HC Deb 12 February 2004 vol 417 cc1657-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

5.47 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab)

There are several reasons why I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the issue of allotments in north-east Lincolnshire. First, a precedent is being set on allotment rents in Grimsby and Cleethorpes which could have profound ramifications for allotment holders throughout the country and for the allotment movement as a whole. Secondly, the Tory and Liberal North East Lincolnshire council has shabbily treated the 500 or so allotment holders in north-east Lincolnshire.

The story begins on Christmas eve, when a letter from the council was included among the cards falling on people's mats. The letter was dated 22 December, and it did not wish allotment holders a merry Christmas and best wishes for the new year. Indeed, it delivered the bombshell that allotment rents in Grimsby and Cleethorpes would increase by an exorbitant amount. The rents would increase on 1 January 2004 and again on 1 January 2005, and the overall increase for allotment plots would be 700 per cent. for a standard plot and 1,000 per cent. for concessionary plots, which are used by pensioners. The increase for this year alone was 150 per cent. Once allotment holders saw the letter, they started to contact me and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in the neighbouring constituency. They were worried about what was happening and wondered what they could do about it. I was visited by allotment holders from the Beacon Hill allotments in my constituency, which are close to my home.

I told the Beacon Hill allotment holders that I would check out other areas to see what was happening and I would check the law to see what could be done about the exorbitant rent increases. I also contacted the local council to ask how it came up with the increases and to say that my hon. Friend and I thought that they were unacceptable. I looked at allotment rents charged by North Lincolnshire council, which is the neighbouring authority. It is also controlled by the Conservatives, but they are not propped up by the Liberal Democrats as they are on the North East Lincolnshire council. Cleethorpes constituency is covered by both authorities, so I was interested to discover that allotment rents in North Lincolnshire were around £15 and any increases would be inflationary only.

As I investigated the matter, it appeared that large increases in allotment rents usually occurred only with the agreement of allotment holders and to provide new facilities on the site, such as a toilet block or washing facilities. If the 700 and 1,000 per cent. increases were to go ahead over the next two years, the allotments in Grimsby and Cleethorpes would be some of the most expensive in all England and Wales. They would become more expensive than those in affluent Wimbledon and Richmond upon Thames. It does not seem fair that allotment holders in an area of the country with a lot of deprivation will have to fork out—pardon the pun—more rent than those in the leafy south of England.

I checked the law, which states that an allotment must be let at a rent that a tenant may be reasonably expected to pay. That hangs on what is "reasonable" and I question whether the increase in Grimsby and Cleethorpes is lawful. There is case law on the issue, from November 1981. The case of Howard v. Reigate and Banstead Borough Council was heard at the High Court. A plot holder challenged the council's rent increase on the ground that the users of other leisure facilities in the area did not face similar increases. The judge ruled in favour of the allotment holder, saying that he should be subject to the same spending and cost assessments as other recreational amenities provided by the council.

The other leisure facilities—for example, football pitches, tennis courts, swimming pools and libraries—provided by North East Lincolnshire council do not face the same increases. The allotment holders have been singled out, and they have taken up the point with the council. They claim that the increases are not lawful and should not go ahead. However, no satisfactory response has been received.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab)

My hon. Friend says that it is standard procedure to consult allotment holders before increasing rents—to improve facilities—but the failure to consult in this case has been characteristic of North East Lincolnshire council and the financial panic that prevails on every other issue. The council has proposed closing the advice service without consultation. It has proposed closing the education centre at the child development unit without consultation. It has proposed closing Alice house, a centre for young mothers, without consultation. It has proposed to stop the contribution to schools that it provided last year, again without consultation. Failure to consult is par for the course for that panic-stricken council.

Shona McIsaac

Absolutely. We are talking about allotments in North East Lincolnshire tonight—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. Hopefully we are.

Shona McIsaac

What my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby said is indicative of the way in which the local authority has been behaving recently. Indeed, it appears that there has been little or no consultation with allotment holders. As somebody said—it could have been me, my hon. Friend or one of our constituents—there appears to be a cold heart at the centre of this uncaring council.

In the light of the case law, and of the way in which the council is behaving and the possible ramifications for the allotment movement in the UK as a whole, I would like the Government to consider tightening up the law on rents, setting the criteria for what could be considered reasonable, and establishing what allotment holders can expect to get for their money. Perhaps the law on appeals could also be tightened up. So far as I can see, at the moment, when people object to such rents there is no appeal process whatsoever. In effect, local councils that want to extort more money from allotment holders can simply do so without any come-back, excluding the voices of protest and the ultimate protest of the ballot box.

