HC Deb 05 May 1972 vol 836 cc868-76

4.8 p.m.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

The allotment movement has a long and useful history. I hope that nothing I say this afternoon will be thought in any way to criticise something which has played a major part in our national life, particularly during the two World Wars, when about 1¼ million allotments were in use, and when the part they played in the war effort was very considerable.

However, times change, and now we are faced with two matters that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development, whom I am very glad to see on the Front Bench, to consider.

First, in October, 1969, under the previous Government, there was published the report of the Committee under the chairmanship of Professor Thorpe, which dealt in great detail with, and made a large number of recommendations on, the whole question of allotments.

The second is the situation which those of us who represent urban constituencies, particularly in the South-East, know well. It is the real and tragic shortage of building, land. I appreciate that my proposal would be by no means the whole or even a substantial answer to the problem, but I draw attention to the Answer given on 14th April in which I was told: The acreage of allotment land in county boroughs, boroughs and urban districts in England and Wales on 30th September, 1971, was about 35,000 acres."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT, 14th April, 1972; Vol. 834, c. 241.] This is an untapped source of potential building land for development which could be of great significance, particularly bearing in mind the number of young people who are looking for homes in our major urban areas.

So that there is no misunderstanding and I do not bring down on my head the sort of criticism that would undoubtedly come from keen allotment holders, let me say immediately that I accept entirely the admirable summary submitted by an allotment association of Birmingham which appeared on page 151 of Professor Thorpe's report. Asked to summarise the advantages of the allotment system, the association said: 'We asked our members why they found the cultivation of an allotment attractive. Here are some of the replies—relaxation; fresh air; a change from work, and from wife and children; the fascinating challenge of attempting something about which one knows little; getting away from bricks and mortar; the pleasure of striving for something worthwhile; exercise, pride of achievement; fulfilment in a life that would otherwise lack something; the pleasure of discussing among friends matters of mutual interest. When this list was read back to members, someone remarked that it sounded like a prescription for mental health.' I appreciate those advantages and I would not ask the Minister to diminute them. On the other hand, with changing times and tastes, the individual's need for an allotment as an economic necessity has become very different with so many fresh canned and frozen fruits and vegetables being imported from abroad in addition to those available in this country in easily packaged form. There is also the fact that, from the recreational point of view, the allotment is inevitably in competition in a more affluent society with, for example, television and motor cars.

If one considers our urban centres and looks at the position of allotments, one sees large areas of good potential building land which could be rationalised but which are being allowed to go to waste. The present keen allotment holder suffer the disadvantage of many other allotments not being properly cultivated. This means that although he puts a lot of hard work into his own allotment, he has around him patches left uncared for and unsightly.

This is why I ask the Minister to encourage local authorities to look carefully at this potential pool of land for development. In this connection, I ask the House to consider the Answer given on 28th July, 1971, to my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan): We have concluded that the extent of allotment gardens for which provisions should be made should, in the future, be for local authorities, including parish authorities, to decide in the light of local needs. The detailed Ministerial controls over allotment authorities, which were introduced nearly 50 years ago, are not consonant with our policy of leaving local affairs to be decided by local authorities. We intend in due course to introduce legislation to remove these controls."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th July, 1971; Vol. 822, c. 563.] Therefore, the second question I ask my hon. Friend to look at is whether the long and complicated legislation for statutory could he thoroughly revised in the light of modern needs.

The major recommendation which fell from Professor Thorpe and his colleagues was for effective leisure gardens. I hope that encouragement will be given to local authorities to consider what was involved in the report from that point of view and that the Government will feel that the saving of land nationally in urban areas could more than be made up for by advantages which could come from those who really want to use the ground they have. The improvements with regard to plots could be very substantial if rationalisation could be brought about—first, by the rationalisation of the law itself, and, secondly, by slotting the whole position of allotments effectively into the law. On page 77, the Thorpe Report said: We have been struck throughout our investigations by the tenuous nature of the relationship between allotments and town planning, and this applies particularly to the acquisition of statutory sites for alternative development. That is even more true of the position with regard to disposal and alienation of allotment land under Section 1 of the Land Settlement (Facilities) Act, 1919, and Section 18 of the 1925 Act.

Thirdly, a major campaign should be brought forward to encourage local authorities to say to those who are in possession of statutory allotments that there is real opportunity, if co-operation could be secured between allotment holders, both nationally and locally, the central Government and the local authorities, to get the most out of the land available and to release unsightly and potentially developable land, particularly when this is close to city or borough centres, for the use which the Department of the Environment is mole seriously concerned with at this stage.

