Judy Wilkinson: Councils are failing to give Grow Your Own allotment groups the support they need to thrive

Ben Wray

Judy Wilkinson, allotments campaigner, says that the framework is there for local authorities to support a flourishing of allotment groups in every area, but there is not currently the impetus to make it happen

‘Demand for allotments shoots up but gardeners face 90 year waiting list’. ‘Scotland’s allotments are plotting a revolution’. ‘What would you like to do after work?’.

Every year, particularly in Spring, there are articles extolling the virtues of allotments and community gardening, but which also highlight the difficulties of finding land and support for Grow Your Own groups (GYO).

Since 2009 when allotments were included in Scotland’s first National Food and Drink Policy,  the Scottish Government has encouraged the provision of allotments and provided leadership through policy and legislation. The ‘Guidance for Local Authorities Duty to provide a Food Growing Strategy’ was issued on 15 November as part of the ongoing guidance for the Community Empowerment Act.

The Food Growing Strategy (FGS) guidance sets GYO firmly in the context of the Government’s National Performance Framework and within the aspirations for a Good Food Nation. It is clear that local authorities food growing strategies will underpin a number of National Outcomes, National Indicators and UN Sustainable Development Goals. The main document suggests how local authorities can develop their FGS through partnership, land identification, planning and not-for-profit activities. Annex A contains detailed, well referenced data on the Health, Environmental, Economic, Social  and Educational impacts and benefits of community growing. The case is well made. Several of the current grants such as SNH Infra-structure, Community Land Fund, Empowering Communities and Outdoor Learning explicitly mention allotments, or they at least certainly fit the criteria.

READ MORE – Judy Wilkinson: Can allotments be a disruptive force for change in Scotland?

The framework is there, the data is powerful and the opportunities for change available. So..why isn’t there a great movement to get everyone growing their own? Why is GYO not supported in the same way as Sports Scotland, healthy eating, food poverty or walking and cycling?

Is it because plot-holders are, and always have been, a diverse mix, united in their love of their plots but gardening for a host of different reasons; for food, for escape, for happiness, for creativity, for companionship?

Allotments can be thought of as mixtures of private and public spaces, with cultivation and consumption, labour and leisure all tangled together. Therefore local authorities are unsure which category or departmental silo to put them in. Are allotments really a means of enabling poor people to grow their own food, or a place for family leisure? Are they private individual spaces or places to integrate the community? 

Allotments are all of these of course (as the FGS Guidance shows), fulfilling diverse functions in a complex world. However who, in the Council structure, is ultimately responsible for promoting and creating them, where and how are the decisions be taken?

An example is found in Edinburgh City Council’s ‘Allotments and Food Growing Provision Report to the Culture and Communities Committee Sept 2018’. The Council has been agonising over their allotment provision for the last 20 years. They have created new sites but the waiting list is growing, rising from 2,367 people waiting for 1,233 plots in 2010 to 2697 for 1552  plots in 2018, giving an estimated wait of between seven and nine years. Officers are talking to housing associations and there is the Edible Edinburgh partnershi,p but no accepted inspirational vision has emerged for a ‘Growing City’. 

READ MORE – The big plot: How campaigners have put allotments on the agenda

Instead, the Council highlight the difficulties: “A number of longer-term site options for Allotments were also explored through the Open Space Strategy. However, these have not been progressed in the short-term due to issues of land ownership, soil quality and loss of open space for other uses such as sports…any new locations suggested for allotments should be evaluated against the Open Space Strategy’s standards to ensure that new sites will not impact on the availability of greenspace for other recreational uses, particularly in areas of high density housing…The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act encourages people who are on the allotments waiting list in a given area to come together and “take on” a piece of local Council ground (assuming that such ground exists). The City of Edinburgh Council will therefore support communities to fundraise to transform ground into an allotment site and thereafter manage the site.”

Not exactly an inspirational approach, and although the benefits are accepted the Officers think it is “likely that the Council will fail to meet its statutory duty”.

Over the last few years there has been an increase in allotments, often driven by local groups who have found the land and the funding to create new sites. This happens in settlements or associated with development trusts or community councils where there is a culture of local activism. The Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society booklet ‘Grow your own allotment site’ contains seven different drivers for new sites, citing a Community Council, Development Trust, farmer, Local authority and individual groups forming and finding their own patch. Local activists, politicians, community workers, passionate allotment officers and concerned land owners, have all championed allotments, enthused others and overcome barriers.

READ MORE – Colette Walker: Why every public kitchen in Scotland can and should have local organic produce

Allotments have been created but not enough to satisfy demand. Many groups have failed due to the lack of support and difficulty in finding land, or pressure to fundraise when their members have busy lives and want to escape stress not find more. The Virtual Allotment Association of Dunoon and District was formed in 2006; a dwindling band of enthusiasts soldiered on for almost 10 years but there still is no allotment site in Dunoon, however there is an immense file of reports, presentations, pleas and even solicitors letters.

What would help? Do we need a visionary like Patrick Geddes or Ebenezer Howard who recognised the importance of green spaces and designed true garden cities? How do we convince the planners that every new development needs a holistic growing space with allotments, community plots, orchard, wildlife areas and access to a community hut or centre? One argument is the difficulty of finding land, but allotments and growing spaces do not need vast tracts of land, they are not golf courses. In major development proposals there should be land permanently provided for growing purposes, the soil condition of vacant and derelict land could be improved and areas of public land designated for growing.

The FGS Guidance suggests that local authorities take a partnership approach with a whole range of internal and external stakeholders. Will local authorities recognise this is a win-win situation, not a burden and drag on their limited budgets? Will they believe in and celebrate allotments and growing spaces, enabling them to change the culture of society, or will food growing remain a low order role in planning policy with allotments just seen as statutory obligations and a sub-heading of open space policies?

Like Pete Seeger I believe that “…the world is going to be saved by millions of small things”, but on the other hand should we not be looking to more legislation through a Good Food Nation Bill with a National Food Plan including the right to food, withtargets on GYO provision linked to the National Performance Framework and Sustainable Development Goals? Would that spark the dramatic culture change we need to survive so we do not get endlessly stuck at barriers, real or imagined?

Picture courtesy of Mary Hutchison

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