HL Deb 17 March 1976 vol 369 cc226-63

3.8 p.m.

Lord WALLACE of COSLANY rose to call attention to the need for encouraging home production of vegetables and fruit by greater provision of allotment plots and similar facilities including the restoration of waste land; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is said, with truth, that when one rises to speak in this Chamber there will always be at least one expert present during the debate. I do not pretend to be an expert, but I freely confess to being a great enthusiast, always willing to learn. As a former allotment holder, I have received plenty of advice from the old hands on the allotment sites. There is plenty of friendly rivalry from old hands and others, as well as good fellowship on allotment sites. I would also add that, of course, I am still busy in my own garden, doing my best to produce the vegetables and fruit needed for the family and many friends.

In rising to speak in this debate, it has given me great pleasure to find that two maiden speakers are included in a short list of speakers. This is most satisfactory to me, and we all look forward very much to the contributions of the noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, and the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge. The purpose of the debate is to draw attention to the urgent need for home food production, not only on economic grounds but more important still, on a social and recreational basis. This latter aspect has been overlooked for far too long. For too long a period the provision of allotments has been the Cinderella of local authority services.

I am sorry to say that in many areas allotments are regarded as more of a nuisance than a civic amenity. I well remember many years ago entering a council for the first time. The idea was to put all the young councillors on what they termed the cabbage and greens committee to pick up the work of the council. It was a committee which had no vote. One always tried to put forward to the treasurer and the council claims for water supplies and allotments, but invariably it was a long and hard battle to provide such essential commodities. Unfortunately, even today this attitude of mind continues, yet the value of allotment plots to the nation cannot be ignored, especially in these days of expensive imports of fresh vegetables.

It is estimated that an average plot of 10 rods can yield produce valued at between £50 to £75 per annum, and nationally can provide a production figure of at least £20 million to £37 million, based on the number of plots at present in use. Those are figures which I and others conclude is the average figure, but the Royal Horticultural Society say the figure is very much higher. Whatever the figures are, they are considerable and a vital contribution to the national economy.

Today there is considerable public interest in growing one's own vegetables to help out the family budget. It is significant that the growing army of vegetable growers includes a large proportion of women, who in my own local horticultural society are beginning to take a large proportion of prizes at the annual shows. This is all to the good. In many cases today we find husbands and wives working together on allotment sites and gardens in order to produce food, from which they derive a great deal of satisfaction. Despite the growing interest—and it is obvious that there is a tremendous interest today—many thousands of people are frustrated entries on council waiting lists for allotments. In my own London Borough of 13exley there is a waiting list of over 600. Indeed, a few years ago in Bexley they grassed over a number of plots, destroying in the process one old chap's beautiful fruit trees. They grassed over these plots at great expense and now they are busy restoring them because of the tremendous demand, yet they still have a waiting list of over 600 people. In the nearby London Borough of Bromley, a borough with a very good record for the provision of allotments, the waiting list is well over 400. In fact, all over the country, mainly in large centres of population, the picture is the same. I believe that the total national waiting list is rapidly approaching 60,000.

Why is there this growing demand? The first reason is an economic one: the family budget. There is no doubt that the high price of vegetables and the comparative cheapness of a packet of seeds means that, provided the land is available there is an incentive to help out the family budget. A few spring cabbages can yield to the family budget a considerable return, as my wife knows only too well because we are using them at the moment. They cost us a matter of a few pence. One ignores the labour involved because of the recreation and the satisfaction. There is no doubt that for economic reasons there is a demand for allotments.

Another reason is the media. For a change, one can praise the media, particularly television. I am certain that programmes on television, especially on BBC television—for instance, "Gardeners' World", which is a "must" for most gardeners, "Pebble Mill Plot" and even my favourite children's programme "Blue Peter Garden"; and ITV's "Kitchen Garden"—many of them in colour, are programmes which have brought home visually to people the attractiveness and cheapness of growing one's own food. The media, whether or not they intended it, have helped to create a demand. Although it does not have the same impact as television, because one cannot see the lovely green lettuces and other beautiful vegetables and fruit, radio also provides an incentive. There is no doubt that radio has given to the public a taste of the cheapness and freshness of home-grown produce. Therefore, I claim that the social impact of these programmes has been very significant.

I come now to the third point, which is the most vital and important of them all. Apart from the obvious examples of tower blocks and maisonettes, the building policy of recent years has led to houses being built by both public and private enterprise with the absolute minimum of garden space. Usually gardens are about the size of a pocket handkerchief. This is a vital and substantial factor. People earnestly wish to get out into their gardens and grow something. I well remember paying a visit to some lovely maisonettes in the City of Norwich when I was the Member of Parliament for that City. They were beautiful maisonettes with every possible amenity, but one old boy said to me, "Well, my boy, I suppose I should be grateful but I would love a little bit of land to grow something on."

Much to my astonishment there has been a degree of publicity over this debate, especially in the Daily Telegraph. This morning I received a letter which came from Uckfield in Sussex. I think it is signed by a Mrs. Steel; it looks to me like a lady's handwriting. It says: Dear Lord Wallace, I have read in Peterborough's column in the Daily Telegraph that you are speaking on Wednesday about greater provision of allotments. I enclose a relevant cutting from our local paper. Usually council houses have gardens "— that is not necessarily so today— but Uplands and Lealands are blocks of unfurnished flats provided by the council for retired people. Tenants who want to garden are dependent on the provision of allotments which, as you will read, are being taken from them this year.

I turn to the Sussex Express in order to quote an example of what is taking place. It appears that the local authority wishes to have this allotment land on which to build houses. I assume that they will be houses with very small gardens or no gardens at all, which will increase the demand for more allotments. And, of course, there is also the problem of the displaced elderly people to deal with. I understand that one person is approaching his local Member of Parliament. Certainly the letter and the Press cutting will go to the Minister with my blessing after the debate. There are many quotations here of what the old people feel about it. Many of them are absolutely heartbroken. A Mr. Ferris says this: Gardening helps to keep a man fit and mentally alert after retirement. The biggest killer for the over 65s is the armchair and the television. I have always treasured my little plot'. There is a photograph of an enthusiastic couple digging their allotment and enjoying themselves, happy in their retirement. Yet, for the sake of building more houses with inadequate gardens, this land is to be taken away from them. And the Council say that they will try to accommodate the pensioners as vacant plots become available. But many of them will be dead of a broken heart, or something else, long before the provision is made.

This may not seem much to your Lordships, but I would ask you to put yourselves in the place of these old people. They have found something to give them satisfaction and to help their meagre incomes. They are happy; they are healthy; they have something to do, and an interest in life. Take it away and provide modern housing for some elderly people and you are creating more misery and unhappiness, instead of giving these old people what they really want—something to do. A piece of garden is the finest therapy for elderly people—I must confess I am somewhat elderly myself; I have suddenly realised that.

This later point has created a social need, which will continue to grow unless action is taken to meet it. Only recently it has been realised that gardening is a valuable form of recreation. This has now been accepted officially but, so far, no grants have been made as are made to other forms of recreation and sport. Why not? There is no reason at all why this recreation, most valuable to the nation and to the individual, should not receive a greater amount of financial support.

Yet, at this time of growing demand—I have quoted one example already which was sent to me today—some local authorities are seeking powers to set aside covenants covering allotment land. As a case in point, I quote the Southgate Chase site in the Borough of Enfield although in that borough there is a waiting list. There are active and vigilant organsations these days, and the London Association of Recreational Gardeners are actively opposing this and other eases which arise. It is taking up a great deal of their time. Local authorities are not doing their job in this connection. I say most emphatically to the Government and to the House that, at this time of clearly indicated need, no local authority should be allowed to dispose of allotment land where a waiting list exists. The Government should take immediate action to request local authorities to carry out a survey of land suitable for allotment provision and to indicate what steps are being taken to meet the need expressed in lengthening waiting lists. This review should include all waste and unused land, because there is plenty of such land that could be used.