As the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) is anxious to add to the debate, I will take no further time.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. John Mackie (Enfield, East)

I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) for giving me a few moments in the debate. I join him in welcoming the Minister of State's attendance at what may appear to be a debate on a minor issue, but which could be of considerable importance in view of the very short supply of building land.

I need to declare my interest. I sub-let to the Borough of Enfield two acres for allotments. Also, being a Member of Parliament for Enfield, I have noted with interest that the local planning committee has investigated its allotments system and proposes to remove nearly one-quarter of the allotments and to coordinate them in order to give more land for housing, playing fields and so on. My third interest is that I was at the Ministry of Agriculture when the Thorpe report was published and I had a lot to do with it.

I want to say something about the sensitivity of the issue. Gardeners, as we all know, are very proud people and put a lot of work into these plots. But the photographs in the Thorpe Report show one particular acreage where only about 50 per cent. of the allotments are being used.

I took the opportunity on my way up to town today to look at two groups of allotments in Enfield. I would say that certainly not more than 50 per cent. are being used, and they are scattered all over the area with the result that huge tracts of land are not in use. The need for building land, particularly in the London area and especially in my borough, is great and we must see that the law is changed. I hope that the Minister will look sympathetically at the plea to be put forward by the borough of Enfield. At present the only compensation that an allotment holder can get arises if he is turned out without receiving a year's notice. This happens infrequently. It is not enough that there should be only this provision.

As a farmer if I were given notice to quit I am given compensation for unexhausted fertility. We have only to think of the amount of work that goes into many of these allotments to appreciate that there must be proper compensation. In some parts of the world, when people are moved from areas of highly fertile, cultivated land, the topsoil is moved to a new area. It would greatly ease the situation if proper compensation were paid.

It is said in the Thorpe Report that an allotment must be within a reasonable distance of a man's home and that reasonable distance is said to be a quarter to half a mile. This is not easy in densely populated boroughs and I do not know how that figure was arrived at. It seems that in the age of the motor car and motor cycle this limit could be extended and plots made available outside boroughs, in the green belt. I emphasise the sensitive nature of the task of taking over allotment land, but at the same time I have to emphasise the necessity for doing so. The Minister and his colleagues are looking for land everywhere and there is land to be got here. I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at this question of compensation for allotment holders who have been working on their allotment for so many years and who are so proud of what they have done.

4.24 p.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money) and to the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Mackie) for raising this subject of allotments. In particular I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich for the phrase he used in saying that there was an untapped source of building land for development in some of the allotment lands. I assure him that there are encouraging signs that the various measures being taken to make land available for housing are already producing results.

The Government have provided the machinery for discussion on an informal basis between local authorities, landowners, developers and builders. Additional measures taken include £80 million for loan sanction to help local authorities assemble land for early private development and support for local authorities in the powers which they have for acquiring land and expansion of some of the older new towns.

In all these matters I am concerned with striking a proper balance in planning for the needs of the community, and in this I think that a place should continue to be found for allotment gardens. Allotments will continue to be an important feature of our national life. In wartime we were anxious to encourage the use of any suitable land for allotments to supplement our food supplies. and we had cause to be grateful to those who responded to the call to "Dig for Victory ". At the end of the war there could well have been about one hundred acres of urban land in use as allotments in England and Wales.

As conditions improved and restrictions were eased, and as we found other ways of using our leisure time, the demand for allotments fell away and, as my hon. Friend said, we calculate that in urban areas of England and Wales there are about 35,000 acres of allotments. But while there has been this decline in the extent of allotment gardening it still remains a cherished pastime for a significant number of people, and we must also remember that the pattern of some of our urban development does not provide opportunities for gardening except by this means of allotment gardening.

We should recognise, therefore, that there is a place for allotments in the urban scene in the same way as there is a place for other recreational activities such as tennis and swimming. My hon. Friend has emphasised the importance of local authorities finding land for housing, but we must not contemplate building on, say, tennis courts of bowling greens. Our concern to find housing land should not be at the expense of those facilities and activities which form an important feature of urban life and without which the quality of urban life would suffer. Plans for the development of urban area must, therefore, make provision for the needs of those who wish to engage in allotment gardening.

That is not to say that there is not a need for an improvement in the appearance of allotments and allotment sites and for a regrouping of plots where this would allow unused land to be put to some other purpose. Indeed, we encourage local authorities to do this. Too often, we see a sorry picture of allotments with their ramshackle sheds, broken-down fences and numbers of uncultivated plots. At this time particularly, when the pressures on land for development are so great, we cannot afford to misuse our land in this way. I think perhaps that some relief of the quarter-mile-from-the home rule which the hon. Member for Enfield, East has mentioned might solve many of the problems of local authorities who wish to regroup allotments in the right place.

