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The Future for Allotments

Introduction

This paper sets out the Government's response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's report 'The Future for Allotments'. We welcome the detailed consideration which the Committee gave to allotments policy.

Response to the Committee's Recommendations

Although this Report focuses primarily upon allotment provision in England, we recommend that the relevant Departments with responsibility for allotments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should study the report and consider acting upon our recommendations. (Paragraph 5)

1.The allotments legislation in England applies equally to Wales, and this response covers the views of the Welsh Office. The allotments legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland is different to that in England and Wales, most significantly in that central government does not have a role in the disposal of allotment land. The Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland will consider the recommendations made as part of the forthcoming reviews of local government policy and legislation in Northern Ireland. The Scottish Office are aware of the Report's recommendations, but responsibility for allotment policy in Scotland will pass to the Scottish Parliament so it is unlikely to be reviewed in the meantime.

The Value of Allotments

We believe that allotments will often form a component part of healthy neighbourhoods. Given the undisputed health benefits of allotments, we strongly recommend that allotment provision be explicitly noted in national public health strategy and be integrated into the local delivery of that strategy, particularly for the over 50s age-group which traditionally dominates the profile of allotment holders. (Paragraph 13)

We recommend that health authorities should recognise and exploit the therapeutic potential of allotments for people with mental or physical health problems. (Paragraph 15)

2.The Government agrees that allotments will often form a component part of healthy neighbourhoods, and will consider this in the development of Healthy Neighbourhoods policy. The Department of Health is also currently considering responses to the Green Paper 'Our Healthier Nation'. The Government recognises the health benefits of allotment gardening, and the Committee's recommendations will be taken into account in the development of the White Paper. The Local Government Association will also liaise with the National Health Service Confederation in order to encourage increased emphasis on the health benefits of allotments, and central Government will inform this process as appropriate.

Legislation

We believe there is a need for urgent action to protect existing allotment sites. In the short term, specific modifications to advice and procedures relating to allotment provision are required and these are detailed throughout the Report. Many of these changes are comparatively simple but the sum total will ensure a fairer and clearer system for all concerned. (Paragraph 28)

3.The Committee's specific recommendations for the protection of allotment sites and for modifications to advice and procedures relating to allotment provision are dealt with in detail in the following sections of this response.

For the long term protection of allotments, we believe that allotments legislation must be overhauled. We conclude that the Government should issue a Green Paper as soon as is practicable and commission a research study to consult with the various interested parties and develop a consolidating piece of legislation which simplifies, updates and enhances existing allotments legislation. The Government should aim to introduce the resulting Bill within the lifetime of this Parliament. (Paragraph 29)

4.The Government acknowledges that the allotments legislation is complex. However, although consolidation of the legislation would be useful it would not in itself enhance the protection of allotment land. We agree that there are changes to the legislation which could usefully be made, but neither consolidation nor an overhaul of the legislation which involves changes would be likely to secure a place in the Government's programme in the near future. However, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) will continue to keep the option of legislation under review, particularly in light of our aim to clarify local authority powers and duties. It should be recognised that allotment gardening already enjoys far greater legal protection than other worthwhile leisure activities.

We recommend that the main restrictions of the use of allotments contained in national legislation should be repealed. In particular, decisions over:

  • the uses to which plots may be put, particularly with regard to flower growing;
  • commercial use with regard to site shops and the sale of surplus produce; and
  • the keeping of livestock

should be made on a site-by-site basis by the local authority or allotment society. We urge that care should be taken when relaxing restrictions so that the essential character of a site is maintained. (Paragraph 32)

5.By definition, an 'allotment garden' is wholly or mainly cultivated by the occupier for the production of fruit or vegetables for consumption by himself and his family. Primary legislation would be required for the definition to be changed. The definition gives allotment authorities some flexibility to determine what is grown, but the Government agrees that authorities should take care when relaxing restrictions so that the character of sites is maintained.