Throughout the country there are large areas of unused waste land. Any of us can travel to any London railway terminus and before we reach the centre of London along the sides of the track we can see many areas of derelict land, unused marshes, clay and gravel pits and, unfortunately, far too many industrial dumps. Land is precious; we cannot afford to waste it. We are, therefore, entitled to ask what steps the Government are taking to set up co-ordinated schemes of land reclamation. Our Continental neighbours, particularly the Dutch, can set us a very good example. Why, therefore, should Britain lag behind in this important field?

Returning to the subject of allotments, there is an obvious need to make these sites more socially attractive. There is no need for sites to be haphazard eyesores, with tin huts, wastebins, bonfires and heaven knows what else to clutter the landscape! Where this state of affairs exists it is the fault of the local authority and not of the plot-holder, who often has to cope under great difficulties, lacking such essentials as water and a basic toilet. A new approach is, therefore, needed on the lines advocated by experts like Professor Harry Thorpe and others. Turn allotments into attractive leisure gardens with a water supply, toilets and a social centre, with surrounding flower beds maintained by the plot-holders and many other amenities, and so provide a centre for elderly people to get together.

Having been an allotment holder, I know one often saw the little wooden seats made by pensioners, who, after they had done their bit of digging, and sometimes accompanied by their old dog, used to have their lunch there in peace and happiness—but under primitive conditions and often without a toilet. Not much imagination is needed to improve this state of affairs. Why should it not be done? In fact, some authorities have already started—there are always good examples. For instance, Coventry and Sheffield have pioneered such schemes and Professor Harry Thorpe can provide plenty of examples and plans. This is creating a civic amenity. I would go further and say that all future planning development should include such facilities. Failure in the past is part of the reason for the increasing waiting lists for plots today.

Another interesting thing has happened in connection with growing food. Just over a year ago, the Friends of the Earth launched a campaign to turn derelict land into allotments. They have now come forward with a scheme for garden sharing which they term "Crop and Share". There are many people and institutions with under-used gardens, and particularly gardens owned by elderly people. I know, and some of my former House of Commons colleagues will know, that we have often had elderly people come to us asking for help in obtaining a housing transfer. In such cases when one asks the reason it is frequently because they have a large garden which they cannot cope with; old people are very proud and are conscious that it is becoming an eyesore, and is full of weeds, and they want to transfer to somewhere with a small garden or none at all. Yet, under the scheme put forward by the Friends of the Earth, this problem could be overcome. I know there would be difficulties, but the old people who live in the house could share the produce in return for allowing the other person to cultivate the ground. I strongly commend this idea; but, on the other hand, it is, of course, no substitute for the provision of allotments. Local authorities could usefully run this scheme. I am fully aware that there are obvious difficulties; but, even so, it is well worth while, and with good will it could prove valuable in providing benefit for both parties involved.

I am now reaching my conclusion. There is, indeed, an old song that some of your Lordships may know: One is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth".

Certainly as a recreation it can bring peace of mind. I know that, and hundreds of other people know it, and, what is more, it can provide a wonderful, satisfying sense of achievement in creating life from the earth.

I want to make taste buds water in this House. Just imagine, having worked on a summer evening on the allotment plot or in your hack garden, you are tired out, and you cut yourself a beautiful fresh lettuce, pull a handful of spring onions; you have some nice crusty bread and cheese and, perhaps, a pint of cider. My Lords, it beats all the caviar you can buy at expensive prices, and I think I have made a few mouths water. I believe that a social change is taking place. I believe firmly there is in being a movement to return to simple values, such as the quiet cultivation of a piece of land. We hear much talk about increasing leisure and the problems of retirement. In this debate, we can provide a practical and positive answer. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness DUDLEY

My Lords, as this is my maiden speech, I trust your Lordships will be patient with me. I feel very deeply about waste of any sort, especially land, of which we are so short. Every square metre should be put to good use. Constantly, we see towns and cities encroaching upon the countryside as boundaries are extended, while within these same towns and cities are many acres of waste land which could be used. I am told that in Birmingham alone there are many thousands of acres which have been bought up by different authorities and which, owing to the squeeze and various other reasons, are just being left to go to waste. I am sure that Birmingham is not alone in this.

My Lords, in my own village there are two pieces of land amounting, possibly, to some 10 to 15 acres, which have been unused for the last 10 years or more. Some of this land is owned by the authority, and some of it is privately owned. Surely this land could have been put to good use during this time. As I came up in the train this morning, I saw large areas of land lying idle, much of which could be turned into allotments. In these days of high prices, more and more people are finding that growing their own vegetables is one small way in which they can save money. Apart from keeping the family in vegetables, many people find a new and wonderful interest in watching things grow. This can be a great help to those who do a very demanding job and need to relax and unwind after work, or, indeed, those people who are unemployed, or with similar worries. Thus, while helping themselves and their families, they may also help to make a piece of waste land a joy to behold instead of an eyesore.

My Lords, perhaps with larger pieces of land it would be possible for a number of people to get together and have an allotment, with an area in the middle for wives and children to picnic in when not helping with the garden. Or perhaps an orchard could he planted, with vegetables growing beneath the trees until the trees are ready to produce fruit. Another possible use for some of this land in large industrial areas, on a short-term basis if necessary, would be the provision of more adventure playgrounds. Children brought up in high-rise flats or in heavily populated areas cry out for some kind of escape and these playgrounds would seem to be the answer. Much of today's vandalism must be caused by children not having enough to do out of school hours, and this could so easily be prevented by providing somewhere for them to "let off steam" in their own way.

Finally, remembering that large oak trees grow from tiny acorns, would it not be possible to enable couples wishing to marry and with nowhere to live, to buy some of this land—on a mortgage if necessary—and to start building their own houses? They could begin by building a kitchen and living room downstairs, with a bedroom and bathroom above, with planning permission to build on later as they were able to afford it. Many men must have some knowledge of building and I am sure that local authorities would give all the advice and encouragement they could. My son-in-law, who is a schoolmaster, bought a small cottage when he married my daughter some years ago, and has now nearly finished an extension he has built with no professional help at all. This has doubled the size of their original cottage at less than half what it would have cost had a builder agreed to do the work. Surely land is one of our greatest inheritances, and we should make the most of it for ourselves and for our children.

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, we are indeed grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, for introducing this Motion this afternoon. It is particularly apposite in the climate of the serious need for the correct use of land, and the severe need, in present circumstances, to improve our food supply. I think the noble Lord will be particularly pleased that he has given the opportunity to noble Lords to speak for the first time. It gives me very great pleasure to speak immediately after my noble friend and neighbour Lady Dudley and to say what pleasure she has given your Lordships' House in making a speech upon this important subject this afternoon. She has touched on many matters which are very closely associated with the whole of this problem. They are not specifically related to the production of fruit and vegetables. The noble Baroness mentioned in her speech the question of adventure playgrounds, and I shall come on to this aspect a little later in my speech. When it comes to allotments, I believe she has touched on a very serious and important point, concerning involvement by the whole family, rather than by only one member of it. We shall look forward to hearing her on many other occasions.

Your Lordships must be awaiting the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, with great anticipation, but I am afraid your Lordships will have to listen to my own speech for a little time meanwhile. This is the first time we have been able to discuss the Departmental Committee of Inquiry into allotments. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, has already referred to the Report by the expert, Professor Harry Thorpe, commissioned by the Labour Government in 1966. That Report was produced in 1969, and is Command 4166. As this is such a particularly important Report on the whole subject, I should like to refer to it in some detail because it relates to the whole state of the law on allotments.

