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9 Dec 2004 : Column 1364



Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Road Traffic

That the draft Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations 2005, which were laid before this House on 8th November, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.


That the draft Electricity and Gas (Energy Efficiency Obligations) Order 2004, which was laid before this House on 10th November, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.

International Immunities And Privileges

That the draft International Criminal Court (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2004, which was laid before this House on 24th November, be approved.—[Margaret Moran.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Question agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Margaret Moran.]

6.2 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured a debate on the provision and promotion of allotments. It is a long time since I tended my own allotment at Kidbrooke gardens and allotment society in south-east London, and I did so neither assiduously nor well; but this weekend, in my constituency and throughout the country, legions of dedicated vegetable growers—and, in some cases, fruit and flower growers—will be taking out their garden tools at the crack of dawn, ready to set foot on their own patches of land. It can be back-breaking work, but the rewards are worth it, not least taking home the day's produce to be cooked for dinner that night.

I believe that allotments are a great untapped resource. They have a long history, extending well back into the 19th century. Their origins lie in attempts to alleviate poverty in rural areas. Today, in contrast, they are largely an urban feature. Before the advent of legislation, sites were provided in parts of the country, less from necessity than as a leisure activity, for what were then known as the labouring classes. In terms of leisure activity we are coming full circle, but between times allotments proved a useful and significant national asset, playing a vital subsistence role in two world wars. I believe it is time to reassess their importance, and to that extent signs are hopeful.

The Independent carried an article in April hailing the revival of the city allotment as a new generation of women, young professionals and people from ethnic minorities embraced the obvious benefits of "grow your own" to challenge the stereotypical assumption that allotments were the exclusive preserve of white retired men. There is some basis for that stereotype, in that it often holds true. But the trend is for the social mix to change and to widen—shades of "The Good Life", perhaps.

The last time a comprehensive survey was carried out, the estimated total number of plots was just under 300,000. That was in 1997, so it is clear that there is a lack of up-to-date figures; however, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is working on that problem. For the moment, assessing the national trend in site numbers is somewhat difficult, but it would appear that their decline has halted and that the numbers have levelled out. It is surely important to establish reliable indicators. Some 342 plots are available to local residents in my own constituency, for example, and they are well used. In Wirral as a whole, there are waiting lists for most sites and, in a sense, this is pleasing. But we must remember that legislation covering the provision of sites, some of which dates back to 1908, makes it incumbent on most local authorities to ensure adequate provision in accordance with local demand, an issue to which I shall return.

Given that allotments are most often sited in urban areas, they have long provided a tempting target for developers and sometimes, I am afraid, for local authorities. Despite stringent legislative restrictions on the uses to which allotment land can be put, there continues to be pressure. For example, as I speak, the
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National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners is making representations to the Government office for the south-east regarding what it views as Horsham district council's deliberate announcing of an allotment site as surplus to requirements, despite demonstrable local demand for such provision. It is not for me to comment on that case, but the threat of development can loom large over any allotment site. It is unfortunate that statistics on the loss of statutory provision are unavailable.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the allotments in Fazakerley in my constituency, with which he will not be familiar. Despite existing legislation, the local council is slowly but surely degrading the allotment society's autonomy and its ability to run the allotments in a proper manner, and interfering in a cavalier fashion with the way in which the allotment holders organise themselves. The intention is probably to put pressure on those allotments, so that the council can sell the land for other uses.

Mr. Chapman: I suspect that that is a Liberal Democrat approach to the issue, and it is not one that I would support. What I do support, however, is the point that underpins my hon. Friend's intervention, which is precisely in line with my argument.

It is self-evident that allotments are intrinsically a good thing. If there are any disadvantages, they are not apparent to me. Allotments enable those with only limited expertise to cultivate and maintain a vegetable patch consisting, if they wish, of organic vegetables. Such vegetables are not only healthy and good to eat but extremely cost-efficient. While the vegetables on offer in supermarkets might look better, many of them are not as good and are certainly pricier. All the benefits of allotments are well established and continue to hold good. The popularity of organic fruit and vegetables is testament to the demand for such food. The allotments in Plymyard Hall, Teehay lane, Beaconsfield, Carlett park, Forward road and Mayer park, some of which I have seen at first hand, are an extremely valuable asset in my constituency.

In a modern context, the benefits of allotments are brought sharply into focus by the problem of obesity, which is affecting an increasing number of people. Merely meeting existing local demand for allotments is necessary, but perhaps not sufficient. Such demand needs not only to be managed but actively created. What better way to tackle sedentary lifestyles than through the promotion of allotments? Doing so would encourage the consumption of more fruit and vegetables and the exercise and taking of fresh air that their cultivation undoubtedly involves.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): I hope that, in making those remarks, my hon. Friend did not have in mind our hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), who, I should say, is well known for being very nifty with a spade.

Mr. Chapman: At least my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) knows when to
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stop digging. [Laughter.] Now I have completely lost where I was. I would not like to suggest that my hon. Friend was in any sense other than appropriately built.

I am glad to say that living healthily does not have to involve an hour's slog at the gym every night or even a particularly zealous forbearance in respect of what we can eat and drink. It may be as simple as building exercise with a purpose into one's daily life. I personally bike to the House, but that is my way of doing things. Allotments are certainly one way of staying healthy and moderate but regular exercise is something that I am sure the Government would want to encourage. The campaign to introduce "five a day" fruits and vegetables has been successful and eating healthily is now accepted as a desirable norm.

