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4 Jun 2008 : Column GC61

4 Jun 2008 : Column GC61

Grand Committee

Wednesday, 4 June 2008.

The Committee met at quarter to four.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel) in the Chair.]

Housing and Regeneration Bill

(Fourth Day)

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Haskel): If there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and will resume after 10 minutes.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer moved Amendment No. 58:

The noble Baroness said: This amendment concerns allotment provision and leads on from some of the discussion yesterday, which was quite historic in its perspective. We talked about the effect of the Enclosure Act. My starting point was 1649 and the Diggers, who unsuccessfully tried to permit gardening for food on common land at St George’s Hill. I do not intend to dwell on that, but it took from Gerard Winstanley’s original appeal in 1649 until 1908, when the first allotment legislation was put into effect. Of course, it is 100 years since that legislation was put into effect, so this is a landmark year. It would be encouraging if the Government marked that 100 years with some legislation that did something about the dire situation that I shall now describe.

The Committee has already discussed the issue of quality of housing and housing standards but, for a lot of people, the garden that comes with the house has become incredibly small or non-existent. Of course, some basic things are more important than a garden, such as a place to sleep, cook and wash, but for many people the ability to grow their own food is

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something that they truly value and need. At a time when the value of allotments has been very much recognised over the past few years, the lack of allotments and the situation with the waiting list has become particularly crucial.

I have just picked out a few of the things that have happened recently. ITV is asking for volunteers about people and their families enjoying allotments together, because it wants to make a TV series on that. There have been several books on allotments over the past year. There are TV programmes on allotments and there was a movie on allotments, “Grow Your Own”, that showed what a force for social cohesion they are. The Minister’s own website asks:

and goes on to say:

All those things are absolutely true, but what have the Government actually done to enable more provision of allotments? I suggest that the Government’s role is to produce legislative and policy frameworks that encourage that provision.

There are fantastic examples throughout the country of where allotments have been providing those forms of social cohesion, as I am sure that the Minister is aware. In fact, they are laid out in the very good updated guide that the LGA published. I am glad that it published its second edition of Growing in the Community, which recommends many of the benefits of allotments. However, I shall provide the Minister with a few examples of where things have gone drastically wrong, and where the Government’s idea that allotments are protected is not true.

I start with an example from Leeds, where the city council intends to build on part of its allotments this year. In fact, the report from its executive calls it not building on the allotments but,

One of the allotment holders got in touch with me. I gather that the Minister’s department has given approval. Reconfiguration of allotments might mean not getting rid of the whole site, but taking just a part of it—but part of the provision for Leeds has gone. It is another place with a considerable waiting list.

I have lots of examples from my own area, and shall give only a few of them because of time; they hold good up and down the country. In Honiton in east Devon, the town council tried to provide some more allotments; 104 people—remember that it is a small town—are already on the waiting list. However, East Devon District Council had allocated the land for housing that the town council had hoped to use. In South Molton, another small market town, on 24 April, 22 people were on the waiting list. Perhaps that does not sound very many, but for a town of that size it is a considerable number of people. In Plymouth, the city council claims that it will develop a leisure centre with 14 facilities on its one large park, so green space will be lost. The leisure centre is admirable, but it will

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entail the loss of allotments. Another town just up the road from me is Barnstaple, which has a 90-strong waiting list—a list that has been forced to close because there is no chance at the moment of fulfilling it, despite vigorous community activity. Being on the waiting list just depresses those on it. It holds out the possibility that you will get an allotment, whereas the Minister knows from the questions that she answered in the Chamber on the subject that in some cases people in their 30s and 40s will be dead before they have any chance of getting one.

The situation is dire. I had an interesting letter from a lady employed as the Transition Wirral allotment facilitator. She sent me some examples of how her council interprets allotment legislation, saying:

I will not read out the report because that will take more time, but in essence the director confirms that the local authorities have a duty to provide sufficient allotments and, in section 2.3.5, goes on to explain to councillors that,

My first question to the Minister is: could the Government do a little more to define a sufficient number of allotments? That has not been discussed by a Government since the Thorpe report in 1969, I think, which suggested that there should be more definition of sufficiency. To illustrate why that is important, I should say that the rate at which demand outstrips supply is the issue when it comes to whether a council is fulfilling its requirements to provide allotments. I am not being party political about this: Sheffield has 1,400 people on its list; Manchester, 850; Edinburgh, 1,150; Plymouth, 1,000; and Blyth Valley in Northumberland, 1,200. The Minister will know that the situation in London is different because inner-city London boroughs were excluded from the provision requirement.

