Thursday, 19 November 2020

A Brief History of Allotments, Part 2: The Boom and Bust Years of 20th Century Allotments


Early 20th Century Allotments

In August 1965, a formal government inquiry into allotments was initiated by the then Ministry of Land and Natural resources under the leadership of Professor H. Thorpe. Their report’s 350 pages was published 4 years later and is now often referred to by many as the ‘Thorpe Report’.

The article below draws upon the comprehensive review of the twentieth century allotments and the statutes that were passed which affected them.

By 1900 allotments had come to be recognised as either ‘garden allotments’ of some quarter of an acre or below or larger ‘farm’ allotments. The distinction depended on whether they were cultivated by spade or plough. In 1900 almost two-thirds of all allotments were ‘garden’ in character.

In 1908 the Small Holdings and Allotments Act came into force, placing a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient allotments, according to demand. Central power was vested in the Board of Agriculture, reflecting the view that County Councils had not been effective. The Board of Agriculture was able to launch independent inquiries if it considered that a County Council was not doing its job. The Act tidied up the 1887, 1890 and 1907 acts and included a statement that councils could not run allotments as a loss-making activity; and it required that notice to quit had to be given to plot holders. This act is still on the statute book today.

A Board of Agriculture survey in 1912 showed that around 25% of councils supplied land for allotments, amounting to 31,000 acres of which approximately 23% was purchased and the remainder leased.  There were difficulties in getting land for urban allotments, principally due to development pressures and to address this The Vacant Land Cultivation Society was formed by Joseph Fels in 1907, but it had little early success in getting areas of waste land under cultivation.

In 1913 evidence given to a Land Inquiry Committee showed high demand for allotments in almost every urban area. At this time, a standard size of 300 square yards had been widely adopted.

The First World War gave allotments a massive boost especially in urban areas. In 1916, under the Defence of the Realm Act, local authorities were given powers to secure as much land for allotments as demanded, and parks, open space, playing fields were requisitioned and ‘wartime plots‘ appeared. Railway allotments increased from 27,680 to 93,473 plots between 1914 and 1918. In 1913 there had been 600,00 allotments in England and Wales and by 1918 this had increased to 1.5 million.

A Board of Agriculture report in 1916 found a great disparity between the rural and urban allotments with the urban ones producing more, and were maintained better whilst costing the user more. The rural allotments on the other hand, tended to be on poorer land, were poorly maintained, produced a lot less and costed a lot less.

Between Wars

At the end of the war there was a need to give up some 50,000 acres of allotment land but the returning servicemen fuelled a surge in demand, and it was estimated some 7,000 new applications were coming forward each week. In addition fresh food was in short supply and it’s price had risen sharply, and with a closing of the munitions factories and reduction in overtime many had more leisure time. The Land Settlement Act of 1919 was intended to help but it was the first time all references to the ‘labouring population’ was omitted and allotments were to be open to all, irrespective of status or occupation.

By 1922 the balance of the return of emergency requisitioned land and the provision of security of tenure for allotment holders was introduced in the 1922 Allotments Act. This introduced the concept of the allotment garden mainly to produce fruit and vegetables. It also required councils to set up Allotment Committees (although this stipulation was subsequently removed in the Local Government Act (1972).

The Allotment Act of 1925 followed, which today is still the pivotal Act and provided two principal provisions. First, that allotments should be considered in every town planning scheme, and Second a regulation that land purchased or appropriated by a local authority for use as allotments (statutory allotments) must not be disposed of or used for other purposes without Ministerial consent, known as section 8 orders.

In Scotland the Community Empowerment Act came in to force on 1 April 2018 and updates and simplifies legislation on allotments. It requires local authorities to maintain waiting lists and take reasonable steps to provide allotments if the waiting lists exceed certain trigger points. It also strengthens the protection for allotments and clarifies the rights of local authorities and plot holders. Provisions allow allotments to be 250 square metres in size or a different size that is to be agreed between the person requesting an allotment and the local authority. 

The National Allotment Society was formed in 1930.

Allotments declined in the 1920s and by 1929 had fallen below 1 million and less than 150,000 acres. In 1931 the Agricultural Land (Utilisation) Act was passed as a temporary measure to provide powers to the Ministry of Agriculture to provide plots. Between 1932 and 1937 even so 2,000 acres of urban allotment land was lost.  

Dig For Victory

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Michael Foot’s solan and ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign (October 1939) with the objective of creating 0.5m new allotments. Pasture land, railway land, spaces in parks, front gardens, disused land on airfields, even bomb sites became allotments. The Ministry of Agriculture produced a series of leaflets with instructions on all aspects of fruit and vegetable cultivation. As the number of plots grew it became more difficult to get hold of adequate quantities of manure.  A partial solution appeared with the introduction of National Growmore, a chemical-based balanced fertiliser 7 (nitrogen) :7 (phosphorus) :7 (potash), which was initially made available by George Monro & Sons.  Potatoes were the most popular crop while Onion Clubs were formed to encourage people to grow the crop, as it had become almost impossible to get hold of them by 1941. By 1944 there was an estimated 1.75m plots.  

