Views on Allotments

“The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” in the World of Allotments

… or my thoughts on allotments and their future. The original version of this was penned in 2010. This updated version was produced in October 2013.

This piece on council-run allotments sites had been brewing at the back of my mind for quite some time. The catalyst to put something down on virtual paper was an unsatisfactory item on allotments in a Gardeners Question Time programme, (19th March, 2010), although it was merely the latest in a long line of simplistic articles and views, mainly focused on the lack of sufficient council plots to meet the perceived current high demand.

The rudimentary black and white plot of these folks is that the people (the “good”) are being denied allotments by councils (the “bad”), and they are now being forced to go to commercial organisations (the “ugly”) who, while they are ready to provide plots, will rip them off in the process.

Articles and debates which tackle the subject of allotments in a coherent manner are unfortunately in very short supply. For example, I have only ever stumbled upon one article in the media which has questioned the wisdom of having an allotment – by Emma Townshend – although many a plot holder could effortlessly trot out the pros and cons, along with a sprinkling of anecdotes about people who have quickly fallen by the wayside once they got their allotment.

In the interests of brevity I will limit the discussion of the issues to the major items: our perceived right to have an allotment; the current demand; appropriate plot sizes and the effort needed to cultivate them; and finally the thorny subject of rent. This is followed by mention of changes that are being implemented by the more enlightened councils and allotment associations, thoughts on the current dangers, and concludes with my views on the future. As I have indicated, I am dealing solely with council-run sites; independent sites – those run totally by allotment associations – need no witterings from the likes of me.

A quick two-penneth about me before I start. I have been growing now for over 40 years, 30+ as an allotment holder and I recently spent close on 3 years as the site representative for our allotments. If you browse some of the other pieces on this website you will hopefully understand that I am a lover of the allotment tradition and I fervently hope that I can do something to ensure that the tradition endures so that future growers can experience the joy that allotments can bring. However, this does not mean that I am some sort of hopeless romantic. On the contrary, you will find that I have little truck with romantics.

“My Rights”

Many people view allotments as a right, although there are probaby few who could explain quite why they think that this is so, except that lots of people (over a million at the peaks during the two World Wars) used to have them and councils provide them. If you have the time and inclination then read A Brief History of Allotments in England to gain some understanding of the subject. If not, here follows a short summary on the rationale behind allotments.

Levels of poverty, particularly rural poverty, had increased significantly with the privatisation of common land (termed land enclosures) which peaked during the second half of the 18th and early 19th century. Landowners and farmers benefited while the majority of rural folk lost out. The creation of allotments was seen by moral reformers in the late 18th century as one method of tackling this rural poverty and the issues that went hand in hand with it, such as crime, drunkenness and immorality. A century later, poverty was still the key driver, but immorality had largely disappeared from the propaganda agenda of allotment advocates to be replaced by the desire to provide growing spaces to lowly paid urban folk who had no gardens. Coming further forward into the 20th century, the two World Wars brought the urgent need to supplement the nation’s food stocks. It was during these wars that the number of plots peaked, reaching 1.5m during the 1914-1918 conflict and 1.75m during the 1939-1945 conflict when areas such as parks, gardens and railway land were put under the spade. However, improvements in living standards from the late 1950s onwards gradually changed the rationale for having an allotment from a financial necessity to a desire to have a leisure activity. This reduced need to keep outgoings down by growing your own crops led to a marked reduction in the enthusiasm for allotments; it is estimated that the figure had fallen to just under 300,000 plots in England by the late 1990s. In recent years the desire to grow fresh, pesticide-free crops became the driving force behind the renewed enthusiasm for plots, particularly among young mothers in my part of the world. However, this brief resurgence currently shows signs of flagging.

As poverty continues to diminish – I am talking about absolute poverty, not the statistical definition of poverty beloved of politicians, special interest groups and the media – I find it difficult to accept the idea that we still have a god-given right to an allotment. While relatively poorer individuals are undoubtedly more worthy of a plot than others, if ever there was a general right to an allotment it disappeared in the late 1950s / early 1960s with improvements in living standards. The words “rights” and “leisure” do not really belong in the same sentence in this context. This is not to say that allotments do not continue to have an important role to play in our modern society, merely that the world has moved on and we should accept that the reasons behind having allotments have gradually changed.