My Lords, your Lordships will be aware that allotments and smallholdings have a very long and honourable history. But concerning this Report and, indeed, for the purposes of my speech, I shall be referring only to the current legislation, the seven Acts passed by Parliament between 1908 and 1950. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Coslany, referred to the state of the law. The fact that the state of the law is preventing rather than encouraging allotments to be a valuable source of land is something that I think will be of special interest to your Lordships. The first and primary problem is the lack of a satisfactory definition of "allotment". In the seven Allotments Acts no general definition exists, but there are two which crop up. For the purpose of the record, I think they should be repeated. They are, first: Any parcel of land, whether attached to a cottage or not, of not more than two acres in extent, held by a tenant under a landlord and cultivated as a farm or garden, or partly as a garden and partly as a farm. The second definition is: Any parcel of land of not more than five acres in extent, cultivated or intended to be cultivated as a garden or farm, or partly as a garden and partly as a farm. My Lords lack of definition is an absolutely fundamental problem, but there are many others. Taken as a whole, there are three basic and major defects in the law: First, the anachronism of so much of it; secondly, it is over-complicated for the task it has to do; thirdly, in places it is ambiguous to the point of incomprehensibility. Those are not my words, but the words of Professor Harry Thorpe who studied this subject in great detail. It would be a particular advantage if we looked to see how the law operates.

The allotment authority has a difficult task. It must first refer to the Act of 1908 to learn about its obligations. Then it has to look at the Acts of 1922 and 1950 to discover the extent of their operation. Then it must turn back to the basic Act, the Act of 1908, to understand how it may acquire the land to fulfil those obligations, and then move forward to the Act of 1925 to find the rules relating to the disposal of such land. No wonder there is a problem in managing land in this particular field.

But that is not the whole story, because since 1969, and so very recently, we have had the advent of the Community Land Act. It would perhaps be trespassing on your Lordships' time to bring out a large number of examples; nevertheless I think that Professor Harry Thorpe said something which was of really outstanding importance on page 265, at paragraph 665: Far more serious, however, is the fact that the current law is largely irrelevant to the allotments situation today. "Today" of course was 1969. Add another seven years, and it is, of course, totally out of date.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred in considerable detail to the problems caused to local authorities, and he rightly castigated many of them for indifference. One of the strongest indictments in the whole Report occurs on page 96, when again the same body, the Select Committee, says this: The strongest indictment of the attitude of some local authorities came from the students working on our behalf". They give these quotations from their research: Allotments are treated in a very cavalier fashion". The local authority takes little interest in allotments". Administration is very haphazard". The local authority seems out of touch with allotment affairs". That is a really clear indictment of local authorities, and I think that the case is made.

But there are some notable exceptions and these must be mentioned. I think the authority which drew attention to itself, with an example of its own activity in this sphere, was Grimsby. It may he invidious to quote one local authority, but Grimsby certainly deserves it, because in this same Report, at page 108, table 28, we have the story of what Grimsby decided to do. They had a poor and badly-sited statutory allotment site. Fortunately, two industrial concerns said they would like to buy. Grimsby rightly chose the opportunity to obtain permission from the Ministry. They obtained permission, sold the site for a sum of money which enabled them to purchase a much better alternative site, which they equipped with all the necessary water supply, fencing, roads, greenhouses and so on. That was all done without the need to obtain a loan or incur a deficit. That is an example of a local authority taking a bold decision; it makes use of its existing site. It may, admittedly, uproot a number of existing tenants, but surely their long-term benefits are safeguarded if they are admitted to a new and properly equipped site.

I think waiting lists are the meat of our discussions. Particularly significant is the rapidity with which the waiting lists have grown. If one looks at the situation in London alone, the best information I have is that in 1972 there were over 2,000 people registered as wanting allotments. There may have been a vast number in addition who had not actually registered but probably intended to do so should other applicants have been successful. By 1974 the 2,000 had grown to 9,000. Taking the country as a whole, we are assured that in 1973 no fewer than 27,000 applications had been listed, and by 1974 the number had risen to 57,000—more than a 100 per cent. increase in that time. So we have a spiralling demand for allotments. A substantial number of people are seeking land on which they can grow crops, land upon which they may be able to cultivate bees, to care for and look after pigeons or rabbits.

I will digress at this point to refer to one Act, the Allotments Act 1950, in which the restriction on keeping hens and rabbits was set aside. This restriction was abolished with a deliberate intention, which subsequent years may have proved to be a mistake. It is now felt that it would be very much better to segregate the holdings where there are livestock other than bees, and in such a way that they are grouped together and do not interfere with each other.

My Lords, I should like to pass on to the question of the Community Land Act in this whole context, because I feel the Government have compounded the difficulties of local authorities. The White Paper Land which, we know all too well, was published on the 12th September 1974, was closely followed by the debate on the humble Address when my noble friend Lord Colville of Cuirass made the following remarks: Secondly, we shall have no hesitation at all in pointing out where there is room for a change of heart back to moderation, because for these extreme policies we have no time. We have time for the moderate; we have time for things that unite."—[Official Report, 31/10/74, col. 262.] It was unfortunate that the Government did not heed his wise advice. They pressed ahead with their highly controversial Community Land Bill, which has deeply complicated the issue. Is it any surprise that a number of local authorities look upon allotments as a form of land bank, a sort of strategic reserve of land which they can draw upon and use, with the permission of the Department of the Environment, should need be?

I return to the question of dereliction, a matter mentioned by both previous speakers. The question of dereliction in London deserves our attention, because there are thought to be no fewer than 20,000 acres of derelict land. A sum has been done. Even if only half of that land, 10,000 acres, were set aside and divided un into 10 yard by 30 yard plots—I am afraid I am not going to turn these into metres—this would yield a total of 160,000 extra allotments; and in a year, if productive, they would give over 100,000 tons of potatoes or 95,000 tons of cabbages—the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to his cabbages; no doubt they were Savoys—or 160,000 tons of carrots. Here is a valuable resource standing idle. Here is an opportunity for the GLC to make use of its land survey, which it conducted in 1972, and promote a valuable further addition to the food supply of this country.

I turn from the GLC to railway allotments. Nowhere, I think, has there been a more remarkable change in the last 25 years, because in 1950 British Rail owned 75,000 plots, whereas in 1975, last year, it owned only 15,000 plots. So what happened to the other 60,000 plots? Development took its toll—closure of lines; sale of a very substantial area of acres—but they have not been replaced. Today there is a total of 5,000 plots in London and I understand that there is a particularly active railway allotment group.

I come now to a number of points on which I hone to receive a reply from Her Majesty's Government (and of which I have given notice) because I think there is a real burden of responsibility which rests with the Government in implementing the recommendations of the Thorpe Report which their predecessor Labour Government of 1966 commissioned. This valuable Report has been sitting on the shelves and accumulating dust, and I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to tell us what she has in mind. Secondly, I wonder whether the noble Baroness and her Department recognise—I feel sure that they do—the substantial fund of good will and enthusiasm stemming from voluntary help anxious to bring derelict land held by local authorities into production. The Friends of the Earth scheme has been dealt with in some depth and I feel that it would be repetitious to go further. Nevertheless, the point is whether the Government have had discussions with the local authorities into the possibility of short-term lettings under licence, or other means, on a basis of the next two to five years, of land which could not conceivably be develoded during that period. Finally, do the Department intend to discuss the shortages of allotments and the long waiting lists with both the GLC and other local authorities, and what plans have they for bringing allotments forward because there is no question or doubt that the demand for allotments is growing day by day?