The situation in Wales has become so dire that it has provoked the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardeners to consider taking legal action because of the position in which those on waiting lists find themselves. In an interview with the BBC the society said:

The society does not want to do that. Although it has the finance to do so, it wishes to resolve the issue in a different way.

Councillor Paul Bettison chairs the environment board of the Local Government Association, which has just revised its guidance to councils on how to meet their legal responsibilities to provide allotments. However, on looking at his response, I do not feel he is addressing the situation with sufficient urgency. He said:

If that is Councillor Bettison’s reaction to the situation—and it is guidance from the top of the LGA—I despair of councils addressing their waiting lists. He is saying, “Don’t worry about addressing the situation”. He dismisses almost out of hand the fact that people have finally got the health message, can see food prices rising, understand that growing their own food is a sensible way of meeting their fresh food requirements and all the other reasons of which the Committee is aware.

Contrast that with the comment made by Lord Bledisloe in 1925 in regard to the Allotments Act, when he said,

What a different and more positive response.

Originally, of course, the local authorities’ housing authorities and councils’ planning authorities had the duty to provide allotments—they still do—but under the Bill the HCA is the housing and planning authority in many clauses. Should it not inherit some proper duty about the provision? I beg to move.

4 pm

Lord Greaves moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 58, Amendment No. 59:

The noble Lord said: Following yesterday’s discussions, I am not sure whether the Minister will think this discussion of allotments is a digression. If it is, it is an important one and my noble friend is to be congratulated on raising it in such a forthright and comprehensive way.

I am tempted to digress further about the meeting I am going to attend tomorrow evening in Colne where, among other things, we will be discussing proposals to provide new and replacement allotments—so at least some of us at local level are taking this appropriately seriously. I will not go into great detail about that as the Committee will drum me out if I do—at least it ought to.

The amendment returns to a theme that has been present in some of our discussions already, and which will certainly be present in a number of discussions which are to come fairly soon on planning and many other issues—the extent to which a large national quango should get involved in doing local things at a local level. Provision of allotments is clearly a local

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facility. If the Homes and Communities Agency owns allotments—I am not sure why it should—or provides allotments as part of its wider involvement, it is absolutely clear to me that such allotments should be managed as of right by the local allotments authority, which might be the borough council, the district council or the parish council. They are doing it already, they have the expertise, and there is no point in duplicating things. It is a simple point which I will be making on a number of occasions in other contexts in our debates today and later on. I beg to move.

Lord Howarth of Newport: I underscore briefly one point made almost in passing by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. She alluded to the recent very steep rise in food prices and the anticipation that for the foreseeable future we are going to have to live with higher food prices. That adds force to the case she has eloquently made for the better provision of allotments.

I pose a couple of questions which the noble Baroness may be able to answer in due course. She refers in proposed new subsection (1) in her amendment to a duty on the HCA to,

I wonder how she defines “sufficiency”. In proposed new subsection (4) she would require the HCA to,

It would be helpful if she could clarify what she believes the principles should be for prioritisation in allocation of allotments to people on waiting lists.

Finally, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that these matters would be best left to local authorities.

Baroness Ford: I support the spirit of the amendment proposed by the noble Baroness, but urge my noble friend to resist the idea that the Homes and Communities Agency would have this responsibility, for two reasons. I think that the noble Baroness has absolutely nailed the problem, which is that local authorities are not satisfactorily carrying out their duties in terms of making allotments available.

I echo everything the noble Baroness said about the value and benefits of allotments. However, I really do not think that it is reasonable that the Homes and Communities Agency should be put on a hook and local authorities left off the hook, as provision is their responsibility. It is reasonable and entirely right that the Homes and Communities Agency, as is good practice in good planning for urban regeneration, ordinarily thinks about allotments as part of new urban developments. I expect that organisation to carry on doing that, but it should not have this duty put in the Bill. I am sorry not to be able to support the provision, but we are letting local authorities completely off the hook if we do.

Lord Dixon-Smith: It is possible to argue that there are two aspects of this. One is the provision of allotments and the other is their management. There is perhaps a

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case for making it a duty on the Homes and Communities Agency to consider whether it is appropriate to provide land for the allotments on one side of the equation, but that land should subsequently be managed and dealt with entirely—I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ford—by the appropriate local authority.