Allotments should gain a similar level of attention as that campaign, but not everyone gives allotments the respect that they deserve. Plymyard Hall allotments in my constituency have been subject to vicious and seemingly incomprehensible attacks from vandals. I have been witness to the effect that that can have, with greenhouses smashed, shed doors kicked in, plots trampled on and produce destroyed. It is difficult to overstate the distress caused to allotment holders. The police now have the powers to deal with that sort of menace through antisocial behaviour orders, but they have to be lucky enough to catch the offenders in the act. Unfortunately, the eyes of the police cannot be everywhere at once.

In the case of Plymyard Hall allotments, vandalism has declined markedly since the closure of the local off-licence and the adoption of a zero tolerance approach by the local inspector, both of which are heartening developments. In respect of physical security, however, funding is necessary. Fences, closed circuit television and even trespass signs would all serve as a deterrent to those intent on causing damage. That last measure would require relatively small amounts of money, but would make a huge difference.

We must do all that we can to make allotments accessible, both practically and financially. Formerly, it was specified that new plots had to be within three-quarters of a mile of a home owner who had requested them, but that is no longer enforced and it should not automatically be viewed as a bad thing. Location does matter. Allotments are by their nature integral parts of the community and, as such, need to be sited within it. A community will not flourish if its facilities are subject to uncertainty of tenancy. Threats hanging over allotments—as, potentially, in Walton—to move them to alternative sites are all too common.

Rents need to be set at reasonable levels and the Allotment Act 1950 requires that they are, but what is considered "reasonable" may not be the same as it was 50-odd years ago. Even so, owning an allotment is good value, generally speaking. Compared with other methods of cultivation and, of course, purchasing vegetables from a shop, allotments are, so to speak, dirt cheap. In my constituency, a plot can be rented for £25 a year against the council's upkeep costs of £31 and there are discounts on top of that for the elderly and unemployed.

Affordability is something that local authorities should stress. My constituency local authority has been commended by the National Society of Allotment and
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Leisure Gardeners for its good work, winning the best-run allotments award twice in a row. It is sadly not always representative of the national picture. There are cases where rent is charged, on the basis of the council's estimate of its value, at 10 times the national average. It is surely not right that allotments should be a profitable enterprise for councils.

There are, of course, problems with funding at a local level, but it is also apparent that local authorities are unwilling to channel what little they have available through allotments. Compared to other leisure activities, they are inexpensive. I understand that, yard for yard, parks can cost up to three times more than allotments to maintain. Professor David Crouch, in his submission to the 1998 Environment Committee report on allotments, made the following observation:

All that added value should not be overlooked. Allotments are not just about people growing vegetables. Some things that the professor listed already take place in city farms and community gardens, but those are not the same things as allotments. Allotment societies have two concerns. City farms and community gardens should be seen as a supplement to, not a replacement for, proper allotment provision. The special protection afforded to allotments is, in that respect, something of a mixed blessing, for it affords councils very little room to be imaginative.

An allotment site can be granted non-statutory status only with the permission of the Secretary of State, and while he or she may be loth to do that, reluctance may be diminished if what is proposed is, for example, a community garden. The rub is that once the statutory provision is removed, only PPG17 stands as a last line of defence to prevent future appropriation for development. That is not to say that I have any lack of faith in local authorities. That is not the case, but allotments can be unnecessarily vulnerable.

Allotments need investment if they are to be made more attractive, and that is rarely forthcoming. Money can be found, it seems, but only for the more eye-catching, non-allotment initiatives. A derelict site in Leicester, for example, was the beneficiary of a £53,000 investment to facilitate a city farm. That is to be welcomed, but it is difficult to envisage the same funding being given to enhance allotment facilities. There is no reason why allotments should not receive similar provision, with communities working in partnership with local authorities to build up and promote their use. That need not be an expensive exercise. It could be as simple as paying for more prominent signs to advertise their existence.

Allotments are a national treasure. Their nature has led some to play down the need for a central role. I disagree. A whole host of areas would benefit from greater leadership from the centre. We need to educate our young people about the benefits of allotments and give them basic skills. We need protection from
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antisocial behaviour. We need to encourage further a diverse social mix of allotment owners, which means that there has to be more room for councillors to use their imagination while still protecting statutory provision.

That may require some legislative consolidation. The Government have acknowledged the need for that in their response to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's report. Legislation needs to be overhauled for development, so that allotments are part of, not ancillary to, a coherent strategy for communities. We need to ensure greater security of tenure, while providing the capital, ideas and leadership to promote allotments to a new generation. The two things are mutually dependent.

If I were permitted a wish list, it would run as follows. First, I seek greater protection from development. Secondly, I want an image change, possibly including a new name; "allotment" has a dated ring to it, worth while and valid though allotments are. Thirdly, I seek better security measures. Fourthly, I want a big push on promotion. Fifthly, we need more investment in current plots, not least in toilet facilities; while the men who run allotments might not be so delicate, if we are to encourage women to participate, we need proper toilet provision. Sixthly, we need more plots. All that need not cost much but could bring considerable benefits to our allotment holders and potential allotment holders and to our leisure and fitness.

6.18 pm

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