I turn to the question of rents and rates because here is an aspect of the allotment scene to which some attention should be given. Professor Thorpe suggested in his recommendations on page 223: Each tenant should be required to pay a fair rent, giving power to the Authority to allow a reduction of 50 per cent. in the rent of any tenant who in its opinion merits concesionary treatment. Here is an opportunity for local authorities to charge a realistic rent on the majority of their plots, but to make special concessions for the very large number of pensioners and others, such as the disabled, who most certainly deserve to be considered in the long waiting list. Professor Thorpe also recommended that no water rate should be levied, and no rates on the structures, be they pigeon crees or glasshouses, erected on those sites.

Finally, we come to a question of the legislative options. We have facing us, growling at us, the seven Acts on the Statute Book. The first option I suppose will be to leave them well alone and do nothing—a counsel of despair if ever there was one. The second option is to consolidate the operative parts into a single Act; thirdly, to consolidate and add amendments; fourthly, to add a new Act, making a total of eight Acts on the Statute Book in all. But the fifth, and, I think, the best recommendation of the Thorpe Committee, was to repeal the seven Acts in toto and to replace them with a single new Act. The sixth option they suggested would be to repeal the seven Acts and replace them with nothing. That sixth and final one they rejected out of hand because within the Statute Book's seven Acts at the moment there are valuable protections both for the statutory allotment holders and for the local authorities.

I think that we are well aware that rust and weeds among the legislation are such considerable factors that they may be preventing both Her Majesty's Government and local authorities from taking active steps. But if your Lordships have been persuaded by the few remarks that I have made this afternoon and, most significantly, have been encouraged by the views of the noble Lord. Lord Wallace of Coslany, on the role of allotments in the life of the population, and especially by what my noble friend Lady-Dudley said, I think your Lordships will feel that there is a burden upon Her Majesty's Government to do something.

3.56 p.m.


My Lords, I crave your indulgence during this, my first dig in your Lordships' House, and immediately declare my interest in this matter. I am the holder of an allotment, one of standard size, that is 10 rods or 300 square yards and, indeed, located not far from this House. Perhaps it would be helpful in concentrating the minds of noble Lords if I were to say that I measured this Chamber one evening last week—when I hope no one was watching—and I am able to report that, from the Bar to the Throne, it occupies about 500 square yards, making it equivalent to nearly two allotment plots of the commonest size.

In this important matter of the encouragement of provision of allotment plots we are in need of a policy for the allotment, or leisure garden as it is increasingly coming to be called. There is no lack of a policy document: we have it in the 1969 Report of the Departmental Committee of Inquiry into Allotments—as we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sandys—widely known as the Thorpe Report after its Chairman, Professor Thorpe. The Report is here in my hand, and Professor Thorpe is in the Gallery listening to our debate. There is some allotment legislation, as we have heard—the seven allotment Acts—but legislation is in this case not of its essence a policy. Perhaps the ultimate objective should be freedom from legislation, but for reasons I shall mention later I believe we need stricter legislation to enforce provision of allotment plots in the short term. The seven Allotment Acts comprising the present operative legislation, as we have heard, do not manage to give even a general definition of the word, "allotment"—at least not a statutory definition—the first having been enacted in 1908 and the last in 1950.

However, a fundamental change in attitude to the allotment is taking place and, if for no other reason, we need a policy backed by legislation to acknowledge and encourage this. The Allotment Acts, except perhaps that of 1950, were designed to provide and administer the allotment plot as an act of charity. This economic motive is not now of prime concern, although the present estimate of 450,000 allotments yielding produce to a retail value of up to about £100 each could contribute, as we have heard, some £45 million to our people and our economy; about £30 million might be a more realistic estimate of likely actual achievement.

Allotments are now in demand primarily for leisure and recreational requirements. Thorpe found 45.1 per cent. of holders placed one of the reasons "for physical recreation" and "for the love of gardening as a hobby" first as their reasons for having an allotment. They are certainly my own reasons. This conclusion of the Committee was based on a survey sent to one in five of all allotment holders and is statistically valid nationally. Although conducted in the late 1960s it is confirmed by subsequent evidence, and we should not he distracted by the claims of some that the so-called wine and cheese set are taking over—or, as a well known satirical magazine captioned a cartoon recently, "Darling, I wish we were rich enough to grow our own vegetables." This is amusing, but irrelevant froth.

On a fine day, particularly to somebody living in an inner city environment, as I do (I live in Islington) there is something invigorating, stimulating and unashamedly joyful in digging the land, smelling the earth, planting seeds and seeing some of them come up. The more so if you live on the 16th floor and your contact with the ground is with tarmac, concrete and car exhaust fumes. It is most important seriously to establish this recreation and love of gardening motivation. It is not new; the Penny Magazine in 1845 said: …but the object of making such allotments is moral rather than economic: the cultivation of a few vegetables and flowers is a pleasing occupation…". However, more recently, two world wars and the Dig for Victory campaign have understandably obscured these underlying motivations with justifiable, indeed laudable, but temporary, economic motivations. Although not new, the recreational motivation for having an allotment is the developing one. As the Minister said in another place in 1973: The increased demand is due to changes in leisure habits coupled with the fact that Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Sheffield, Waltham Forest and Brent have gone ahead with the provision of a new type of allotment—the leisure garden—recommended by the Thorpe Committee".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/73, col. 1862.] The strength of the movement is thus underlined by this action without a policy or new legislation, but we need encouragement all the more.

This is a limited debate and because recreation is the primary and developing motivation for having an allotment, I shall confine my remarks to this aspect of the subject. No organisation with an established name changes that name readily. It is significant, therefore, that the national body representing leisure gardeners changed its name in 1974 from the National Allotments and Gardens Society to its present title, the National Society of Leisure Gardeners. I am pleased to say that the chairman and secretary are both here today to hear our debate.

What is now needed to meet this recreational trend is legislative provision, backed by good design. After publication of the Thorpe Report in 1969, the Leisure Gardens Research Unit at Birmingham University received an immediate request from Birmingham Council, the largest British allotments authority, to re-design the Russell Road/Moor Green Farm site. This has become a prototype for many others. Characteristic features are the changing of the traditional rectilinear-plot layout into an attractive leisure garden by, for example, making the plots radiate from curved roads and walkways with central greens, planned disposition of summerhouses and sitting out areas, and even a community centre with a play area for small children. Ornamental trees and shrubs are included and the public are, by invitation, allowed to walk through the site. The Birmingham and District Allotments Council as a result received many requests to visit this leisure garden from groups of plot-holders, councillors and parks and allotment officers from other areas. Professor Thorpe and his co-workers showed me several leisure garden sites in Birmingham last week, and I commend them to your Lordships.

This does not mean that plot-holders are going to be overtaken and processed by some sort of leisure machine for organised pleasure. To make the point, my own allotment has no toilet facilities, which make a day's gardening a poor proposition for my wife and two little girls. Only 22.3 per cent., or about one in five, of all sites belonging to allotment associations affiliated to the NAGS, as it then was, had any such facilities in the late 1960s. This simple but basic fact was quoted by these holders as the second most important difficulty in cultivating and enjoying their allotment gardens. Of these holders, 91.7 per cent. were married and 66.3 per cent. had children living at home. Also, we have only a very few water taps and hoses are strictly forbidden. These are but two examples of conditions which both reduce pleasure and make cultivation inefficient. I nearly went crazy during last year's dry summer—the loneliness of the long-distance runner with a watering can!

Early pioneers of leisure gardens, mentioned earlier, have been followed in congested London by Greenwich and Croydon, which have had discussions with the Leisure Gardens Research Unit about providing re-fashioned and improved sites. The NSLG has been told by associations abroad that in many aspects of site design—in particular, the break from monotonous rectilinearity—our new sites are ahead of Continental thinking. They have been studied by Japanese and West German television as well as by several organisations in the United States.