There is no doubt that if we are going from a period of surplus food when anyone could have anything they liked for a song to a period when food is generally in short supply, the demand for allotments will increase, particularly in the major urban areas. There may be less demand in more rural areas, where more houses tend to have gardens anyway. However, I do not expect to see a plea for Hyde Park to return to being allotments, as was once the case; I hope things are not going to get that bad.

It would not be unreasonable for the Homes and Communities Agency to have to consider whether land should be provided for allotments as part of its responsibility, although I accept that it should not be any part of its responsibility to have to manage it.

Baroness Ford: I would have considerably more sympathy for that point of view were it not for the fact that the National Land Use Database currently shows local authorities to be currently stewarding in excess of 60,000 hectares of surplus or brownfield land. It is reasonable for them to look to their own house first of all before they look to the national agency.

Lord Dixon-Smith: We could go backwards and forwards on this one. Theoretically, brownfield land has had some form of development on most of it already, and may not be at all suitable for allotments.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): That was an excellent short debate. I am grateful that the noble Baroness has created an opportunity for this. As she knows, I have a great deal of sympathy for what she said, for reasons that will become clear. I am sorry that I missed the debate that started in 1649; I would have enjoyed that. This is a landmark year, being the centenary of the 1908 Act, and we are right to mark it. She is also right—this has been echoed around the Committee—that the benefits of allotments to the community and to the individual are legion. There is nothing but support for the provision of allotments in my department on my behalf.

I shall start by taking the amendment to Amendment No 58, and I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said. Essentially, we are dealing, and have been since the first protections were created in law, with the fact that allotments are the responsibility of the local authority, and rightly so. For the reasons that have been given, they must remain so. The noble Lord’s amendment about management therefore underscores the point, as he explained it, about the importance of retaining that status.

Allotments are different in so many ways. They are the only bits of green space in the community that are given unique special protection by legislation, reinforced

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by planning guidance. They are not treated as previously developed land, which is crucial. It is difficult for them to be disposed of or built on. When you look at where we have come from, with the loss of allotments since the war, it is a dramatic and rather sad picture. It remains the case, though, that a council can dispose of an allotment in exceptional circumstances only if it can fully justify to the Secretary of State for Communities that there is a need for a change of use against robust criteria. The fact that those criteria are robust does not conceal that we have had to take action in recent years to slow up the loss of allotments. Following a DETR Select Committee inquiry in 1998, we strengthened and reinforced in 2002 the criteria for the disposal of statutory allotments by planning policy guidance 17, which ensured that communities’ need for allotments would be taken into account and that the local authority would have to show that an allotment was surplus to need.

We come back to the point regarding the key to ensuring that allotments are there for those who want them. It was useful to have the examples about the size of waiting lists, because there is no doubt that in some parts of the country we are seeing a renaissance of the allotment and a different profile of the allotmenteer, as it were. I have visited the Dig for Victory allotments in St James’s Park, which I recommend to noble Lords; they are magnificent and involve a lot of schoolchildren. I also recommend the allotments that I visited in south London, which showed beyond doubt that they were a resource for a very mixed community. All sorts of fruit and vegetables are grown by different ethnic communities, and there are even beehives. It is a place where the communities meet and people mentor each other in the growing of fruit and vegetables. My noble friend Lord Howarth was absolutely right—allotments are wonderful places.

The key to improvement and the key to achieving the sort of changes that the noble Baroness and I want is not a change in the law, but better and more systematic implementation of it. Therefore, in the past year we have tried to engage positively with, and to promote good practice by, allotment organisations and those who mentor in allotment offices, for example. That has given us a better understanding of the issues. In June last year we published revised guidance for plot holders and in the past year we have worked closely with the LGA, which has been sympathetic and proactive to the needs of allotment officers, which are the key to this. They look after allotments—whether by protecting them from vandalism, making sure that the waiting list is not growing out of control or ensuring that allotment holders are informed about prospects and possibilities. They are the people who make a difference.

We updated and published a second edition of Growing in the Community in March, to which the noble Baroness referred. That reflected the significant developments in the allotments movement since 2001 and highlighted their importance. It provided an up-to-date account of policy and a guide to the legislation by making it absolutely clear that no local authority should be in any doubt about what the law says has to be done if there is any question of

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allotments being under challenge for whatever reason, and that nor should there be any doubt as to the rights of the allotment holders. What gave me confidence that that was the right way to proceed was when I hosted a round-table meeting with all the key allotment organisations in November last year. Together we agreed that the legislation was robust, but that there were considerations of clarity in the application of the legislation. Going forward with those organisations and working with local authorities to follow up how they are managing their allotments is very important.

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