can't think of a more imaginative plan to help people get down to earth.

The allotment, I suppose, is viewed by many as a purely urban creation but not so: our market towns and larger villages have been dotted with them for more than a century and councils are under a legal duty to provide land for them.

They are a direct descendent of the cottage garden tradition going back virtually to the days of medieval strip farming, when serfs worked the squire's land for most of the week in return for having to right to a bit of land for his own use.

During the last war's Dig for Victory campaign, some 1,400,000 plots were in use but, since the 1950s, allotment holding has been in sharp decline. This has often caused large areas to become overgrown, giving the local councils the opportunity to sell them off for highly profitable building development.

However, in my own experience, things are now changing. Gardening has become a national mania, thanks to television. A succession of food scares over the past twenty years has made more and more people suspicious of eating what they buy. Grow your own veg and you know what's gone into it!

There are other advantages, too. Gardening gets people into the fresh air and provides healthy exercise, particularly for the ever-growing number of elderly people.

And, so long as the land is not strewn with slug pellets and other poisons, allotments provide an important oasis for wildlife. My own plot is alive with frogs from a neighbour's pond, where a pair of mallards nest. There are field mice, shrews, a kestrel in the hedgerow and that bunch of nettles in the corner is there (honest!) because red admiral butterflies use it as a breeding nursery.

This is in a Dales market town, with the open countryside only half a mile away. Think how valuable a plot like that would be in one of our big cities!

So congratulations to the Esmee Fairbairn Trust for coming up with such a brilliant initiative. The trust gives away many more millions to much more famous charities but to devote such effort - and cash - to a tiny but important niche shows welcome touch of imagination.

Allotment groups, local authorities and other interested parties can get more information about the Allotments Regeneration Initiative by emailing: ari@farmgarden.org.uk or logging onto www.farmgarden.org.uk/ari.

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