Saturday, 16 February 2013

Allotment controversies

Note: This post will probably only be meaningful if you live in the UK!

For the benefit of those of you who don't know this, an Allotment is a small piece of land, usually owned by the local Council, allocated (aka "allotted") to a citizen for the purpose of cultivating fruit, vegetables and flowers. A small rental fee is charged. If you are interested in the history of Allotments in our country, please read this very informative and concise summary provided by (Please also note that since I do not have an Allotment I am illustrating this post with photos of my own garden).

Recently there has been a lot of controversy over the sale or proposed sale of Allotment sites to developers, for the purpose of building houses. This has caused me to think deeply about the ethical issues at stake here, and to consider the pros and cons of Allotment-holdership versus home gardening.

The first point to make is that in most cases the Allotment sites are on land owned by the state, administered by local councils. Allotment-holders rent the land at very modest rates - typically less than £40 per year. This does not entitle them to any rights in relation to the land - they are tenants, not freeholders - and the landowner is entitled to terminate the deal if they want, subject to the observance of the correct procedures. The trouble is that here in the UK we are very much aware of the quasi-rights accorded to "ancient usage". In other words, "possession is nine-tenths of the law", as the saying goes. Some Allotment-holders have occupied their sites for a very long time, and consider the land to be effectively their own (which is understandable). The prospect of summary eviction is not a welcome one if you have put in a lifetime's hard work and tender loving care to make your plot fertile and productive.

At the same time we must not forget that nationally we are in a time of severe financial difficulty. On account of our enormous budget deficit, local Councils are receiving less and less funding from Central Government. They therefore have to obtain funds from somewhere, to enable them to continue to provide services to all their citizens. Selling Allotment sites to developers must seem to them like an attractive option. This doesn't involve the Council in any work: all they have to do is rake in the money! As long as the deal is honestly concluded (specifically: avoiding any kick-backs for the Councillors / officials who arrange the deal), a sale like this should really be seen by most citizens as a sensible arrangement. A few dozens / hundreds of Allotment-holders may have to suffer, but the vast majority of citizens benefits.

Another point to remember is that there is also a severe shortage of housing in our country, and Allotment sites are often in locations eminently suitable for the construction of domestic housing. So in theory our Councils ought to be facilitating the release of this land for the greater good of the people...

July 2012

However, all this has to be seen in the light of the fact that our population is one of the least healthy in the world, a situation exacerbated (some would say caused) by an almost obsessive dependence on "ready meals" - processed foods containing far too much salt, sugar, fat, preservatives, colouring-agents, emulsifiers etc. [Dare I mention the horsemeat scandal?]. In these circumstances we ought to be doing everything possible to encourage the adoption of a better diet. Growing our own food contributes towards this, especially since evidence suggests that people (especially children) are much more likely to eat something they have grown themselves. Horticulture also has beneficial side-effects, such as increased exercise and intake of fresh air, not to mention the social and therapeutic aspects of the hobby. My view therefore is that Government should make it easier for people to feed themselves, or at least supplement their diet with healthy home-grown produce rather than mass-produced (often imported) junk. It really ought to be the case that everyone who wants an Allotment should be able to have one.

As I said earlier, I am not an Allotment-holder, so I cannot speak from experience here, but I am an avid grower and consumer of home-produced food. I know that many people don't have a garden in which to grow their own fruit and veg (of course this is usually why they apply for an Allotment!), but I thought I would just list a few of the advantages I think my garden gives me - compared with an Allotment.
  • My garden is close at hand, meaning that I don't have to plan my gardening work so carefully. I can just pop outside and do a few minutes' worth of gardening whenever I feel like it
  • I keep all my tools in a shed in the garden, so I never have to walk more than a few paces to get a tool
  • Water supply is immediately at hand - from the water-butt most of the time, augmented when necessary by a hosepipe
  • My garden is enclosed, and I don't have so much risk of importing pests, diseases and weed-seeds from my neighbours' plots
  • Also because my garden is enclosed it is not visible to passers-by, hence generally unaffected by acts of vandalism and theft (not 100% so)
  • I don't risk being penalised for minor misdemeanours by an over-zealous Committee
  • I can grow what I want to grow. There are no prohibited plants
  • Since I am the freeholder of the land I don't live under the threat of eviction
  • I don't incur any fees for using the garden
January 2013
I have one final observation to make on this matter: a couple of weeks ago a programme (allegedly a documentary) was shown on our TV, called "Allotment Wars", which presented the Allotment-holding fraternity as quirky, argumentative and selfish. Lots of my blogging friends who have Allotments have said this programme was biased, sometimes factually incorrect and totally unrepresentative of the community it claimed to depict. Could it just be that this was a deliberate and cynical attempt to discredit the Allotmenteers and marginalise them so that objections to the sale of their plots to greedy property-developers can more easily be over-ruled without public outcry? It's not impossible, is it?