Post War Decline

At the end of the war between 1945 and 1947 0.5m allotments disappeared as temporary plots reverted to their original use, and despite the harsh winter of 1947 and rationing continuing to 1954, people gradually started to lose interest.

On the legislation front, The Allotment Act (1950) increased the notice period to quit in that plot holders must be given to 12 months. In the following year (1951) the recently formed National Association of Parish Councils produced a handbook on running allotments for local councils.

For the next two decades the number of plots fell to 532,000. There were some 75,000 plots on railway land in 1950, and British Rail were the largest single allotment operator. However many factors compounded their decline at the rate of 3,000 a year with the Beeching line closures in the 1960s which saw sites simply disappear along with the lines.

By 1999 it was estimated the number of allotments had dropped to 250,000.

Allotments were once again investigated in 1998, this time by the Parliamentary Select Committee on The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. Like its predecessor the Thorpe Report, nothing came from this review. It did note that of 51 statutory allotment sites that were closed in the period from May 1997 to May 1998 only two of them were re-housed. A statutory allotment site is one that can be only closed with the consent of the Secretary of State who is responsible for allotments and alternative sites should be pursued.

21st Century and the rise of environment issues, climate awareness, health and wellbeing and value of allotments

Today there are some 300,000 to 350,000 allotments in England and Wales and although this looks like more sites are being created the reality in that many sites are halving the size of some plots to accommodate more from the waiting list and those looking to downsize. There have been some new sites but there has also been site or part site losses. Urban demand has increased, and inner-city demand has exploded as many have moved into flats with no gardens. This land restriction has been coupled with increased awareness in health and wellbeing, fresh food and the environment.

One group that has changed the dynamic and demographic of allotments are women and the balance in many areas is now tipped towards the female plot holders being in the majority. Young mothers have also risen in numbers changing again the age spread across plot holders. These trends are most prevalent in inner city and metropolitan sites.

A cynical view of history would indicate that we are merely on a temporary upslope of the standard cyclical pattern where periods of enthusiasm alternate with periods of relative disinterest. Nevertheless, it seems bizarre, not to say disheartening, to note that in the two year period from April 2007 to March 2009 during one such upturn in demand there were 98 section 8 applications under the 125 Allotment Act to close statutory allotment sites and only 2 were turned down .

There is a view that allotments may take on a greater leisure role in the future, as indicated in the Thorpe Report of 1969. Allotments on the Continent take this approach but the Dutch, for example, have greater land pressures than are experienced in England and Wales. Many live in flats and apartments and have no gardens. This gives people a much greater incentive to make all-round use of their allotments, and importantly, they are prepared to pay for the opportunity to establish their own green paradise. The challenge will be the traditional views of sites versus those that may herald change and a more holistic view of cultivation.

Increasing numbers of allotment sites have formed allotment associations. Part of the reason is to ensure that plot holders are represented on council-run sites. Some associations have gone further and adopted varying degrees of self-management, from simply being responsible for some site maintenance work, all the way through to being fully responsible for the entire site, including the setting of rents under leases. This change is in part due to local authorities not wanting to run sites, the move to outsource non-essential civic services and a general disinterest in the management local authorities of allotments.

Today allotments in many areas are melting pots of diversity in both ethnicity and demographics. There are often the only place where all mix socially with one common interest. This diversity and other changes are together pushing back the old perception that allotments were really day care centres for the old. The gentrification of allotments has quietly begun and although you will not see double glazed chalets where a tired old shed once attempted to stand, you are seeing money being spent and many trends being followed. The largest leek, biggest onion and straightest bean are slowly being replace by new exotic plants and raised beds.

The one thing that we have all learnt in 2020is that the future is going to be quite different. More people will work from home. Physical and mental wellbeing will be especially important, social interaction within communities will increase both physically and virtually, fresh will be important and allotment demand will only wane because it can’t be met. Today many sites have experience huge spikes in waiting list growth and even mainstream media is talking about cultivation and allotments.

What Next

Will allotments still remains as they have for many decades or will they change quite radically? Will the same laws that have lasted for nearly a century continue or will they finally be consolidated and will this herald in change? Will we see a split similar to that of the late 19th century were smallholdings went in a different direction and will community gardens prevail over single occupier allotments? The one thing that is certain is land is becoming scarcer and against this we are moving towards a gardenless or significant reduction in the number of private gardens in urban areas.