The Demand

Let me start with some numbers. A survey into the size of waiting lists was first carried out in 2009 by Transition Town West Kirby in conjunction with The National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG). The survey produced responses from 236 local authorities (67% of the number that were originally approached); Town and Parish Councils were not included in the survey. The published results indicated that for every 100 plots there were 49 people on the waiting list. The survey was repeated in 2010 when responses were received from 321 local authorities. This now showed 59 people on the waiting list per 100 plots, i.e. a purported increase of 20% over the previous year. The survey in May 2011 showed 57 people on the waiting list per 100 plots and the latest in 2013 52 people.

The authors were at pains in the original report to point out possible problems that may affect the accuracy of their figures. They may be underestimated because people are put off applying by the size of the waiting lists, or indeed by the fact that some waiting lists have been closed. Equally, they may be overestimates, attributable to people putting their names down on multiple waiting lists and/or failing to remove their names when their circumstances change. I would add one further reason on the overestimate side of the equation; I see individuals who put their names down almost on a whim but when you talk to them they are not convinced that they actually want a plot or have the time to dedicate to it. Many of these people eventually fall by the wayside.

I found the 2009 survey extremely credible, not least because it tried hard to be dispassionate. In contrast the 2010 report was more zealous and (to me) less compelling, although the 2011 and 2013 versions are thankfully less so. I have to say that, from my admittedly limited perspective, I have seen a gradual decline in demand in our neck of the woods over the last three or four years. I put this down to the fact that people are gradually becoming wiser about the effort that is required to cultivate a plot, possibly from talking to friends who have previously acquired one, and they are therefore less ready to accept what the zealous advocates promote without question.

For the record, the figure for our Parish Council peaked at the end of 2008 when there was the equivalent of 37 people per 100 plots and the waiting time for a plot was around 15-18 months for those who live within the parish boundaries. In 2013 the waiting list is modest, approximately 10 per 100 plots with a waiting time of typically less than 12 months. In addition, I estimate that around 20-25% of people on our waiting list fall by the wayside, either when offered a plot or not longer after.

The zealots have in my opinion gone overboard; some journalists and various outfits that want to exploit the perceived gravy train have chosen to inflate the demand – 400,000 on waiting lists is one quote that I have seen. Another from an insurance company comes up with a figure of 6 million people who would like a plot … obviously they want to sell policies to all these budding plot holders! These people do little for the credibility of the allotment cause.

It is easy, all too easy, to blame councils for the lack of plots. In truth, we the people are just as culpable, if not more so. If we take the estimated figure of 729,000 plots in 1964 and assume that the vast majority of land which had been commandeered for allotments during World War II had reverted to its original use by that time then it can be seen that around 400,000 plots subsequently disappeared between the mid-sixties and the end of the 20th century. The typical story was one of ever decreasing enthusiasm among the population, frequently leading to gradual site dilapidation and thereby providing a ready reason for councils to close some of them and to use or sell the land for development.

It is difficult to justify an expectation that councils should meet a fluctuating demand: provide plots when we want them … take them away (and maintain them) when we have lost interest … but give them back to us when we rediscover our enthusiasm … ad infinitum. I say ad infinitum because I consider that demand has become cyclical and will probably remain so. The bottom line here has to be that we need to treasure what we have because, once lost, it becomes extremely difficult to get it back. This is a comment that is equally applicable in other areas such as school playing fields and sports grounds.

By the way, for those who may believe that the enthusiasm for allotments stemmed the flow of site closures, a question in parliament revealed that in the period from April 2007 to March 2009 there were 98 applications to the Secretary of State to allow statutory allotment sites to be closed. Actually it is not to close them per se but to permit a change of usage, as a statutory site is one where the land contract states that it can only be used for allotments. 56 applications succeeded, 2 were refused, 5 were withdrawn while the remaining 35 were in a mysterious bin entitled “approval not required or not taken further”. Approval not required means that the sites did not in fact have statutory status and so approval from the Secretary of State for a change of usage was not necessary. The above numbers only apply to sites that have (or think they have) statutory status. There are no doubt sites without statutory status that have also been closed.

In the case of providing new allotment sites, the tendency is quite naturally to point to the legislation which states that if 6 people on the electoral register (or council tax payers) ask for allotments this demonstrates demand and the council should provide sufficient allotments. To be pedantic, while councils are expected to do their best, the legislation does not actually say that councils must provide them, e.g. they are not expected to lose money on any allotment venture.