6.The present legislation already enables some limited commercial activity to take place on allotments, but primary legislation would be required to allow commercial use to be greater than an ancillary use. Provided that allotments are used mainly for cultivation, they may in part be used for keeping hens and rabbits. Other animals may be kept provided the use of the land does not take it out of allotments legislation, and that the permission of the council is obtained.

Demand for Allotments

Witnesses have told us that the demand for allotments is set to increase and this assumption underscores the recommendations made in this Report. (Paragraph 36)

7.The Committee's report also comments on the shrinking demand for allotments.1 The Government believe that the loss of allotment land is due largely to a decrease in demand for allotments since their peak for food supply during the Second World War, and have no evidence for an expected increase in demand. Local demand for allotments is assessed in all cases where an application is made for the disposal of statutory allotment land. Most disposals of statutory allotment land occur where there is a lack of demand for plots, and the 1997 English Allotments Survey found there to be over 33,000 vacant statutory plots in England.

Local Issues

From the evidence we received, it is apparent that the performance of local authorities with regard to allotment provision is best described as patchy. Some authorities pursue an active approach to maintaining vibrant and fully-occupied allotment sites whilst others appear at best lethargic and at worst to be instrumental in encouraging the decline of interest in allotments. Without a positive local approach, it seems likely that much of the demand for allotments will always remain latent. (Paragraph 40)

8.On 25 March 1998 the Government introduced a requirement for authorities to demonstrate the steps they have taken to promote allotments in their area before they can obtain the Secretary of State's consent to dispose of statutory allotment land. In cases where the application for disposal took place after 25 March the extent of promotion is taken into account when assessing the extent of local demand for allotments. This additional requirement was implemented specifically to meet the concern that people were not aware of the duty of local authorities to provide allotments, and that latent demand therefore existed.

9.The Government will work with the Local Government Association if they take up the Committee's recommendation to produce Best Practice guidance for allotments. Such guidance could help to remedy the variation in performance between local authorities in terms of allotment provision by alerting local authorities to good practice such as the production of allotment strategies.

Provision of Allotments

Dealing with the Threat to Local Authority Sites

We note that allotments form an important part of leisure provision and this should be reflected within the local authority's Leisure Strategy and Local Agenda 21 initiatives. (Paragraph 56)

10.The Government welcomes this recommendation and will encourage local authorities to take account of it as appropriate. We welcome the Chief Leisure Officers Association's encouragement of local authorities to prepare local leisure strategies with full local consultation. We also welcome the Local Government Association's view that the production of consultative leisure strategies will offer an important opportunity for communities to question the level and nature of local leisure provision, including that relating to allotments.

We also recommend that local authorities should publish annually the details of their allotments provision. Year-on-year publication of these statistics would enable closer monitoring of allotment provision and ensure that local authorities remain accountable for any change of policy. In line with the drive to maintain existing levels of allotment provision, any decline should be accompanied by a full explanation. We are encouraged that the Local Government Association welcomed such an approach. (Paragraph 57)

11.The Government welcomes the Local Government Association's positive approach on this issue, which reinforces our opinion that allotment provision is an issue best dealt with at a local level.

Dealing with the Threat to Private Sites

We welcome the contribution made by private sites to overall allotment provision and recognise that providing allotments is essentially a charitable activity for private firms. However, we urge owners of private sites to re-examine their policies towards allotment provision and, where appropriate, to adopt a long-term and positive approach. (Paragraph 61)

12.The Government supports the Committee's recommendation to the owners of private allotment sites.

Planning Issues and Guidance

We believe that the planning guidance with regard to allotments should be made much more explicit, particularly since allotment land is the principle category of urban green space which is being eroded. We urge that fuller and better guidance on the role of allotments be incorporated into the current revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 (Housing). In particular, we recommend that PPG3 includes specific advice that 'statutory' allotment sites should be clearly designated within Unitary Development Plans and Local Plans. 'Temporary' sites should be marked with their final intended use along with an approximate date for the change of use. (Paragraph 64)

13.PPG3 is currently being revised, and DETR will be issuing a consultation draft in the autumn. The guidance will reflect our desire to ensure the availability of, and adequate protection for, good quality open spaces within our urban areas, including allotments. However, specific guidance on the role of allotments will be considered as part of the revision of PPG17.