This year, 1976, is one of opportunity for our leisure garden movement. The choice of Britain as the centre for the biennial conference of Die Grüne Internationale, whose English name is the International Federation of Leisure Gardeners, means that we can show the expected 1,000 delegates what we are doing. The Government have generously provided a reception at the National Exhibition Centre and the officers would, I know, be grateful for any further support, perhaps along the lines of that given by the Dutch Government, who met half the cost of the 1974 Amsterdam conference. The potential international sales arising from the associated large exhibition of horticultural equipment might be further justification for more assistance.

While speaking of encouragement and support, it may be mentioned that delicate negotiations have been going on with the Minister for Sport and Recreation for a permanent subsidy for the NSLG. I must not trample on these with my maiden gardening boots, but I should like to say how much such support would be appreciated and used. In view of these protracted negotiations and the possible important future role of leisure gardens in the sphere of recreation and mental relaxation, it is sad to have to state as a matter of record that the NSLG was not circulated with the recent Consultative Document prepared by the DOE on the subject of the formation of Regional Councils for Sport and Recreation to replace the Regional Sports Councils. Nor did the possible contribution of leisure gardens receive a mention in the recent paper, Food From Our Own Resources.lb/> The Motion before us this afternoon suggests the restoration of waste land as a means of provision. Perhaps British Rail, which, as we have heard, reduced its allotment provision from almost 75,000 plots in 1950 at a rate of about 3,000 per annum to 26,000 in 1967, could be persuaded to provide again on a greater scale on its huge statutory land holding; for example, by extension backwards of adjacent back garden fences towards the permanent way. Similarly, the British Waterways Board's canalsides and the National Coal Board's areas reserved for future tipping might supplement this. The inherent difficulty of the Friends of the Earth's present plans for the community running of unwanted back gardens is that the period of land tenure is likely to be transitory, although it is an interesting initiative. Local authorities might also make available land reserved for open spaces but not yet scheduled for conversion. However, the Brains' recommendations on local government management and structure mean that, at the local authority level, leisure gardeners have to compete for their recreation committee's time and funds, particularly with sport, a justifiably popular recreation offering stiff competition.

Legislation to encourage the provision of leisure gardens is desirable both corporately and to meet individual problems. The 1972 Local Government Act removed the statutory default powers of the Secretary of State on allotment authorities. The statutory obligations on an authority to appoint allotment committees have also been removed. Until local authorities have made such provision of land for recreational gardening that parity is achieved with that made for other forms of recreation, a measure of greater compulsion than exists at present should be placed on them. I hope that structure plans will in future say more about proposed provision. A few do—for example, Birmingham—but on the whole the structure plan, which commonly covers a very large area, has been considered too blunt an instrument, while in the local authority detailed area plan it is likely to be assumed that somebody else is going to provide, especially in densely urban areas where housing need is also so important. As a result, the leisure garden may, between the two, become forgotten.

There is no need to be unduly apprehensive about specifying leisure gardens in an area plan. If the present increase in demand were to prove a flash in the pan, which I do not think it will, then the land can be very quickly re-zoned for building; the ex-tenants will probably have even levelled it for the builder. Far easier to re-zone a leisure garden that is not wanted and effect the change of use than to know what to do with, for example, a lot of highly rigid office buildings that nobody wants. All this is corporate legislation.

There is an individual matter which I wish briefly to mention. It would be of great encouragement if leisure garden and allotment societies could specifically be exempted or relieved from value added tax on purchases of power-driven gardening implements, their spare parts and servicing, such as rotavators. Tax on these is at the recently increased 25 per cent. level. Relief on their sales from site shops of seed, fertiliser and the like similar to that which applies to annual sales of over £5,000 would also help. May I remind your Lordships that the price of seed potatoes is now six times what is was when VAT was introduced?

I said in opening that, since 1969, successive Governments have had a policy document—the Thorpe Report—but little policy. The policy stems, or could stem, from the Report's 48 principal recommendations, the first two of which are for a retention of a measure of compulsion in the provision of land and for the repeal and replacement of existing legislation. The compulsion to provide is still there, but only if the resident specifically asks for it first—a rather back-to-front situation. Anticipated legislation has been the subject of seven Ministerial Statements in another place, starting with one on 14th April 1970, which stated that further action on the Thorpe Report would be decided on when the comments of interested parties had been received and examined, and concluding, so far as I am aware, with the statement on 7th November 1974 that—and this refers to the Secretary of State for the Environment— My right honourable friend is reviewing his general policy on allotments in the light of the recommendations made by the Thorpe Committee of Inquiry into Allotments…"—[Official Report, Commons, 7/11/74; col. 222.] That was a year and a half ago, since when, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, demand has risen from 27,000 plots to nearly 60,000.

We allotment holders—or "leisure gardeners" as many of us now like to be called—are not a militant body. Like Winston Churchill, writing of his years at Chartwell between the world wars, we wish simply to dwell at peace in our habitation and to get on with our digging. By encouragement, we here have the opportunity to bring pleasure to hundreds of thousands today and maybe to millions tomorrow. I believe it was Churchill, again, who, speaking of realising our natural resources, observed that we are an island built on coal and surrounded by fish.

A Noble Lord

It was Nye Bevan, my Lords.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that correction. Is it too much to hope that in, say, 10 years' time we may add the words, "and carpeted by leisure gardens"?

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, it is a very happy duty to follow the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge. His was a most measured and well-researched speech and it contained much good sense. I believe that one might call it a great "House of Lords speech". If that was the quality of the noble Lord's maiden speech, what may we expect when he has more experience? I should like also to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, on her fresh ideas. I was particularly happy that she mentioned the planting of trees and the provision of playgrounds. I hope we shall often see both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord in the House and hear them speak.

I must declare an interest in this matter because not only do I, though I am not an allotment holder, grow my own vegetables, but I am an allotment landlord. I therefore see the matter from both sides. For many years, allotment holders have suffered from being the first to have their land taken for development, being on the edge of towns. This has caused inconvenience bordering on distress. However, during their relocation, it has been noticeable how many allotment holders have had multiple plots and were keeping pigs, carrying out car repairs and running garages, sawmills and other occupations of that nature. I must specifically exclude pigeons from criticism, as that occupation is so well established and is in great demand, though I believe that much progress and benefit could be achieved by the encouragement of centralised lofts to reduce the space required and to help security against vandalism, which has become quite a problem.

Apart from pigeons, the uses which I have mentioned are totally alien to the basic purposes for which allotments were first intended. They deny the land to others who would use it for food production. One of the reasons for the growth of these uses has been the unrealistically low level of rents payable for allotments. This encouraged multi-occupation, low production and consequent wastage of land in a great number of cases. Further, the high cost of collecting low rents from multitudinous tenants has discouraged the provision of new land for allotments and it may well contribute to the idle acres which we have heard about from the noble Lord, Lord Sandys.

The corollary is that the raising of rents will encourage the provision of more land and will allow more people to have allotments. Also, payment of realistic rents will encourage the tenants to use the allotments to the full and to achieve maximum production. There is, of course, no control over these rents other than the counter-productive feeling that they should be kept low.

One of the chief problems of higher production is the provision of adequate water supplies. This has been mentioned over and over again. The council or other landlord could easily provide a mains supply and recoup themselves from the realistic rent, but a problem arises when the water is left running or a burst occurs. In a few weeks, the water bill becomes astronomical. The water is then turned off and the allotment holder suffers. I do not know the answer to this but, somehow or another, the allotment holder must be provided with access to water without an open-ended liability upon the landlord for wastage. Perhaps the Allotment Holders' Association should work out an agreement, acceptable to landlords and tenants, to enable local associations to enter into an agreement with their landlords to achieve the amenities which they require while at the same time accepting the responsibilities which they themselves must shoulder. I shall be interested to hear whether the Allotment Holders' Association has an answer to this problem.