Land is difficult to acquire, as property developers are adept at gobbling up whatever is available, particularly in and around built-up areas. While councils do have powers to compulsorily purchase land this is far from straightforward, both politically and economically. However, this is not to say that it is impossible. The 2011 survey on waiting lists reports that 35 new sites were created by the principal authorities in England.

A certain amount of romantic hogwash is talked by some people about the role of allotments in feeding the nation if only we had the land. I estimate that no more than 50% of the plots on our site are fully cropped, and even then some vegetables are not harvested, particularly winter crops such as leeks when many plot holders go into hibernation. If your task was to feed the nation would you really rely on the people to produce significant amounts of their own food, or would you prefer to rely on farmers and professional growers? Allotmenting is a leisure activity. If we can minimise the amount of food that we have to buy then all well and good – that is a bonus – but we would need a catastrophic event to consider it a realistic option to turn significant areas of land over to the people to cultivate – insufficient numbers of people have the enthusiasm or the incentive.

And what does the provision of “sufficient” allotments actually mean? The Thorpe Report into allotments (1969) recommended a minimum of 15 plots (each 10 poles in size) per 1,000 households. NSALG and others gleefully seized on this figure, and indeed NSALG has subsequently upped it from 15 to 20. However, these figures are simply desirable targets; no figure is enshrined in law and basing it on a 10 pole plot is arguably an outdated concept, as discussed in the next section. Our Parish Council would meet the target number of plots in the Thorpe Report but not at 10 poles each, our average plot size being just under 5 poles.

Finally, thoughts of being able to meet the peak demand, i.e. having no waiting lists, are unfeasible and uneconomic although a gradual move towards smaller plots, once again discussed below, would help, as would periodic validations of the waiting lists. Unfortunately, those individuals who live in large conurbations will always suffer the most, as the waiting lists here are typically much larger than elsewhere. It is here that creative thinking is most needed in an effort to increase the number of plots.

Plot Sizes & The Effort Required to Cultivate Them

Rural plots in the 18th and early 19th centuries could be several acres in size, subsequently becoming known in legal parlance as field allotments. Allotments as we typically know them today are called allotment gardens and have a maximum size of 40 poles (Allotment Act 1922) although 10 poles had become the standard size, particularly in urban areas, by the late 19th century. Note – one pole equals approximately 30 square yards or 25 square metres.

Many people, including NSALG, still regard 10 poles as the standard size although changes in peoples’ circumstances are being reflected at many sites where smaller plots are becoming much more common. In this day and age lots of individuals have many calls on their time – work, family and other leisure activities. Such people may (and often do) struggle to cope with 10 poles, and 5 poles (sometimes called a half plot) may be more than enough for them. In fact, I know a number of plot holders on our site who have severe time constraints and are quite happy with 2-3 poles (a quarter plot). Dividing 10 pole allotments into smaller plots when the opportunity presents itself is not only a pragmatic solution but it has the added benefit of helping to reduce the size of the waiting list.

I have talked about how the size of plot should ideally be dictated by the time that a person has available, but just how much time does it take to cultivate a plot? My very rough rule of thumb is that during the main growing season (May to September) you should allow 30-45 minutes per pole per week. On a 5 pole plot this amounts to between 2.5 and 3.75 man hours per week. Please note that this figure relates to plots that are in a reasonable condition, it does not apply to overgrown plots.

In my experience many “newbie” plot holders have unfortunately been seduced by TV programmes and articles in the media to think that very little effort is required, in part this is because seemingly boring topics such as clearing, weeding, watering, preventing the wildlife from eating your crops and dealing with pests and diseases are seldom accorded sufficient space or air time. Some newbies mimic these packages by planting up in the spring, and then not returning for possibly a month or even longer, often to be greeted by a carpet of weeds and minimal signs of their crops. This can quite easily result in the early onset of discouragement.

The more successful inexperienced newcomers tend to be those who are helped by their partners, parents, other family members or friends, thus reducing the time that they need to put in. As a case in point, my wife and I had a plot which was just over 4 poles in size and the only way it worked when we both had full-time jobs and other interests was that we shared the allotment workload.

There are obviously ways to reduce my rule of thumb figure by using techniques to minimise the amount of weeding, e.g. one plot holder on our site makes heavy use of weed suppressant fabric. There is a significant cost involved but she accepts it given the time saving.

Allotment Rents up to 2012

The subject of allotment rents tends to be a hot potato. It is interesting to note the amount of venom that can be generated by the mention of even modest rent increases, while people will happily stomach the much larger increases in (say) seed prices – some even boast about the excessive amounts of seeds that they buy!