In terms of setting rents, the local circumstances of north-east Lincolnshire should be considered and the law should be tightened up. We do not enjoy the high wages that the south-east enjoys, and house prices are very low compared with other parts of the country. Many people—about a quarter of all workers—have part-time jobs. Cleethorpes has the third highest number of part-time workers in the UK, and Great Grimsby the eighth highest. So we are talking about people who do not have a great deal of money.

We should also remember that the area contains some of the most deprived wards in the country, which is why the reasonableness test should be considered. Nobody could say that this year's increase of 150 per cent.—it will be 700 per cent. next year, and then 1,000 per cent.—is reasonable, given the particular local circumstances.

The council implemented this rent increase by sending a letter dated 22 December. A letter that lands on people's doorsteps on Christmas eve or soon afterwards and says, "Your rent's going up on 1 January and you will have to start paying it on 13 January", is hardly an example of good practice or negotiation, or of coming to an agreement.

I wondered whether any of the councillors or officers had read the excellent Local Government Association report entitled "A New Future for Allotments". It says that allotments are a resource that provides a sustainable food supply and promotes healthy activity. They can be used for educational purposes and to foster community development and cohesiveness, and they provide access to nature and wildlife. And they are clearly very important as open spaces for local communities. Crucially, the report says that councils should promote allotments based on those criteria.

However, the rent increases have not promoted allotment holding in North East Lincolnshire; in fact, they have proved a complete disincentive. Indeed, people have already given up plots. Because of this year's 150 per cent. increase, one family whom I know of have given up four plots—plots that they have tended lovingly over the years. They are devastated at having to give them up.

The report is full of good practice and initiatives for the promotion of allotments, but I see none of that happening in north-east Lincolnshire.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Fitzpatrick]

Shona McIsaac

Lincolnshire is flat, but the Beacon Hill allotments in Cleethorpes are on a hill—admittedly, a small hill compared with those in other parts of the country. There is an observatory on the hill, and a bronze age burial mound. It is a beautiful part of Cleethorpes, but I have not observed the council doing anything to promote allotment holding in that wonderful part of the town. I am sure that people would take plots if the allotments were advertised as being "in the shadow of the observatory, with an ancient monument nearby", but I do not think many residents even know that they are there, because the council's performance in promoting them has been so poor.

I wonder whether the council looked at the report on allotments by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, or at the Government's response. It seems that all the good work by the Local Government Association, the Government, the Select Committee and the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners is being undermined in north-east Lincolnshire. If what is happening in that area is allowed to continue, there could be serious ramifications for the allotment movement in Britain as a whole. I have been told by the society that other councils are waiting to see whether this one can get away with it, and that if it does they may follow suit.

I am indebted to the society for the help and advice it has given me, enabling me in turn to help and advise constituents who are worried about the rent increase. I want to thank Geoff Stokes of the society in particular. He has been actively investigating what is happening in north-east Lincolnshire. According to the society, the original rent increase was unjustified, and the way in which the council went about the negotiations was all wrong.

There are many question marks over the short notice period. No one has been able to establish whether there is a rent revision clause in the tenancy agreement, but if there is not there should have been a 12-month notice period.

Following the uproar created by the allotment holders, the council is beginning to back off, which is good. We still have the 150 per cent. rent increase for this year, but it seems likely that next year's will be set aside, albeit with conditions attached. The council says that it will not proceed with the 700 per cent. increase and will limit the amount to 150 per cent. plus inflation in future if the allotment holders take over management of the site. That is good—partnership and self-management can work—but the allotment holders are being given two weeks to make what is, for them, a huge decision. That demonstrates a lack of negotiation, consultation and respect for the allotment movement. The allotment holders are being told, "Either accept huge rent increases or opt for self-management". There have not been months of negotiation to find out what is in the allotment holders' best interests.

The council has backed off from that very large rent increase, but what of the people who have already given up their plots because they could not afford this year's increase? There is no justice for them.

One independent councillor said in the local paper, the Grimsby Telegraph, that they are using bully boy tactics that they have used before". To show what the atmosphere is like, a Liberal Democrat portfolio holder, at a meeting in which we were trying to resolve matters amicably, turned round and called the allotment holders "self-indulgent", refusing to listen to their arguments. That is a recipe for disaster. A partnership should be just that: is it possible to have a partnership when councillors have that sort of attitude?