Land which is not at present used often suffers from poor drainage and is therefore left derelict. A Ministry grant is available to drain farmland, yet the drainage of land for allotments is not eligible. As the potential food production from allotments far exceeds the production from farming proportionate to its acreage, drainage grants should surely be extended to cover new allotment land. I hope that the Minister may be able to give encouragement on this point, as also on the question of scrub clearance grants where appropriate.

My final point refers to amenity. We constantly see allotments which are full of semi-derelict, black huts, each worse than the next and made of all sorts of scrap material. They form an eyesore to the community and are often in full view of nearby houses. Compare that with Holland, where I have seen neat rows of allotment buildings, all painted in bright, clean colours and forming an attractive picture. The control of and attention to amenity by allotment holders in this country must at present be totally inadequate; but the need for huts is there and must be accepted, particularly when the land is not close to the holders' houses.

It is indisputably necessary to provide more adequately serviced allotments. The waiting lists are there, and, particularly in these times of high food costs, increased unemployment and greater leisure, the demand should be met by encouraging their provision. However, thought must be given to the problems to ensure that future land allocated is an asset not only to the tenants but also to all aspects of amenity.

4.19 p.m.


My Lords, if I may trespass upon the patience of the House and apologise for not having put down my name, may I nevertheless say that the inspiration of my noble friend's debate had a magnetic effect on me and has kept me here right through. Despite the fact that it may seem an insignificant debate, I consider the subject to be one of the greatest importance in relation to this country's inflationary problems.

As a person who was brought up as a wild country boy and who never bought a sprig of holly in his life, but went to cut it, I do not make all this fuss about water. On the old man's farm and on the land around, we had a few old empty beer barrels which were filled with water during the rainy season. One can always find the answer to securing a water supply, even in the smallest home garden or allotment, if one makes provision. Noble Lords need not get too hot under the collar about local authorities not supplying water, therefore, when, with a little intelligence, those of us who have lived in dry parts of the world know that, if we will collect it, the water is there. Nevertheless, I am completely on the side of people who want recognition of these allotments.

I wish to say in passing how much I enjoyed the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, and the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge. Clearly much research was put into those speeches, and they will prove to be a much more valuable contribution to the debate than will my speech. I want to get rid of some of the pseudo-sepulchral gentility of suburbia in regard to allotments and the backs of houses. Consider, my Lords, the pathetic by-laws made by local authorities. I suspect that about three-quarters of those councillors who pass by-laws prohibiting the keeping of pigeons, poultry or chickens are frightened to death of the strident cry of a cockerel in the morning. The sound of a cockerel is becoming as scarce as the sight of a beautiful violet or cowslip. Cockerels, cowslips and violets are disappearing from many people's lives. Those people brought up in high rise flats do not know the realities of living. Much of today's vandalism and vagabondage, with louts going around the streets of Britain, arises from the fact that mankind is divorcing itself from the sources of life and energy; namely, the land and the production of food.

I should like to see, if only for a transitional period during inflation, a lifting of many of these pseudo local bylaws which prevent a man keeping a few chickens in the back yard. The eggs we buy today are anaemic-looking. One cannot raise gladiators, all-in wrestlers, or people on the kind of eggs sold in the shops today. For heaven's sake, let Britain be free and let our housewives have a few chickens in the back yard. What is the matter with the country? I agree with what my noble friend says about this, and I again thank him for raising this matter.

I wish to make two further points. I found one of the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, rather fascinating and constructive, if a little off-beat. She asked whether authority could sometimes lay aside pieces of land for young couples who are to get married and who have the courage and the guts—if I might use that unparliamentary phrase—to start building a house themselves, brick by brick and, at the same time, retain a little piece of land for growing food. Some of the regulations should be loosened, because our land and our heritage is one of the most precious things we possess.

I wish to mention one other matter before I sit down. The artificiality of life could be relieved by a spread of the provision of allotments and the provision and the restoration of waste land. I point out to my noble friend who is to reply to the debate that there has been a cry from both sides of the House concerning grants. Grants might be given for recreational activities and to bodies such as rugby and football clubs. I do not mind grants going to rugby clubs. Here is an avenue where a few million pounds spent by the Government, whatever their shade of politics may be, would mean a return of a thousand-fold to the country in terms of the value of what is produced. There is another factor to be considered; namely, the wonderful social effect which would be achieved through people growing things together.

The noble Lord who spoke from the Front Bench opposite made a charming speech, but I thought it was rather sad when he referred to allotments on railway property. Was the figure 75,000? The British railwayman was one of the finest "allotmenteers"—I do not know whether that word is in the dictionary, but everybody knows what it means—in the land. His allotments were beautiful to see. Today, all that has disappeared. I do not know whether Dr. Beechingor—or anybody else—thought about this when he closed some of the railway lines. I cannot measure the value of all this in terms of food, but I hope that people might again be able to develop allotment plots, perhaps on old railway sidings, even in areas near towns, where railways have closed. There is a lovely story about an old guard in Wales whom we used to call "Dai Swallow" because he had a big red nose through swallowing too much. He was a great flower and vegetable grower. It is said that when he retired he was presented with an old railway carriage. One day he was found smoking outside the carriage. People asked: "Dai, why haven't you gone inside?" He said: "The damn silly people presented me with a non-smoker!"

In the wicked life which I led in Wales during the depression years in the 1930s, the allotment huts formed a great social centre. Occasionally, there was, I admit, an illegal game of crown and anchor, or an illegal game of cards. But there was also much happiness which enabled people in the North-East of England, in parts of Scotland, and in the mining valleys to get through the depression years. In that time, during the strikes, people played rugby and football with the police. Much of the balance which was achieved was due to the fact that 80 to 90 per cent. of the people at home produced between 70 and 100 per cent. of their needs in the form of vegetables, poultry, and other food. Now we have the electric tin opener and the magic of a huge deep freezer. Artificiality is one of the things which are undermining what was at one time true Britishness.

4.26 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, it is quite clear from the speeches of all who have taken part in this debate how grateful we all are to my noble friend Lord Wallace of Coslany for initiating it. It is also interesting to consider how timely and topical this debate is. There were references to it yesterday on the "Today" programme, and it has been mentioned in the newspapers. It is also extremely British that, at this moment when there is so much excitement in the general political pattern of our life, we should be able to discuss this topic and find, too, a return-to-the-earth feeling. This matter has been discussed this afternoon with much interest and passion.

First, I wish to add my congratulations to those already extended to the two maiden speakers, the noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, and the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge. They made such interesting speeches, giving specific examples from their personal experience. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, took the opportunity—although I do not think that I shall be able to give him a specific answer—of asking in the most charming way for more money for the allotment movement. I shall certainly pass on his request to my right honourable friend in another place, the Minister who is responsible for sport and recreation.

We are all agreed that the contribution from allotments or leisure gardens to our total food supply is very small; that is, in the region of 2 per cent. But this is quite a different matter from the argument regarding the saving to the family. As a fairly recent recruit to the kitchen garden—not an allotment—I believe that today there is a considerable economic saving to the family. It is probably much greater than it was at the time of the excellent Report of the Thorpe Committee. The fresh ideas of that Committee helped to lift and enliven the whole image of the allotment movement and gave it a new spirit. Although many of the recommendations of the Committee have not been implemented in legislative form, it is doing the Report less than justice to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, said, that it is accumulating dust on a shelf, because much of what was recommended has infiltrated into the whole movement, the whole spirit, and the whole approach.