We strongly recommend that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should press ahead with the revision of Planning Policy Guidance Note 17 (Sport and Recreation) and incorporate specific guidance on the role of allotments. (Paragraph 65)

14.The Government will shortly be publishing research on the effectiveness of planning policy guidance for sport and recreation (PPG17). The findings and recommendations of the research point clearly to the need to bring the guidance up to date, and DETR proposes to revise PPG17. Work will commence later this year, and it is hoped that a draft revised PPG17 will be issued for public consultation around the turn of the year. The revision will offer an opportunity to consider including specific guidance about allotments.

Protection of Allotments

Designation of Sites

There is widespread uncertainty about the status of many allotment sites. We strongly recommend that all local authorities make clear the designation of their sites. With the exception of those sites which are ultimately intended for use as cemeteries, we recommend that any 'temporary' site which has been in continuous use as allotments for thirty years or more be automatically redesignated as 'statutory', subject to an appeal by the local authority to the Secretary of State. For the remaining 'temporary' sites, the authority should provide details of the final use intended for the land along with some indication of the likely date for the change of use. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State indicated that the Government would be happy to issue guidance to local authorities on distinguishing between 'temporary' and 'statutory' sites and we urge the Government to do so immediately. (Paragraph 72)

15.The Government agrees that it is useful for local authorities to clarify the status of their allotment sites. We will aim to encourage local authorities to do this by contributing to any Best Practice guidance which is prepared by the Local Government Association in conjunction with the National Association of Local Councils. We will consider with the Local Government Association whether any additional guidance to local authorities on the distinction between temporary and private sites is required.

16.The Government does not favour giving long term temporary allotment land automatic statutory protection as this could deter local authorities from putting land to temporary allotment use, and would also require primary legislation. However we will ask local authorities to consider whether, where allotments have been in use for many years, and there are no plans for specific use such as for cemeteries, they will give the land statutory allotment status.

Effectiveness of Statutory Protection

We recommend that the Government look urgently at the continuing loss of allotment land, particularly in light of the anticipated future increase in demand for allotments. (Paragraph 75)

17.Section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925 provides that the Secretary of State's consent is required for the disposal of land by a local authority which they have purchased or appropriated for use as allotments, if they propose to sell the land or appropriate it for another use. The legislation does not allow consent for disposal to be given unless adequate provision is made for any displaced plotholders, unless such provision is not necessary or impracticable.

18.Paragraph 7 of this response sets out the Government's view on anticipated future demand for allotments.

Improving the Process: Local Procedures

The current process for the sale of a 'statutory' site is highly complicated and this works against the interests of allotment holders. We recommend that the procedures at local authority level with regard to the sale of allotment sites be overhauled. The process should be an open and inclusive one, particularly with regard to the information made available to allotment holders. Allotment authorities should consult plot-holders before applying to the Secretary of State for permission to change the use of a site. This consultation should include discussions about providing an alternative site. To ensure that the demand for allotments is being accurately represented, documents such as waiting lists and applications for allotments should be made publicly accessible. (Paragraph 83)

19.Guidance from DETR requires allotment authorities to consult plot-holders before applying to the Secretary of State for permission to appropriate statutory allotment land for another use. Authorities are also required to make provision for any plot-holders who are displaced by the sale of statutory allotment land, unless such provision is considered unnecessary or impractical. The provision of replacement sites is normally determined after discussion with plot-holders so that their requirements are taken into account, and the Government encourages this approach.

20.The Government is keen for local authorities to consult more widely and to open up decision making processes for public scrutiny. This is reflected in the White Paper on Local Government, 'Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People', which was published on 30 July 1998. DETR will also aim to ensure that any Best Practice guidance on allotments produced by the Local Government Association encourages local authorities to make the sale process as open and inclusive as possible.

