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There's gold in them thar allotments

Friday 24 August 2007

As allotment gardening becomes a middle class obsession, our countryside commentator John Sheard reflects on the future of these important sources of food and exercise whilst Government-backed pressure to build on them grows by the week

BACK in the Middle Ages, so-called "alchemists" spent frustrating lifetimes trying to turn lead into gold. They failed. But here in the 21st Century, people like local lad Alan Titchmarsh have succeeded, not with lead but with soil, and in doing so have sparked a national controversy.

When I took over my allotment some 12 years ago, less than half of the available plots were in cultivation. The rest were jungles of weed, thorn and nettle (as indeed was mine, until my wife and I hacked it down). This was a major grievance to us working gardeners because seeds from those plots spread their weeds wide - and worse still, they were busy maternity units for rabbits.

John Sheard: Avid gardener and allotment goer

Now, there is a waiting list accompanied by a national controversy over the future of these precious bits of open space which, in the right hands, can provide food, exercise and a bit of peace and quiet away from the rat race. And Ilkley-born Alan is one of the creators of this queue.

It was television gardening programmes which came in vogue a decade or so that changed the face of allotments forever. Coinciding with a series of food scares that caused great unease to many consumers over "factory foods", these programmes focussed the attention of the middle classes on organic gardening.

Once upon a time, an allotment was where horny-handed working men kept their pigeons and hens (even pigs, during World War 11) and grew a few tatties to eke out the family budget. Now, an allotment holder is more likely to have a degree in sociology rather than a whippet.

But, as always, there is a problem - and, not unusually, a problem exacerbated by politicians, both MPs and local councillors. For as the Government orders the building of millions more homes to cope with singletons and immigrants (many of them illegal), the beady eyes of the property developers have fallen upon allotments as potential gold mines.

Such land can fetch over £1 million an acre and, as with school playing fields across the country, local councils have been selling them off like hot cakes. Here in the Yorkshire Dales, plans for a housing development on the former Burnside allotments in Skipton were announced just two weeks ago.

So here we have the classic businessman's dream: rising demand meeting declining supply, a sure-fire equation for quick profits. But, thankfully from my point of view as a gardener, there is an obstacle barring the way to such rich pickings: long-standing Government policy that makes it a statutory duty for local councils to provide a given number of allotments per head of population.

The roots for this movement can be traced back as far as the enclosure of the fields in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when peasants were driven from the land were allowed a small plot to save them from starvation.

These laws were stiffened during World War 1, when the nation as a whole was short of food, and enforced even more strongly during the "Dig for Victory" campaign of World War 11, when Nazi U-boats came within an inch of starving us into submission.

Fortunately, the green-fingered brigade is getting organised

Despite this, a national report just issued shows that demand for allotments is now so high that some local councils are dividing them into ever smaller plots, meaning a lot more people working less and less land. In other words, yet another national asset is being chiselled away until, in the end, it will no longer be able to achieve its set purpose.

Fortunately, the green-fingered brigade is getting organised. There is a national organisation known as the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens which is fighting the good fight and would like to see more, rather than fewer, allotments.

Somewhat ironically, this is very much a middle-class, Leftward looking organisation very close to the hearts of many New Labour supporters and as such punches well above its weight when it comes to "green" lobbying skills. Let's hope it can land a KO blow on those planning the Great Allotment Gold Rush.

  • The Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens has representatives in all regions of the UK. Contact the Northern office on 0191-263-5125 or see www.farmgarden.org.uk

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