I go further and say that with regard to the surge which has developed, which has come from a number of factors, including inflation, which has been referred to by many noble Lords, the jumping off ground for a great deal of the increase in interest and the putting of that increase into practice was triggered off by the Thorpe Report. So I do not think Professor Thorpe need feel too depressed that it takes many years (in fact, it always does, does it not, with Government Reports?) for it to be implemented in firm or statutory terms.

Secondly, I think we are all very much more health conscious and probably eat more vegetables more willingly than we did before. I certainly eat more vegetables than I did as a child. I think one of the factors is the increase in the number of home freezers, which means that people find that they themselves can freeze and store what they grow which is surplus to their daily demand. Again, I can speak only from my personal experience, which is that when you grow and freeze your own vegetables they certainly taste quite different from the frozen vegetables which you buy. I also agree with my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek, who again had us spellbound by his wonderful alliteration and rhetoric. He referred to vandalism, and to trying to turn the energy behind the violence into more productive and creative channels. I believe there is no doubt that there is an urgent need, which I think people are expressing—it has been expressed in different ways in this House and it has been expressed all over the country—to find a counterbalance to the technological achievements of our sophisticated society, which make our lives enormously complicated.

I think a return to the land in this particular form fulfils many physical and emotional needs as well. It is an antidote to sitting in an office all day or to standing in a factory; it is an antidote to the tensions of driving a car or commuting, whether on road or by rail; and it is an antidote to the placid leisure activity of watching television. If Mrs. Whitehouse is so concerned about the programmes we watch I think she might do more positive good by encouraging viewers to switch off their sets and get out of their chairs and into the garden or allotment. I was encouraged in this view when the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, reminded us of the moral aspects of gardening.

People are also more conscious of their health, particularly in middle age, and gardening, especially when it produces the edible as well as the beautiful, can be a way of preventing a number of the contemporary ailments, which have statistically increased. "I dig it, man" is a contemporary expression which has nothing whatever to do with the soil. If "I dig it, man" could go back to its basic meaning of using a spade, it would be a more productive use of language. In the recent intimate revelations, which I followed with tremendous interest, about what people say to their plants, I have not noticed that anyone talks to their vegetables. I hope there is not a class consciousness which puts the flower higher up the social scale than the vegetable in terms of communication and address. Speaking for myself, I find that if I say, "Grow, grow" even to a daffodil it just sort of nods its head over, goes to sleep and wilts; and, being a person who is inclined (I put it down to a generosity of nature) to over-water everything, I cannot put myself forward as a pattern for a successful grower.

But the basic problem, which I think has been referred to by most noble Lords—or, if it has not, I shall remind them of it—is that our land is limited and that tile demands for land for housing, shopping centres, schools and hospitals grow all the time. It is paradoxical that as our built-up environment increases its amenities and its social services we deprive ourselves of other things which are essential to our quality of life. My noble friend Lord Wallace referred specifically to our building policy, which of course brings in the whole question of the problem of density. I am very happy to say that for all sorts of other reasons, mainly visual and social, we are moving away from the tower block, because we are now finding that it is possible, when building in a much more comfortable and acceptable way, to create the same density and at the same time to give the people not only better living conditions but also the opportunity to use a piece of ground, however small it may be.

Although this debate is concerned with allotments, I think it involves the whole subject of people working in their own gardens; and, however small the amount there are many people who seem to be able to perform miracles with a piece of ground, even in the centre of London. I think that if one starts there as well and encourages people, there is an infection, I think, which is a very happy one, because if people see that their neighbours have a nice tidy garden or are growing vegetables, and that it seems to work, then they are often inclined to follow suit. I do not think we should divide the framework of the subject between gardens and allotments, or leisure gardens.

The land which is needed for a wide variety of recreation is also needed for all sorts of other things, and this is why planning is so important, whether we are planning for our development or planning for the whole of our land. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, quite rightly referred to structure plans and local plans, in which leisure gardens or allotments, whatever we want to call them, should certainly be among the recreational facilities. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, from the Opposition Front Bench, was the only one to put a political gardening boot into this when he referred, not surprisingly, to the Community Land Act. Perhaps I could tell him, with the greatest respect, that he is talking absolute nonsense. The whole point is that one of the bases for the Community Land Act, and the philosophy behind it, is not only the question of current use value by means of the development land tax, but that it makes positive planning possible. Now when you are planning a neighbourhood or an area, this does not mean merely the development; it also means planning for your recreational needs and for the other needs of the community.

The fact is that even without the Community Land Act, public bodies, including local authorities, have always kept a certain amount of land back. They have had to do so. You cannot suddenly decide on a plan without having some land which you can use. In fact, I see it in entirely the reverse way: that because, under the Act, local authorities will have the opportunity to plan positively, and to plan not only where buildings should be but where the recreational areas should be, I would certainly hope to see more leisure gardens or more plots for gardening.


My Lords, while being reassured by what the noble Baroness has said in regard to the allocation of land for this specific purpose, I think that she is perhaps trespassing on your Lordships' credulity a little, because during our discussions on the Community Land Bill no mention was made of allotments. I have been through the debates.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, there was no need to make any reference to allotments. The noble Lord could get up and say that the Community Land Act was going to affect the birthrate, but that would not mean that it came into the discussions on the Community Land Bill. I did not bring in the subject of allotments; the noble Lord brought it in, and I am explaining why he is wrong about it and that in fact the reverse could be the case.

I think that one of the most interesting and inspiring points that arose from Professor Thorpe's Committee was the changing of the dreary-sounding name "allotment", the sound of which, with all its historic connotations, is so downbeat, to the very much more interesting and uplifting phrase of "leisure gardens". That these should be included in local authority plans for the use of their land is something which—and here I agree with every noble Lord who has spoken—should be pressed on every occasion. Certainly it has Government support. The type of leisure garden, like the one at Coventry designed by Professor Thorpe and Elizabeth Galloway, is a wonderful combination of productive activity, communal facilities and visual satisfaction. However, we must be realistic and accept that lack of both land and finance means that these must be limited for the time being. The important thing is that where possible the consciousness of the need for them should be built into structure plans and local authorities' own local plans, even if it means that they cannot be on an ambitious basis. A number of authorities have done a great deal in this direction in different ways; even if, again, it often has to be less ambitious.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, talked about London and said that if half the 20,000 acres of derelict land was used for allotments—about 10,000 acres—it would result in about 160,000 allotment holders. The problem about this is not the arithmetic but the fact that in September 1974 10,222 people in London wanted allotments. So this is the other side of the picture: that there is no point—in fact, it would be quite wrong, when there is a great demand for playgrounds and other facilities—in designating land for allotments if the demand is not there. This would be not only counter-productive, but wrong in local government terms. There are examples such as Haringey, which has converted a patch of derelict land at Wood Green into allotments. This has been converted by 12 young men, recruited by means of a grant from the Manpower Services Commission. Walsall Recreation Committee is spending £2,000 on providing 41 allotments on part of the airport sports ground site, which will be in use until the site is developed in ten years' time.

Here, I believe, there is great scope for authorities to rent out land which will be needed for other use, but not for some time; so that it can be used in this way. I see the problems which have been stated this afternoon and particularly that of the elderly person who wants to go on with the same patch of ground. I accept that. But there is a far greater degree of mobility in the country today, particularly among young people. If local authorities could give security of tenure for up to five years, it would surely be better than leaving the land visually unsightly, derelict and unused. I believe there is great scope for utilising the gardens of houses which have been bought by the local authorities and which cannot be rehabilitated or redeveloped for the time being. This is something which I hope local authorities will bear in mind.