Replacement sites have been provided in only two of the 51 'statutory' sites lost since 7 May 1997. Given the inevitable and progressive loss of private and 'temporary' allotment sites, such a low replacement rate is alarming and unacceptable. Within the context of other measures to encourage greater demand for allotments generally, we recommend that every endeavour should be made to provide a replacement site. The alternative site should be:

  • of similar size and quality;
  • within reasonable walking distance of existing plot-holders' houses; and
  • given 'statutory' protection.

Where no suitable replacement site can be offered, we recommend that a significant proportion of the proceeds from the sale of the original site should be used to provide improvements to other allotment sites within the authority's area. (Paragraph 84)

21.The low rate of provision of replacement sites reflects the fact that sites are often disposed of due to lack of demand. The Secretary of State cannot consent to the disposal of statutory allotment land unless he is satisfied either that adequate provision will be made for displaced plot-holders, or that such provision is not necessary or is impracticable. In cases where plot-holders are displaced, the Government Office consults the allotments authority to ensure that this requirement is met.

22.Replacement sites are required to be not normally more than three quarters of a mile from the centre of demand, although this distance may be increased if the plot-holders are willing to travel further. The Government regards the security of tenure of replacement allotments as an important issue, but it does not necessarily follow that allotments which do not have statutory protection can never be regarded as constituting adequate provision for displaced plot-holders. In 1996 the Court of Appeal decided that the duty for "adequate provision" to be made for displaced allotment holders did not necessarily mean that the replacement allotments need be on land protected under allotments legislation.

23.Section 32(2) of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 requires an authority selling statutory allotment land to apply the proceeds to meet any liabilities associated with allotment land or to acquire, adapt or improve other land for allotments. Any surplus can be used for any other purpose for which capital money may be used, and we consider that this decision should continue to be taken at a local level.

Improving the Process: Central Government Procedures

In line with ensuring better information about the proposed sale of sites, we recommend that it be made a formal obligation for Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to inform the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners of all applications to sell 'statutory' sites. (Paragraph 85)

24.The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions requires the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners to be notified of all applications for the disposal of statutory allotment land, and their views are taken into account in the consideration of each case. We do not consider there would be an added advantage in making this notification a statutory requirement.

We recommend that the Secretary of State should ensure that a local authority has met certain basic requirements of an active allotments policy before approving the sale of a 'statutory' site. Specifically, a local authority should have in place a designated allotments officer; should seek to provide water and appropriate fencing at all allotment sites; and should have a basic programme for encouraging demand for allotments including simple advertising of vacant plots in the local media and an information board at each site displaying whether plots are available along with details of whom to contact. (Paragraph 87)

25.From March 1998, the Government placed an additional requirement on allotment authorities to demonstrate the active promotion of allotments before they can dispose of statutory allotment land. Where an authority attempts to dispose of statutory allotment land on the basis of lack of demand, information about the promotion of allotments is used to assess the inherent demand for allotments. We do not wish to be prescriptive about the provision of allotments officials or facilities as we consider that this is best decided at a local level.

Section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925 specifically places responsibility for consent to the sale of 'statutory' sites at Ministerial level. In the light of this, we consider it unacceptable that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has not referred matters of such importance to the Minister. We recommend that all applications which attract objections should be called in for examination by the Minister responsible. (Paragraph 89)

26.Reference to 'called in' is somewhat misleading, as all decisions are made by the authority of the Secretary of State. In line with long-standing convention, Ministers and officials decide the nature of cases which should be referred to Ministers. Due to constraints on Ministerial time, we continue to recommend that applications should only be referred to Ministers where it is considered necessary to do so.

