The growth of allotment gardening has been one of the bright spots of the environmental movement. People who didn't own their own land could rent from the local councils and start growing their own vegetables. It was all so simple and nice.
Except that there are long waiting lists in some areas for plots and there is a limited amount of government land available to use for this purpose. Into the breach steps the private sector. According to the Ecologist magazine, a company in the UK is now renting out allotments to people, at a much higher cost than the council. So what's the problem? People are willing to pay for them, so let them do it. Or maybe not...
There is something not right about this laissez-faire response. The whole basis of the movement was its egalitarian nature. Everyone paid the same low rent to the municipality for their plot, they work the land or get thrown off and everyone mucks in together.
In the UK the local authority "has a statutory duty to provide allotments where they perceive a demand for them, but it is up to each local authority to decide how much they spend on allotment provision in their area." There is a concern that the private system will let the local authorities off the hook. As the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners says "They (private companies) are setting out to make a profit. They may be getting people off waiting lists but we want to encourage local authorities to promote their allotment facilities. This allows them to sit back and let companies like this one do their job for them, but at a cost." The company will be making a profit in an area where formerly the government would have benefited.
The introduction of the private allotment system means that once more those with more money get a plot more easily and quickly; perhaps closer to their home. Just to really annoy people, the New Allotment Company will even provide prepared soil so that the new gardener doesn't have to do the dirty work. The New Allotment Company's director says "If councils were already providing accessibility to land to the 24 million householders in the country then we wouldn't be here. We are already making an impact on the allotment movement and we think this is just the beginning of a huge wave of change."
Image from savefortisgreenallotments
But the issue is not so black and white, private vs. public. There are alternatives which governments could be implementing that could help fulfill the need without turning to privatization. A report called "Can you Dig it? Meeting Community Demand for Allotments" published by a think tank posed some credible options. ,
The report urges councils to "make better use of the estimated 3,500 hectares of unused brownfield land to create new community allotments." It suggests that the government offer tax incentives to landowners to "allow allotments to be built on unused sections of their property." For example, "Currently the Royal Family owns 677,000 acres of land and although some of it is already used for farming,... more of its unused land could be turned into allotments for the benefit of local citizens."
The think tank also suggests that a Large Private Estates Commission be set up which "could have the power to temporarily transfer unused plots of private land to the local community for agricultural use." The report said that councils could set up not-for-profit schemes too, and at least they would make the money. It suggests that future housing developments should include a provision for allotments.
In a related incident, Thames Water (the UK's largest water and wastewater services company) wanted to sell land which had contained allotments for a century to a private developer. After a big campaign against the loss of the allotments along with community fundraising, a deal has been struck. A non-profit trust has been set up which will buy the land for £30,000 (instead of the £250,000 which it had been rumoured to be worth) from the water company and take control of the land, keeping it as allotments.
As the demand for allotments grows and land costs rise, the private sector was bound to step in. How the green community should respond is a controversial debate and one that is just starting.