I feel that one of the reasons why allotments fall into ugly dereliction is that very often, because of their size, they are too much for a man or woman alone to manage. Like the noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, yesterday I was pacing my own office deciding that a plot of that size was far too big for anybody but an expert gardener to garden. It is not that the office is so enormous; but so much work would have to be put into it. I think that the general size of allotments is very often too large for the individual person, or even a family, to work in. I was delighted when my noble friend Lord Wallace of Coslany referred to the number of women working their allotments because I notice that, in 1966, Professor Thorpe's Committee found that about 97 per cent. of allotment holders were male. Since so many women are green-fingered, and now that we have the backing of the Sex Discrimination Act, this situation has obviously changed considerably—although I, personally, see a great many advantages in deciding what vegetables we should have and letting my husband deal with the production side of it.

I was moved by the story told by my noble friend Lord Wallace of Coslany. Going out on a summer evening cutting lettuces is exactly what I do, but I have not had to have the trouble of planting and growing them. Sometimes I am forced into watering them, but I believe that is having the best of both horticultural worlds. Some councils are reducing their allotments in size but a great deal more could be done to meet the demand. Another way of getting maximum use and satisfying more people is for plot-holders to share. Some councils are doing this. I am aware of the scheme of the Friends of the Earth. There are a great many advantages but, as I am sure they appreciate, it has to be based on great good will and understanding, otherwise a great many problems can arise over this and lead even to legal action if carried too far. This is something which perhaps could be looked at in terms of the way in which some young people today have founded communes for living, although not many people would want to take the idea that far. But it could be a commune approach on the agrarian side.

When we come to the difficult problem of waste land, derelict land and reclamation land, it is for the local authorities to survey their areas and to search out land which could be acquired either by purchase or lease and laid out for allotments. They would obviously need to pay particular attention to land which is neglected, uncared for and obviously underused or not presently used for any purpose. In some parts there may be a good deal of land of this kind which could usefully be brought into use for allotments. We cannot afford to let such areas stand idle and be a blot on the local environment. Waste land is a fluctuating and shifting class of land and it is the local authorities, with their local knowledge, who are best equipped to identify areas of this kind which would be best used for allotments. The Government's job, certainly at this time, is to encourage so far as we can this aspect of land use by the local authorities.

Where the dereliction—and this was one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sandys—is the result of industrial or other development, Government grants are available to local authorities for reclaiming such areas. This scheme includes sites such as disused spoil heaps, worked-out mineral excavations, abandoned industrial installations, land damaged by mining subsidence and disused railway land. But it does not cover land which may be regarded as derelict from natural causes such as marshland and moorland.

In the 1974–75 financial year about £4,600,000 was paid in Government grants for schemes of this kind. Much of the land reclaimed was used for open spaces, parks and playing fields, but I see no reason why parts of such reclaimed land should not be made available for allotments where the land is suitable for spade cultivation. Since 1964 local authorities have been carrying out regular surveys of derelict areas of the kinds which I have mentioned, and the last survey was in 1974. Derelict land is land so changed by industrial or other development that it is incapable of being used for other purposes. My Department pays a grant towards this, as I have already pointed out.

The noble Lord asked whether land could be further protected for use as allotments. Where land is vested in local authorities for allotments—that is to say, it is purchased or appropriated for that purpose—the consent of the Secretary of State is required if it is to be sold, used for another reason or disposed of for other purposes. The consent will not be given unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that adequate provision will be made for those plot holders who have been displaced or that such provision is unnecessary or no longer practical. With non-statutory land, consent is not required where allotments are provided by a local authority on land which is held for other purposes, and it is here that there is the competing demand to which I referred before. It is important that pressure should come from the grass roots to the local authorities. Demands should be made to the local authorities to see that some of the land free for other purposes, other than developments, should include allotments.

The point about legislation was raised by several noble Lords, and the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, read out various alternatives and options in the Thorpe Report. It is true that the problem here is a question, as always, of Parliamentary time. But I do not believe that we need be so depressed as to call it "a counsel of despair", as the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, did, because, as I have pointed out and as has been indicated by various speakers, a great deal can be done within the existing legislation. But when Parliamentary time permits—and I cannot say when that will be—we shall be introducing further legislation on allotments to rationalise the existing complicated legal code which is contained in the various Acts from 1908 to 1950. Whether or not that will be an entirely new Act will depend on how it is examined at the moment. I must point out to the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, that the question regarding Parliamentary time applies to every Government. The Party opposite evidently did not find time to do it between 1970 and 1974.


My Lords, it was a Report commissioned by the Party of the noble Baroness.

Baroness BIRK

Yes, my Lords; but I am always ready to use a good idea produced by somebody else, and this is what we are discussing this afternoon. As we can tell from the debate, and in reading the Thorpe Report, this matter crosses Party lines completely. The Committee of Inquiry was set up by a Labour Government. It would have been a good idea to implement its findings, as has been shown by the good will and interest and all the things the noble Lord has said this afternoon. The Party opposite could have taken the credit for implementing it. What a lost opportunity!

When we consider what can be done, it comes down to pressing local authorities which are not as forward as they might be to do this, taking into account the varying amounts of land available, the whole question of voluntary bodies and the good will that is necessary. The Friends of the Earth and other bodies with similar objectives are pressing local authorities all the time to search out derelict areas and make them available. There are the voluntary organisations such as the National Society of Leisure Gardeners and the London Association of Recreational Gardeners. All these bodies have been and are working together. There are a great many other voluntary bodies which could also participate in this area without necessarily being basically horticultural or gardening organisations.

One of the important things my Department did was to indicate to the Manpower Services Commission, funded by the Government to mount a job creation programme in high unemployment areas, that within the environment field projects which conferred real social benefit should be given priority. This embraced the provision of recreational facilities including allotments. The Commission has already allocated over £106,000 to support projects in various areas to convert land into allotments and, in doing so, has created 85 new jobs. In addition, the Commission have financially supported a number of other projects for reclaiming derelict land which may be turned into allotments or used for food production at a later date. Two examples are in Middlesbrough and Liverpool.

We have had a great many suggestions and interesting points raised this afternoon in this debate. We are all much more aware of the possibilities that have been aired, and in listening to other people airing their opinions. Even without any further legislation, Orders in Council or regulations, a great deal can be done if there is the good will, participation, interest and the passion to do so.

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, there is no doubt that we have had a really marvellous debate, which has been worthy of the House. It is unfortunate that we do not already have sound broadcasting, because this type of debate would be well received. We have had two excellent maiden speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Dudley, made some pertinent points in a commendably brief maiden speech. The noble Lord, Lord Broadbridge, was very enthusiastic in an extensive and remarkably good maiden speech. I am not saying that in any patronising way. I said in my opening remarks that when one rose to speak in the House there was always an expert somewhere in the Chamber, but with due respect to the noble Lord, he showed the makings of an expert, particularly in this field. My noble friend Lord Davies of Leek livened up the proceedings, and I believe my "taste buds" remark brightened things up. We have had a debate which has brought forward a number of important social points.

We have had the reply from the Government. Naturally, we do not expect the moon when we get a reply from the Government, particularly when the noble Baroness has had things flung at her of which she has not been advised in advance. We have a great degree of satisfaction; we have even had the hint of legislation coming forward. We shall continue to press, and I have no doubt we shall press on very receptive ground indeed. We have sown the seed this afternoon; let us hope that it will not be long before Her Majesty's Government will let us see the harvest in the shape of some legislation and some prodding of local authorities.

I am very pleased indeed with the debate. I thank in particular the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, because he made a very useful contribution. I can forgive him for introducing a slight political note—that is fair enough—but the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, came back with a hefty punch to the jaw. So we shall have to see what happens later. We are a little ahead of time, but there is no point in continuing this excellent debate. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.