A question arises from the council taking over the maintenance. If it is to take over the maintenance, which the rent is meant to pay for, what is the justification for paying the council any rent at all? If plots are to be self-managed, the allotment holders and associations should be charging reasonable rents, negotiating with other plot holders and keeping the rent for maintenance. It makes no sense whatever.

I want to praise the work of the National Society, the Local Government Association's positive approach and the Government's positive approach towards the future of allotments, but what happened in North-East Lincolnshire has been a slap in the face for the allotment movement. Allotments are not just something to get money from. They are an integral part of our towns and cities. They are as valuable as open spaces and parks. They are part of the lungs of our urban areas, so they should be preserved.

I should like the Government to examine the legislation again. In view of what has happened in North-East Lincolnshire—where what the courts have established is being ignored—we need to toughen up the legislation to provide more protection for allotment holders from local authorities imposing extortionate increases on them.

In response to the Select Committee report, the Government said that they did not feel that there would be sufficient time to introduce legislation on the matter. I certainly appreciate that, but if it cannot be done in Government time, perhaps the Government might look favourably on a ten-minute Bill or a private Member's Bill in the future.

6.7 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab):

I congratulate my hon. Friend on so ably taking up the cause of allotment holders in north-east Lincolnshire. It is typical of the energetic and devoted service that she provides to her constituents. The matter is important because of how people are being treated.

I want to make just a brief contribution to the debate, partly because it is pleasant to be talking about nonpolitical plots and partly because it is pleasant to be in dialogue with the Minister instead of slugging it out with him in the correspondence columns of the Grimsby Telegraph. It is a real pleasure and it is good to see him in his place. Another reason for my contribution is that I am, and always have been, a strong supporter of the allotment movement. I was about to say, "ever since it began in the late 19th century", but I was not a Member then, though sometimes it seems like I was.

The allotment movement began as an aspect of municipal socialism. It was about giving the working class an opportunity to garden, dig and delve, and to grow their own crops and flowers in an urban environment. It was meant for working people. In a sense, it was an aspect of the "three acres and a cow" movement, though cows were not permitted on allotments and the allotments were not really three acres. Nevertheless, it was an important advance for the working class at the time, and it has been important to sustain it since.

It is fair to say that numbers of plot holders are falling nationally and in north-east Lincolnshire. In recent years they have halved, but there are some signs that that is turning round. Perhaps harder times are turning the numbers round, or it may be unemployment. However, there are signs that younger people are getting involved in the allotment movement, which is to he welcomed and encouraged.

I deplore the council's sudden announcement just before Christmas that allotment holders would face a rise of 150 per cent. in rents in the new year, and that that would be followed by a rise of 700 per cent. in the following year. It is unpardonable to proceed by diktat in that way. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) wrote directly to the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners. Its general secretary, Geoff Stokes, looked at the problem and said that rents would average £70 as a result. That is three times the national average, and one of the highest levels in the country.

The rent rise was imposed on allotment holders out of the blue in a take-it-or-leave-it way. As I said in my intervention, the financial panic inflicted by the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition that runs North East Lincolnshire council is par for the course. I do not think that the council has had a fair deal from the Government in financial terms, but there was no need for that panic. Government grants have been increased by £5.7 million, and there is also a substantial grant for open spaces. Even so, the council has panicked and embarked on a series of cuts without consultation. The rent rise is just one example of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes and I advised allotment holders to exert pressure on local councillors and to write and petition on the issue. The council has begun to resile from its original commitment, but it has not gone far enough. The suggestion now is that plot holders should take on the expense of maintaining and running the allotments. Self-management is a good thing and should be encouraged, but not if it is a way of foisting massive costs onto people. For example, the allotments at Macaulay lane have very poor facilities, and those at Westward Ho are subject to flooding. People will get a bad deal, so asking them to pay increased rents is not fair.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether the Government could give some national definition of what would constitute reasonable rent increases, and how they should be arrived at. The rises being levied in north-east Lincolnshire go far beyond inflation as defined by the retail prices index. I hope that the Minister will also say how such rises should be approached in future.

6.13 pm
The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona, McIsaac) on securing the debate and on using it to raise the issue of allotments, which the Government are eager to address. My hon. Friend has highlighted the considerable concern among her constituents about rises in the costs of allotment rents in north-east Lincolnshire. Those concerns were shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who also expressed unease about the lack of consultation.

