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Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Chapman) on securing today's debate. The Government entirely agree that allotments provide an asset in a whole range of areas of our lives. They are not just valuable green spaces. It is our objective to ensure that they are properly protected, promoted and cared for. They cover a number of facets of life. They improve the quality of life by promoting healthy food, exercise and community interaction, as my hon. Friend said.

Allotments are an important part of our wider, cleaner, safer, greener agenda, which, as my hon. Friend is aware, is being led by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, through public service agreement 8, which is about delivering improvements in the quality of our environment—not only in the built environment, but in deprived areas and other parts of the country. Measurable improvements should be found by 2008; there is a time scale for improvements to bring about cleaner, safer, greener public spaces.

Before I deal with the promotion of allotments and the protection of such facilities, and the issues raised by my hon. Friend about the Plymyard site, I want to record our congratulations to his local authority on winning the best-run allotment award for two years in succession. I am sure that that is in no little part due to his diligence in arguing the case for allotments with the authority. One reason why the local authority may have received that award was the action it took on the problems of antisocial behaviour at the Plymyard site to which my hon. Friend referred—greenhouse windows were smashed, shed doors were damaged and plots were
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trampled on. Initiated by the local authority, which brought together plot holders, the police and the community patrols, an action plan was drawn up.

Local action is needed to deal with antisocial behaviour generally. In that case, a lead was given by the allotment authority—the local authority—and through co-operative working a solution was found. We are pleased that things have improved at the Plymyard site. Dealing with such issues, as well as promoting, developing and maintaining allotment sites for the wider community, needs local initiatives, although I shall come to what central Government can do, and have done, on various options to promote allotments. Invariably, however, the tools for dealing with many of the problems that people face, especially of security at allotment sites, are to be found at local level.

Some of the problems are low level—a bit of graffiti; occasionally, a broken shed window—but some are far more significant, such as the trampling of produce that has taken a long time to grow, with a lot of tender care and the early morning rising to which my hon. Friend referred. It is disheartening for allotment holders when their tools are stolen. A situation can build up where people who might have taken on a tenancy do not do so because they are worried about security.

Local authorities have a responsibility to provide adequate security. In 2001, we worked with the Local Government Association and others to publish "Growing in the Community—a Good Practice Guide for the Management of Allotments", which was aimed at local authorities and others who manage allotments, so that they take responsibility for maintaining boundaries in good order and ensuring the provision of adequate security measures.

As with many things, there are rights as well as responsibilities. Plot holders have responsibilities, too, and we issued a guide for them on the steps they should take. They often construct their own sheds, so they should obviously take responsibility for ensuring that sheds are secure and locked. In addition, some tenancy agreements specify plot holders' responsibilities.

I suspect that one of the best ways to deal with security is to have better provision and greater use of sites, so we need to consider how to promote allotments and how to engage with the local community to show the benefits of allotments, which were so ably described by my hon. Friend.

We need to look at some of the root causes of some of the security problems. We can help to reduce some of the activity that causes so much concern and upset, perhaps by promoting allotments more vigorously and positively. That can be done through some of the traditional ways of advertising—posters, adverts, postcard drops—and by opening up allotment sites, using open-site policies to try to encourage other people to consider the available options.

I noted clearly that my hon. Friend said that he felt that alternatives, such as city farms and community gardens, should not supplement good allotment provision. Although I suspect that many people would not disagree with that view, we must consider the issues as they stand. Reference was rightly made to the new survey that is being undertaken through the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and we hope that the decline has been stopped and that we will see an increase.
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Certainly, some encouraging facts and figures have come from various surveys. For example, an increasing number of people under the age of 50, women and ethnic minorities are becoming involved in allotments.

Clearly, we hope that we have stemmed some of the decline, but we must recognise that, in some places, many plots will not be used. We should not deter finding ways to encourage people to go to those places for a loosely related activity, so that they can see what is going on and become involved in some of the benefits. For example, part of a former allotment site could be sold for use as a community garden. We could therefore find that far more people become involved in allotment provision and the benefits that come from it.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Where a progressive allotment society is working with the community and has identified plots that are available to satisfy the demand in the community, will my hon. Friend encourage the local authority to work very closely with the allotment society? In my case, Alan Rees, who is the chairman of the allotment society in Maesteg, is doing wonderful work with the community and school children, trying to encourage them to use allotments.

Paul Clark: Absolutely. We would positively encourage such work because it is only by working closely together and in genuine partnership that people can start to open up some of those possibilities. In fact, numerous examples abound showing the different approaches that can be taken to involve school pupils with disabilities. One of the things that the allotment initiative can do is involve people from across the community—from whatever age group or ethnic minority, as well as those with disabilities—and that can produce genuine community cohesion where it did not exist previously, but that takes work. Positive action needs to be taken by people who have an interest, particularly local authorities, which are invariably allotment authorities.

In terms of disposals—unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) has left the Chamber—the Government
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aim to ensure that allotments are protected, promoted and cared for. We protect statutory allotments from disposal in section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925. If a local authority wishes to dispose of statutory allotments, consent from the Secretary of State is required. Consent decisions for the disposal of statutory allotments are made against a set number of criteria, aimed at ensuring that allotments that are needed are not disposed of. One thing introduced into the criteria is the need to ensure that allotment sites are properly and adequately advertised, so that they are not left to wither on the vine. They must also be promoted, and there may be a waiting list to consider. All those things need to be taken into account.

I am well aware of the case in Horsham, but I shall not comment on it. No doubt my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South is aware that that would be wrong. However, from the PSA, the guides that we have published and our publications on growth areas, such as "Creating Sustainable Communities: Greening the Gateway", it is clear that our programme is not just about putting a roof over people's heads or getting them a job, but about leisure and recreational and healthy living, something to which allotments can contribute.

On diversity, invariably there is the stereotype of grey-haired gentlemen over 50 on allotment sites. The picture is changing, however. More than half the owners of the Sturminster road allotments in Bristol are women. I take my hon. Friend's comments about the proper provision of facilities. I suspect that with more people becoming interested in gardening, the popularity of allotments will increase.

I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that we are concerned about allotments and their security and promotion, but we would positively encourage allotment authorities to promote them keenly for reasons of healthy living and exercise, for the production of food and for the provision of open space. To help with this—

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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