Thursday 3 March 2016

Defending the Council's role in allotment management

I could only attend the first half of last night's consultation  meeting on self-management of allotments. My impression by the time I left was that the majority of the large audience of allotment holders was sceptical about such a scheme - although that might have been changed by later presentations.

Council officers made it clear from the beginning that the consultation did not constitute a recommendation for allotments to be self-managed, 'nor is there a requirement to do so.'

Despite persuasive speeches from  Richard King of Barnet Allotment Federation and Richard Wiltshire of the National Allotment Society (there were other speakers later) the Q&A sessions revealed problems, not least (although it was said to be only a few hours a week), the amount of work involved in self-management (budgeting, managing lettings, rent collection, bank account, public liability insurance, dispute management) seemed daunting. 'We just want to get on with gardening' someone muttered.

The self-managed Allotment Association would take over maintenance of trees, paths, fencing and water and the question immediately arose of the inequality between allotment sites where some would face flooding problems or contain a large number of mature trees that would require maintenance.

Such inequalities would require such allotments to put up rents in order to have a fund to cover major expenditure while others would require less of a contingency and so would have lower rents. A response that there would need to be a 'levelling off' between sites  before they were handed over to Associations was not very convincing.

The audience were not much impressed by the guest speakers revelation that self-management had increased rents and that this was justified by the new freedom they had to improve the allotment.

Speakers from the audience suggested there was a need for an overall body to manage cross-borough waiting list rather than each independent self-managed site to have its own waiting list.

The argument, particularly from Barnet, that self-management was preferable to poor council management ('Easy Council' Barnet wants to get rid of everything anyway) was not in general favourable received, with  praise for the work of the current Allotments Officer, in allotment management, training, promoting organic gardening and sustainability and the overall Council food growing strategy,  despite more general criticisms of the Council.

Brent has 22 allotment sites, only one of which is currently self-managed, with the 21 managed by the Food Growing and Allotments Officer. At the end of January 2016 there were 1,064 plots of which 1,029 were let and a waiting list of 201 individuals.

Officers did refer to the Council's need to make savings and the possibility of budget cuts in the service but also stated that there were no plans to sell off sites to developers.

The legal position is that Section 23 of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 puts the Council under a duty to provide a sufficient number of allotments with powers to improve, maintain and manage allotments. However, he legislation does not set minimum standards and these powers are discretionary - not a duty: 'Each individual authority can decide how to use these powers and what proportion of its resources to allocate to the service.'

The proponents of self-management quoted this as a reason to opt for self-management as it would be easier to defend allotment provision if it was self-financing.

The almost forgotten 'Big Society' was quoted.

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