I am informed that the council has identified an increase in allotment rent as one of the ways that it can increase revenue income in order to set a budget for the next financial year. Although the question of allotment rents is for the relevant allotment authority to determine, that authority is required to take into account the cost of managing the site, local needs, any special circumstances and the requirements of the Allotments Act 1950. In most cases, rent will be the only income from an allotment site, but the expenses incurred include everything from site maintenance and repairs to administrative costs and promotion.

Currently, of the 535 allotment tenants in Grimsby, 60 per cent. are charged at a reduced concessionary rate. North East Lincolnshire council currently has a maintenance bill of more than £76,000 for its allotments, and revenue of less than £6,000 from allotment rents. The council evidently feels that that is unsustainable, and has therefore taken the decision to increase the rent on allotments.

It is my understanding that the council is meeting allotment holders and intends to work with all parties to resolve problems arising from the changes in allotment rent. I hope that the council and the allotment holders can come to an amicable solution.

I note the observations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes on the Reigate and Banstead judgment, but she will understand that I am not in a position to comment on its application in this case. On the wider issues that she raised, I am glad to say that the Government announced, in "Living Spaces: Cleaner, Safer, Greener", plans to commission a full update of the English allotments survey, which will take place this year. The Government recognise that allotments are valuable green spaces that can help to improve people's quality of life by promoting healthy food, exercise and community interaction. The Government's objective is to ensure that allotments are properly preserved, promoted and cared for throughout the country.

It is well recognised that allotments can have positive effects on people's physical and mental health. They have many potential benefits for local communities in relation to increasing physical activity, mental health promotion, community networking and cohesion, and educating young people about growing food. Initiatives such as the Department for Education and Skills project, Growing Schools, encourage schools to use the outdoors for education. Allotments allow all sections of the community to produce locally grown fresh fruit and vegetables, often without the use of harmful pesticides— [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] I am delighted to hear support for those excellent objectives of Government policy.

Good-quality local green spaces, including community gardens, city farms and allotments can and do improve the well-being of life in local communities. They provide an inexpensive form of exercise and can prove vital in communities where not everyone has their own garden and people are less likely to be able to afford supermarket prices for fruit and vegetables.

We want to encourage the provision and uptake of allotments. Initiatives such as the Asian Healthy Community Network in Kirklees, which has raised food and health issues in a community with a high incidence of heart disease, are to be commended. The network runs a healthy Asian cooking demonstration with allotment produce, and organises a festival at which people are encouraged to take up allotments.

The Government's urban White Paper recognised that allotments, along with other public green spaces, improve the attractiveness of urban areas and help to promote a healthier lifestyle. They, and other spaces such as agricultural and horticultural businesses, bring benefits for wildlife and the environment, act as an important educational tool and can relieve pressure on the countryside. Allotments are thus vital to enhancing the quality of urban environments and of our lives.

At the beginning of this month, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), announced the award of the liveability fund for three successful authorities in the Yorkshire and Humber region, which included North East Lincolnshire. The funding, a total of about £10 million for the whole region, is to be used to improve public spaces within local communities according to local need. That is an example of real practical help from the Government, directed straight to the heart of the community, providing practical help to local people. Allotments are an existing resource which should be nurtured for the benefit of the community and the environment.

I am delighted to say that there has been some growth in the uptake of allotments nationally—I concur, as is usually the case, with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby. Allotments are now being used by a wider range of the population than ever before. The good news is that, in 1998, about 35 per cent. of plot holders were under the age of 50. The proportion of women plot holders has also risen dramatically. With the recent trend for gardening on the increase, that popularity is set to continue.

Greater protection has been given to allotments from development for other purposes under the new planning policy guidance 17 note, "Planning for open space, sport and recreation". That is necessary, given—I regret to say—that the number of allotment plots declined during the Conservative Administration from about 480,000 in 1979 to fewer than 300,000 in 1996.

The guidance expects local authorities to protect facilities that are of value to local communities. The PPG makes it clear that new housing development should not be at the expense of losing recreational open space. The guidance also states that local planning authorities should have clear policies for the protection and creation of open spaces and that new housing developments should incorporate open space. Local authorities are expected to undertake assessments of need for the whole range of recreational facilities in their areas, so that they can both protect existing facilities and plan new ones where they are needed.

In conclusion, I acknowledge that there are issues to be addressed about the cost of allotments and the pressures on them from other forms of land use, and I recognise that allotment holders in Grimsby are seriously concerned about rent rises. I entirely agree with my hon. Friends about the importance of allotments and their invaluable role in local communities. The fact is that allotments remain a valued part of our communities and continue to provide pleasure to many. The Government wish to sustain them and, where possible, encourage the expansion of their use.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Six o'clock.