Last July I made a statement to the House on the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Allotments under the chairmanship of Professor Thorpe. I said that local authorities could do much to tidy up existing sites, and I welcomed the concept of giving allotment gardens a new look, as Professor Thorpe had put in his report. We are indebted to that committee for the thorough investigation which it made into allotments and we appreciated the objective approach which the committee brought to bear on its task.

The committee was concerned to remove the present drab image of allotments, with their emphasis on food production, and to provide in their place attractive, landscaped sites with trees and shrubs. The plots to have flowers and small lawns, as well as a place for vegetables and possibly, perhaps, a garden chalet. In all, what Professor Thorpe and his committee were recommending was that allotment gardens should provide enjoyment for the family. We are pleased that a number of local authorities are already promoting or contemplating new style leisure gardens of this sort where the emphasis will be on recreation and general family enjoyment rather than on food production, and I hope that more authorities will follow that example.

I also explained in my statement last July that in the Government's view the statutory controls over local authorities in relation to allotment land, which, as my hon. Friend said, were introduced more than 50 years ago, were not appropriate at the present time.

As has been shown in the progress of the Local Government Bill through the House, we believe that local affairs should be decided by local people and the provision which should be made for allotments is essentially a local matter. I was shocked to find how many times local authorities have to come to the Secretary of State for permission to do this or that in connection with allotments. Instead of the present statutory obligation on local authorities to meet the demand for allotments, local authorities should be able to exercise their discretion in deciding the extent of land which should be provided for allotments in the light of local needs in the same way as they do, after all, on many occasions in connection with recreational facilities and open space. Similarly I do not think it necessary to retain the system under which the provision of statutory allotment land for other purposes needs the consent of the Secretary of State.

For these reasons I propose that there should in due course be legislation to remove these statutory controls, and I am sure that this will help local authorities in regrouping their allotments to provide the sort of leisure gardens which the Thorpe Committee recommended and to make allotment gardening a much better recreation for urban life than it is at present. I am confident that local authorities can be relied on to respond in this way in looking after the interests of allotment holders in their areas.

I will certainly look into the point raised by the hon. Member for Enfield, East on compensation because, of course, if we are coming to a campaign and I think it could be no less than that—to improve allotments, regrouping them and so on, then we must, if I may say so, use a sweetener to provide compensation to see that we do not cause any hardship at the expense of allotment holders. On the question of statutory control, it does not prevent local authorities from making or implementing plans to put disused allotments to beneficial use right away where necessary to make those alternative provisions.

Of course I cannot hold out any date on which legislation to remove controls may become effective or may be introduced into the House, but in the meantime local authorities can act to improve the position. Where there are sites with numbers of vacant plots, local authorities can consider regrouping the plots on the site or reaccommodating the plot holders to vacant plots elsewhere to avoid land remaining in disuse. Proposals of this kind should be discussed with representatives of the local allotment movement so that they understand what is proposed and so the difficulties can be discussed.

The need for Ministerial consent for the appropriation of allotment land need not be a stumbling block if local authorities make a real effort to devise alternative arrangements for the allotment holders who would be affected. I want to remove that consent in due course, but let us in the meantime help local authorities to improve the position in regard to the allotments problem. In doing this we shall be able to release some of the land, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich wishes, for building purposes and development purposes.

In the past three years consent has been given to the release of about 2,000 acres of statutory allotment land, about 30 per cent. of it for house building. We have already made some progress. This provides land for a fair number of houses. We encourage local authorities to discuss with my Department at an informal stage any proposals they may have involving statutory allotments. At the end of last year we reminded the housing authorities in London of the procedures involved.

For the reasons I have explained, it would not be right to consider all urban allotment land as uncommitted land which is ripe for development, but we expect local authorities to ensure that there is no waste of resources with unused allotment sites. This is a part of the wider responsibility of local authorities in planning for sufficient land to be available for house building and other necessary developments. If we can strike the balance between releasing unused and unsightly allotment gardens for housing purposes and improving those which will add to the enjoyment of urban life, I am sure we shall achieve something.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich and the hon. Member for Enfield, East for giving me an opportunity to put these points on record. I hope that local authorities and allotment holders will realise that if they will get together and discuss this matter we in the Department will do all we can to do exactly what we have been asked to do.

Question put agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes to Five o'clock