Rents vary wildly from a peppercorn rent of £1 to £100+ although rents at the extreme ends of this wide spectrum are few and are unlikely to be found on council sites. I carried out my own small survey of rents at the end of 2007 and again in April 2011. The former had 91 samples across the UK covering approximately 160 sites, while the latter consisted of 72 samples. I have also seen 6 other private surveys of varying sizes in recent years which each homed in on the price of a 5 pole plot. All the above mentioned surveys, including my own, pointed to an average price per pole of £4-£5 (equivalent to £20-£25 for a 5 pole plot). This is the basic full price. It does not account for any exceptions, the most obvious one being that many sites give varying levels of discount to senior citizens. In addition, some sites charge extra for water and the use of any shared facilities. The last official survey of rents was carried out by NSALG back in 1997; the cost per pole then was £2.20, which I estimate to be the equivalent of circa £3.75 in current money (although NSALG did not agree with this when I first penned this article – they assumed a current figure of £2.50, an increase of only 14%. I am afraid that I did not understand which economic indicators they used to arrive at that figure).

It may be a surprise to realise that many allotment rents actually fell in real terms. The majority of providers of allotments in the 19th and early 20th century, with the probable exception of the clergy, ensured that they did not lose money on the operation. Some farmers and landowners made a profit, while legislation insisted that councils recouped the cost of any land that was acquired for allotment purposes. It is interesting to note that there was no shortage of takers. In those days poverty was a key factor and many individuals realised that the food production which was possible made the acquisition of an allotment a worthwhile and profitable venture for the family.

Many councils subsequently failed to keep rents abreast of inflation and rises in average earnings. It could possibly be that in the post-war period low rents were a sort of tacit admission by councils that little maintenance work was likely to be undertaken. I crudely estimated that some rents in early 2011 were between one half and one third what they had been back in the 19th century in real terms. We should also take into account the fact that many sites have seen improvements over the intervening years. On our site, which dates back to the late 1870s, they include the provision of a water supply, car parking facilities, some fencing and “roads” to allow access to vehicles.

Comparisons with the costs of other leisure activities can be eye-opening. I leave you to compare the basic annual rent for a half plot (say £20-£30) with a single visit to a top class soccer match, the theatre, a concert, a night school class for one term or simply a good night out!

Although I am concentrating on council-run allotment sites it is important to say that the rents of independent sites are very competitive with council equivalents with the majority offering significantly better value for money.

The lengthy waiting lists for allotments in recent years saw the emergence of commercial schemes that aimed to make money out of the demand for plots. One scheme in Solihull planned to charge £250 per annum for 90 square metres. This roughly corresponds to £66 per pole. In a second example, a National Trust site in Cambridgeshire wanted to charge £400 per annum for just over 3 poles. For this they will manage the plot for people who are too busy to do it for themselves and provide vegetables weekly – this actually sounded more like a glorified veg. box scheme. The reduction in the size of waiting lists (whichever figure you believe) appears to have applied the brakes to such schemes – thankfully.

To generalise – always a dangerous thing to do – allotment rents since the Second World War have to date been typically nominal and have seldom covered the council’s costs of running a site. This lack of revenue has almost invariably led to councils skimping on administration and maintenance work which in turn has sometimes contributed to overall site dilapidation, apathy and an occasional desire to close a site.

So what is a reasonable rent? I have no idea is the honest answer … or rather I mean that it depends on local circumstances, as the constituent parts of the rent vary from site to site. It may (or may not) include elements such as: the cost of the land, water charges, staff costs, depreciation on equipment, a surcharge levied on plot holders who live outside the council’s boundaries, reductions for senior citizens and people on benefit, plus the costs of any other facilities that are provided, e.g. the use of tools. The overriding question is actually whether the council should recover all reasonable costs or be prepared to subsidise allotments to some degree.

Allotment Rents in the future?

Modest rents show signs of disappearing. The recent banking crisis and the resulting economic recession are the primary drivers behind the current reviews of costs and spending among local authorities. Allotments with their subsidies are almost certainly viewed as something of an easy target by council bean counters. There are early indications that some councils, particularly the larger city councils, are considering / planning significant increases in allotment rents over the coming years: Birmingham is considering a rent of approximately £8 per pole by 2014; while in London Wandsworth is already charging £19.50 per pole and Greenwich £20.

