Allotments: national voice needed to fend off land developers

Posted by Michael Wale

A look at the West Country allotment organisation that wants to provide a national voice for Britain's allotment holders.

Allotments need protecting from developersThey came out of the blue on the internet. I was sent an email by the wonderful Julie Sumner, who fought unsuccessfully to save her allotments from Lord Coe and the alleged Green Olympics, who wanted to know if we rated them.

Them is the South West Counties Allotment Association. What you have to know about the West Country is that they are born rebels. It was they who first elected Liberals, when it was not fashionable. Then they turned many of their farms organic. They have a superb feeling of individuality. So it is with the South West Counties Allotment Association, who now announce to the rest of us allotment associations that they want to represent us nationally.

The only national organisation for years has been the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardens Association, whose boss doesn't even have an allotment, but a large garden of his own in Northampton. I have always led the fight against them.

My own organisation fell out with the Society when I persuaded them to pay a personal levy of almost £1 so we could join. Some time later we had a battle with developers and, as was promised in their prospectus, we asked them for legal help. Quite soon we got a letter back saying that we were on privately owned land and, as a result, the National Society could not help us. Obviously our members were none too pleased with me.

Later I debated with Mr Stokes, the boss of the association at Reading University. The audience was dumbstruck when I asked him where his allotment was, and he had to admit he did not own one. However he never forgave me, because when my book View From A Shed came out his magazine refused to review it, because they felt I was rude about them. Well, that was the truth, which is why we need something else. Step forward the West Country.

Company Secretary is Mrs Ayesha Wilkinson, who lives in Barnstaple. She explains, "We all come from the same area in the West Country, and we did not feel enough was being done to protect allotments. We were all members of the National Association. But there's competition in everything these days, and we felt that we were going really well."

"Once we had the idea to go national we have had 150 associations contact us. Because we are a Community Interest company we don't sign up organisations, so you have to join as an individual, and that only amounts to £2. That covers a lot of things especially insurance and protection of your plot. As another organisation you can affiliate to us. Most of the stuff we do is website and word of mouth."

Like everyone else I thought allotments were safe outside of the inner cities, but that evidently is not so.

As Mrs Wilkinson says, "Developers are snapping up land down here. They are putting the rents up in Barnstaple, and the local council have closed the waiting list. We have been helped by the Allotment Regeneration people, and we are obviously open to funding from various sources, but we just felt that there should be a national voice for allotments which at the moment is not being heard."

When I suggested to Mrs Wilkinson that we would like to start a London allotment federation and then affiliate to the West Country people, she was all for it, unlike the moribund national association. The voice of the allotments is never heard on national radio. There is no spokesman or woman.

Fortunately our new Mayor Boris in London is showing signs on backing those who want to grow their own food, as is our would-be local Tory MP Angie Bray. It must be said that Labour and the Lib Dems have done nothing for allotments in London.

Nor has the national association. Developers have never been more powerful, and have to be restrained. It could be that the terms of trade have turned and that the public now value their open spaces, unlike in the past when they let anyone with money trample over them and build on them.

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