Best Practice in Allotment Management

We were surprised and disappointed to hear from Councillor Whitmore of the Local Government Association that "in my years in local Government and in the Association of Metropolitan Authorities I do not remember us ever discussing at national level the issue of allotments at all". Many aspects of allotment provision are rightly the subject of local decisions and it is the role of the Local Government Association to assist individual local authorities with such matters. The patchy performance of local authorities with regard to allotment policy must be remedied. (Paragraph 93)

27.The Government strongly supports the Committee's view that many aspects of allotment provision are rightly the subject of local decisions and that it is the role of the Local Government Association to assist individual local authorities with such matters. As set out in paragraphs 8 and 9 of this response, central Government is taking positive action to address the patchy performance of local authorities with regard to allotment policy.We recommend that a Best Practice regime for allotments be drawn up and implemented by local authorities and their umbrella organisations, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. (Paragraph 94)

28. The Government supports the idea of Best Practice guidance for allotments, and will work with the Local Government Association in conjunction with the National Association of Local Councils if they take up this recommendation.

Self-Management

We believe that self-management fulfills the twin aims of ensuring greater control of a site by allotments holders and also reducing a local authority's administrative responsibilities. We recommend that all local authorities examine the potential for self-management of their allotment sites. (Paragraph 106)

We recommend that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions should draw up an appropriate model agreement that can be used by local authorities formally to devolve responsibilities to allotment societies. In particular, this should make provision for a local authority to take back control of a site in exceptional circumstances. (Paragraph 107)

29.The Government considers that arrangements for devolution to allotment societies is best determined at a local level according to local circumstances.

Gardening Media

We believe that the gardening media could play an important role in promoting allotments, particularly in ensuring the widespread adoption of Best Practice. We urge all media companies to explore the scope for integrating allotment issues into their magazines and programmes. (Paragraph 109)

30.The Government supports the Committee's recommendation to media companies.

Role of Central Government

We were disappointed to be told by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State that allotments are essentially a local issue. We believe that the provision of allotments is a national issue. While the particular rate of provision should be decided locally, it is important for Government to recognise its own role in promoting allotments. (Paragraph 110)

We recommend that the Government should make clear the role it sees for allotments in the future and set about offering improved guidance and greater encouragement to local government. (Paragraph 112)

31.The Government recognises that it has a role in the promotion of allotments at a national level. We are in contact with the Local Government Association about the role of allotments in the future, and have offered to give them improved guidance as required.

32.The Government also intends to introduce legislation to place on councils a duty to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. Such a duty would require authorities to take a holistic view of their local communities, and take steps to promote its well being. The Government does not wish to be prescriptive about how local authorities should discharge this view. It is keen to encourage councils' leadership role in developing and delivering a vision for their locality. We consider that the provision of allotments is an issue which should be decided at a local level depending on local circumstances. Allotments serve very local needs, and local authorities are best placed to take a view of the competing demands for resources and land for other recreational activities and local services.

33.Due to concern about the disposal of allotment land, we plan to retain section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, which requires the Secretary of State's consent before an authority can dispose of statutory allotment land.

We recommend that the Government should collate the information on allotment provision held at local authority level and use this to develop and maintain a database on allotment provision. In this way, the overall national trend in provision can be determined and the effectiveness of measures to encourage continued allotment provision can be assessed. (Paragraph 113)

34.The disposal of allotment land is monitored centrally, but the Government do not intend to develop a national database on allotment provision. We welcome the Local Government Association's view that authorities should be as open as possible about allotment provision, but do not feel that the cost of a central government database would be justified.

The Future for Allotments

Our recommendations include changes in legislation, policy and practice. We consider that the force of these measures will be lost if a piecemeal approach is adopted to their implementation. Only if the recommendations are introduced as a package will the Future for Allotments be assured. (Paragraph 116)

35.As set out in paragraph 4 of this response, new legislation on allotments would be unlikely to secure a place in the Government's programme in the near future, but DETR will continue to keep the option of legislation under review. In the meantime the Government feels that the work towards the implementation of allotments best practice set out in this response should be undertaken as soon as possible.

1 - The Future for Allotments. Volume 1 pXVI.

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