Charging a fair rent is acceptable to my mind but some of these proposed increases are verging on being exorbitant. It will be incumbent on plot holders everywhere to ensure that councils provide value for money, and that they do not get away with claiming unwarranted high costs for the level of service that they provide. There is some evidence that this ruse is inevitably being tried by a couple of councils.

Moves Towards Some Form of Devolved Allotment Site Management

Over the past 10-15 years there has been a gradual growing consensus among those allotment associations (groups of plot holders) and councils who are keen to maintain the allotment tradition that the devolution of some allotment management tasks to allotment associations can be beneficial to both parties. The advantages can include: a reduction in staff costs for the council; and an improvement in the quality and reliability of the tasks performed, as the allotment association and its members have significantly more incentive to ensure that they do a better job than the council. The precise scope of devolution varies from council to council, being the subject of discussion and agreement between the two parties, but it will typically include some involvement in the letting of plots and the carrying out of some / all routine maintenance tasks.

The London Borough of Bromley, one of the early pioneers of self-management, is often held up as a shining example. It has progressed to a degree where the allotment associations now set the rents for their own sites. In Birmingham it is estimated that approximately 65% of the sites have allotment associations. Sites that are partially self-managed in the city receive 60% of the rent back to fund day-to-day management and maintenance. However, note that major projects are not funded out of this money. Meanwhile, Runnymede (not far from where I live) currently has 25% of sites that are fully self-managed (including the ability to set their own rents) and it is actively encouraging other sites to move in that direction.

The Local Government Association (LGA) actively promotes the concept of devolved allotment management. The subject is mentioned in outline in its publication, Growing in the Community: A good practice guide for the management of allotments – Second Edition. I must say that I found this to be a slightly waffly book but it can be a useful read for those who are new to the topic. However, they have recently produced a supplement which is much punchier and far more detailed; A Place to Grow can be downloaded free from the LGA’s website. Finally, a further source of information on the web is a paper published called Gardeners in Charge: A guide to devolved management for allotment associations.

In Summary

Councils (the so called “bad”) are much maligned although there is of course the occasional bad apple. A charge of apathy is much more appropriate in many cases although, as I have mentioned, we the people (the “good”) can be equally guilty of that offence. I struggle to believe that our commercial bretheren (the “ugly”) who smell the chance of a quick buck are likely to attract significant numbers, particularly if the extortionate rents that I have seen quoted are typical, and therefore they are likely to disappear quite quickly.

Plot holders who are prepared to contribute towards the management of their site by formally accepting responsibility for some of the tasks are much more likely to see their sites survive and prosper. These enlightened sites will be in a much better position to bequeath the pleasures that allotments can bring to future generations. However, those dinosaurs who continue to insist on their perceived rights to be spoonfed by the council may not be so lucky. I consider that overall there will probably be a growing trend towards some form of partially devolved site management. Any significant increases in rent may provide the necessary impetus for more plot holders to investigate some form of devolved site management, particularly if it helps to reduce or at least contain rent costs.

Plots will continue to get smaller due to the lack of land and the decreasing amount of time that the average plot holder has to cultivate her allotment. If I quote our site one last time: it covered approximately 6 acres in 1896 when the Parish Council first became responsible for it, consisting of 66 plots in 1898 with an average size of 12.9 poles. By October 2013 it had been reduced to 2.5 acres with 58 plots, averaging 4.5 poles per allotment..

It is my belief that the demand for allotments is and will remain cyclical. The current wave of enthusiasm shows signs of gradually waning … only to be reignited at some future date. There are signs that a growing number of councils recognise this fact and I think (and hope) that they will gradually become more adept at coping with a fluctuating demand.

The $64K question … what will the actual demand for allotments be? Before I retired I specialised in prediction in the field of computing (I cynically called it crystal ball gazing). I was often derided, had my parentage questioned … and worse (there was often lots of money involved – hence the aggravation). However, I was mostly right in my predictions. So, a bit more crystal ball gazing will be just like old times. If the base assumption is correct that there are currently around 300,000 plots in the UK I consider it likely that the demand will oscillate between a hard core of 240,000 and a peak of 400,000. The effects of the current recession may dampen demand in the short term, particularly if rents rise significantly.

And finally, every plot holder should realise that the survival of allotments is in his / her own hands. Get involved. Do not rely solely on your council. Today’s councillors in your district may be pro-allotment … tomorrow’s councillors may not be.

Last updated on October 23rd, 2013.