  1. This, what you are writing about, Mark is happening not only in the UK, but also in Poland. We have the same problem. I don't own an allotment, but my friends and family do.
    In Warsaw, Poland there are many blocks of flats; many people who live there own the allotments. There are a few allotment areas in Warsaw, but the city is still developing, the more and more people come to live here (so more places to live in are being built), many foreign companies open their businesses here(so they have to build modern glass office blocks) - that is why there is not much place left for the allotments.

    Here in Poland, in June 2012 the government had a plan to enact a law that all allotments should be given to local goverments so that they could sell the attractive allotment areas to private investors or developers; to build there shopping centers and modern housing estates. But, Polski Związek Działkowców (Polish Association of Allotment Holders) protested against such law. Allotment holders turned to Constitutional Tribunal in Poland for help. Unfortunately, in July 2012, the Tribunal enacted the law that all allotments can be sell to private investors. Of course, the allotments which are in Warsaw (especially in attractive locations) are doomed to be sold. Thousands of people are writing letters to Prime Minister Tusk or to the President Komorowski - so maybe someone could do something about it - but.. ineffectually. This case is still in progress but there are small chances that the allotment holders will keep their gardens.

  2. Hello Mark, this is a very interesting post! I would be absolutely gutted if the council sold off the land that my allotment is on. I live in a typical Yorkshire back-to-back and only have a very small front garden. Although I can usually make a lovely display out there and I grew tomatoes in pots for years, my allotment is my garden. I'm lucky it's at the top of my street but without it I would have to move to a house with a garden because I need to be outside, digging and growing. The allotments are a great place for so many people and for wildlife. I saw the TV programs too and they really were dire! Not a true representation at all, but I must say that I am glad I'm on a council run allotment and not a privately run one as they can be a bit 'funny' at times ;) Your post has made me realise even more just how lucky I am to have an allotment and just how much I love it. My life just wouldn't be complete without my outdoor space!!

  3. Rents of less than £40 a year - I wish!

    1. I should add that modern housing is so crammed in that many gardens just aren't big enough to grow anything in let alone food.

      Also we are supposed to be going to struggle to feed the nation or so we are told so food produced on allotments is essential.

  4. An interesting post, Mark. We don't have allotments in the U.S. although there are community gardens, they are called, whereby one can obtain a small plot, usually free or for a very small fee. However, one problem we might have that you didn't mention is that some people are simply too lazy to take advantage of this, while some might be too busy and overworked to do so, etc. Next week, my church is having an exploratory meeting of those interested to see if we can start a community garden in a large plot the church owns. It would probably accommodate about 50 or so raised beds and would be free for those who wanted to use it, with them giving some of their harvest to feed those in need.

  5. I found your post interesting too since we don't have allotments here, it just is so strange to me to think that people wouldn't want a garden in the back yard but then most everyone here has some kind of yard unless you live in an apartment and then you are just out of luck as far as gardening goes until you get a place with a yard. However, I have always heard about your allotments and think it would be a shame to have them sold off since your country has had them for so long. Allotments are a wonderful idea and always have been.

  6. Here in rural Australia most houses have large yards but the trend to put 2 or 3 houses where once there was just the 1 means that yards are getting smaller and smaller and before long we too will be in a place where we will need community gardens. Growing things, putting your hands in the soil, its all good exercise for the body and the spirit. A world where this activity is restricted does not seem like a healthy place. Your garden is beautiful and productive and I am interested in that snowed in forced hibernation. It is something I have never experienced.

  7. I loved walking past the allotments near where I lived in London and sticky beaking on what people were growing. The difficulty I've always had with the system were the incredibly long waiting lists for the land (this may be a specifically London thing) which meant that not everyone who wanted one could have one. As a result it did tend to cause a kind of have/have not divide and some degree of resentment (and it makes a policy of selling off the land far easier to sell to the electorate). Not sure what the solution to that is as I certainly wouldn't want to see them sold off and London needs all the green space it can get (and indeed food growing space). Maybe a more community gardening approach?

