Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Roving Contributor Simon on 'Plotting'

Have the Poms Finally FOUND the Plot?

Whenever I visit England, I am always intrigued by the community garden plots scattered across the countryside, and particularly evident around large housing developments. The concept is not dissimilar to community gardening in Australia, but differs markedly by virtue of legislative protection, and a general desire by English gardeners to get out in the freezing cold in their hundreds of thousands each weekend hoping to grow a decent crop of veggies. So given that I am in England again, I thought to do some roving reporting, and write up an interesting read for our garden club website. I would have liked to have included more photos, but didn't want to risk frost bite!

In the UK, an allotment is an area of land leased from either a private or local authority landlord for the growing of fruit and vegetables. In some cases allotments or 'plots' can be used for ornamental plants, and/or the keeping of hens, rabbits or bees.

An allotment is traditionally measured in rods, perches or poles (an old measure dating back to Anglo Saxon times). Ten rods was the accepted size, approximately 250 square metres, or about the size of a double tennis court. This size allowed a gardener to grow enough food to feed a family of four, manage crop rotation, and perhaps run a few hens. In many areas of the UK today, there is general acceptance of a plot being half this size, but there is fierce opposition to making them smaller. The argument for making them smaller is driven by long waiting lists, and an argument that the modern-day family does not have the time to manage larger plots. 'Piffle' say the old plot owners!

Allotments in the UK have been in existence for hundreds of years with evidence pointing back to the Anglo Saxons. But the system in England recognised today has its roots in the 19th century when land was given over to the labouring poor for the provision of food growing. This measure was desperately needed because of the rapid high density living caused by industrialisation, and the lack of a social welfare system.

In 1908 legislation was enacted placing a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments according to demand. However, after World War 1, allotments were made available to all, not just to the poor, as a way of assisting returning servicemen. Legislation strengthening the conceptual and practical management of allotments was enacted in 1922 and 1925. A statutory allotment owned by the local authority, ie Council, enjoys the protection of the Allotment Act. However, not all allotments are protected by the legal framework of this legislation. There are many private allotments dotted throughout the UK. I have found one in the village of Histon near Cambridge. It was a plot of land bequeathed to the church by two elderly ladies some 100 years ago to benefit the local parish poor. These allotments are now run by the Church (as landlord) and a tenant society. They live in fear of losing their little strip of vegetable paradise to greedy developers given that they lack statutory protection, and given that the land is worth many millions of pounds. As one chap explained to me none of the current tenants are poor or needy, but enjoy the lifestyle that comes with growing one's own vegetables. They won't give that up without a fight. Great to see whole families working their plot on a brisk English morning!

All allotments whether private or public, are leased from a landlord and the tenants are required to pay rent. This money is used to cover water rates and general maintenance. Rents vary from a peppercorn amount to around £125 per year. Some councils have campaigned to make these rents higher, only to find that they have incurred the wrath of the National Allotment Society! Legislation, though exacting in other respects, does not prescribe how much rent should be paid, but cites that rents should be a 'reasonable amount'.

Allotment holders, and in turn the societies they form, are obliged to sign a tenancy agreement which outlines what is expected of them by the landlord. These agreements typically cover rental agreements, what kind of activities can take place, the building of sheds and other matters. A tenancy agreement dating back to 1846 serving the Parish of Husbands Bosworth states that, "Every occupier is expected to attend divine services on Sunday, and any occupier who digs potatoes or otherwise work his land on Sundays shall forfeit same". 

The Dig For Victory campaign during the 1940s saw a significant rise in the number of people taking up allotments (further reading about this campaign from the British Library). At its height, there were 1.5 million plots across the UK. Today there are some 330,000 plots. But surprisingly, there are 90,000 would-be plot owners on various waiting lists around the country.

Local and national allotment societies, much like our garden club associations, are active in providing information, advice and education throughout the Allotment Community. The National Society is also an active lobby group advising government on matters pertaining to allotments, and fiercely protecting the status quo.

Unlike Australia, growing vegetables on public land is a popular and protected tradition. In a survey conducted by the National Allotment Society nearly every person surveyed says that their love of allotment gardening comes from the fresh air, home grown produce, healthy lifestyle and the opportunity to mix with like-minded people.

Hats off to the POMS!

AND also to you Simon, for a fantastic insight into Allotments in the United Kingdom.


  1. Check out that soil! No wonder Mr McGregor had trouble keeping the pesky rabbits off his cucumber frame.