HL Deb 06 April 2004 vol 659 cc1718-21

11.29 a.m.

Baroness Sharpies asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many allotments have been sold by local authorities since 1996.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, our records show that a total of 167 statutory allotments have been sold by local authorities since 1996. We have no information on disposals of non-statutory allotments.

In response to a recommendation from the Urban Green Spaces Taskforce, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has commissioned an update of the English Allotments Survey as part of work to develop a national database of urban green spaces. That will provide up-to-date figures on the current state of allotments, the trends in their disposal and whether there is adequate provision.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Can he say how many allotments have been sold for development, possibly against the wishes of allotment holders because the alternative sites they were offered were not suitable?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords. I cannot give a precise answer to that. Disposing of a statutory allotment is not easy. First, as regards the Secretary of State, a set of criteria has to show that the allotment in question is not necessary and is surplus to requirements. Adequate provision must be made for displaced plot holders unless such provision is not necessary or is impractical and the number of people on the waiting list has been taken into account. So I cannot say what has happened to those allotments that have been disposed of, but they would not necessarily have been sold for development. If they have been disposed of for development local authorities would not necessarily have taken away the plot holders' choice to use an allotment because an alternative probably would have had to be provided. I regret that I cannot answer the specific question the noble Baroness has asked. Of course, non-statutory allotments could well have been disposed of for development purposes.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, some noble Lords on this side of the House are rather disappointed by my noble friend's Answer. Does he not appreciate that in view of the value to the environment and the benefit of exercise outdoors for people of all ages—but perhaps the middle-aged and the elderly in particular—local authorities should be encouraged to increase the number of spaces available for allotments, rather than to sell them off?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right. I am sorry that my Answer disappointed him. The rate of loss of plots has dramatically decreased; for example, in 1978 there were 479,000 actual plots and in 1996 there were 296,000. That shows—and I do not want to be too party political about this—that during the 18 years of the previous government, 200 allotment plots were lost every single week. That is a very substantial number.

My noble friend is quite right about the benefits to health. I recently read a press report that stated that it had been discovered that shopping was good for women's health because it involved brisk walking every day. One can work on allotments, have a brisk walk and physical exercise, which reduces the risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. So, there is a whole list of benefits to health. That is not necessarily the case for people of my noble friend's age because 35 per cent of plot holders are under the age of 50.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, can the Minister tell us—I think that from what he has said already I probably know the answer—whether any new allotments have been created in the past 10 years? Can he tell us what the planning guidance policy is from his department to local authorities on how they can retain allotments and create new ones?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords. I regret that I do not have any information about whether new allotments have been added under the statutory system. Non-statutory allotments may well have been added, but we would not have any information about that. Under planning policy guidance 17—about which the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, asked me some 18 months ago—it has been made more difficult for local authorities to dispose of allotments. There is a process to be gone through under the planning guidance. We are seeking to make sure that if allotments are disposed of those criteria are applied rigidly so that they are not sold off willy-nilly.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what the position is in London, where the Green Party's candidate for Mayor is suggesting that 1,000 new plots are needed? Can he also tell us whether Section 106 planning procedures can be used to obtain new allotments?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I regret that I cannot answer the noble Lord's question about Section 106 and new allotments. The section may well be used for providing allotment spaces. So far as concerns London, of the figure of 167 I gave for disposal of statutory allotments since 1996, only 13 have been in London. So it is quite a small percentage. It varies in other regions. But only 13 of those were in London, so that indicates a good story in some ways.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I declare an indirect interest. When I commenced farming on my own account, I found that I was the owner of a small field which had been set aside for allotments under an Act of Parliament early in the last century. It took about seven years to get that field back into cultivation. The allotment holders had no use for it; nobody wanted to come and have an allotment there. We should not be too euphoric.

Can the Minister tell the House what proportion of allotments are owned by local authorities and what proportion are in other ownership? I think that that information would be helpful.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, it would be if I had it. The Government have no information on non-statutory allotments. We have no information about temporary allotments or private allotments. In my former constituency there were private allotments. We do not have any idea of what the proportion of the figures would be, therefore, we would not know whether they are being created, disposed of or any such things. We have information only about the statutory allotments.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the rent for allotment holders on non-statutory allotments is about £25 and that on statutory allotments it is about £70 per year?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, there was a debate recently in the other place about rents on allotments in Lincolnshire. The fact of the matter is that local authorities can charge a rent. There are lots of different rules about what local authorities can charge for, in terms of making a profit or covering costs. There may well be differentials in rent. But what is the problem? If there is a market in allotments and some are run by local authorities and others are run by charities or gardening clubs, they will fix the rent according to what they need to charge.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the reduction in the number of allotments under previous governments shows that the party opposite has always lost the plot?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I apologise for bringing in that note but, having looked at the figures, it was important to mention it. A further bit of information, which is probably to the benefit of the party opposite because they were in power for more of those years, is that between 1969 and 1993 the percentage of female plot holders rose from 3 per cent to 16 per cent.