  8. Are you trying to wind up us allotment holders here Mark?
    I would think that very few sites ,whether council or privately owned, are leased on the basis that plotholders could face "summary eviction".
    I'm glad to say that our new allotments are only a 5 minute wheelbarrow walk from home (so I don't need to put up a shed) and the lease has 16 years to run!
    By the way if you have'nt already discovered it bruno's allotment blog - A sideways look at plot politics is a very good tongue in cheek read.

  9. We have allotments in the USA too but we call them Community Garden Plots. But they are exactly the same thing- you rent a plot for the spring-early fall months. And something similar just happened here in Troy, NY. A plot that was not owned by my Community Garden but used with the blessing of the land owner for about 30 years, was closed because the owner finally developed that and the surrounding land into apartments. So it did take away a popular garden in the downtown area. But those apartments with commercial space on the first level have brought taxes and new business and new life to our downtown. So in the end, I really do think it was a win for the city. Notsomuch for those who were long-time plot renters but the city as a whole has benefited.


  10. Interesting indeed. I suppose if public (as opposed to private) benefits of developing allotment land is high a decent arguement can be made as Preppy^ said. But were I an allotment owner and the rug was oplled out beneath me then I'd certainky be devastated. Difficult issue.

  11. Oh let me tell you, the next time we buy a house (next time we can afford the expensive and stress) we would love one with a little land which we could use to grow or fruit and veg. Though it is so true that we have spent so much money and time on our Allotment so far and have well established trees etc.
    Our allotment committee was so horrible that we couldn't go on, it fell apart with arguments and nastiness. So for me the Allotment Wars show was tame!

    Your garden is stunning xxx

  12. Allotment rent in Sheffield now £160 a year for full plot. It's a massive privilege to have use of that piece of land and I don't begrudge paying for it. But cultivated green space serves the city and environment by helping control water and pollution. Wow... if the allotments were all concreted and paved where would all that water and CO2 go? Our own 'garden' is just 3 X 5 m - which by the the time you've got 2 wheelie bins, a shed for bikes and laundry drying space on, leaves precious little for growing. Long live allotments!

    1. Agreed! Long live gardening spaces, open places, and space to gather as a community and grow flowers and food.

    2. We purchased a community plot for $20, in the U.S. While it was a great idea at the time, when it was time to till, no one wanted to do it. The plot was a few miles away, no shed, and the water source was a few shared hoses. Your gardens, as well as the fruit of your labors, are lovely. Thanks for sharing.

  13. We had purchased space at a community garden for $20 per year. When it came time to plant, though, my family decided not to do it. I was disappointed as I've only grown a couple of things outside.

  14. Well written and informative. Thank you! I am from the UK but now living in Australia, so I am aware of allotments. You appear to have made good use of every bit of space in your garden. Well done you!

  15. You are my inspiration for my backyard this spring. I hate mowing but love gardening. I so want a no-mow garden. The plan is to put our yard to work, to grow fruit & veggies seems so much more useful then to just mow grass. I just love your garden, simple and clean looking.

  16. I feel privileged here in Southern California with my small yard including 4 boxes 4x4' for veggies, along with enough land for a fig tree, lemon tree, apricot tree and Thompson Grape vines. I have gardening in my blood coming from Italian immigrants who always gardened. The memory of the taste of a warm tomato picked from the plant to my mouth is enough to encourage me to till the soil and plant seeds and small plants that provide produce. Since we are in a four year drought, I had the foresight to remove grass for the placement of my garden in the front yard, where it obtained the most sun exposure. I just couldn't understand the expenditure for water for grass. Happy gardening.

  17. Since the land is Council land, they could mandate some design features when they sell/develop the land that would mitigate some of the losses while providing needed housing. Specifically, if they built flats rather than houses, the flats could be designed with green roofs/rooftop gardens, using some of the soil saved from the allotment gardens. Ideally some of the former allotment tenants could lease some of the garden space if there wasn't interest from enough of the new tenants/occupants. A side benefit is a reduction in heating costs for the new building and reduced stormwater runoff. It would never be a 100% replacement of course, but it would go a long way to at least making an attempt to mitigate the effects.

    1. Nice idea, but perhaps too radical for most Councils. They just want to sell the land quickly and grab the cash, whereas the developer wants a purchase with no strings attached.

  18. The problem is like everything else in Britain, under-fund and sell public services and say that Privatisation will improve it
    Sell off anything owned by the public into the hands of your mates from Eton.

    Buses, Railways, Water, Gas, Electric, Council Houses, NHS, Coal Mines all being raped for and by the rich..

    Nowt is sacred anymore, we're daft enough to believe whatever The Sun, Daily Mail & Express print


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