It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cook. I am delighted to have the opportunity to debate the provision of allotments by local authorities and delighted by the amount of interest that the debate has generated, which is reflected not necessarily by the number of people who have turned up but by the number of e-mails and telephone calls that I have had from people around the country and other hon. Members who have taken an interest. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) has a particular interest in the issue, but cannot be with us this afternoon.
The issue is particularly important in my constituency and has become far more important in the past few years. I thank the eight Greater Manchester local authorities that took the time to provide me with information for this debate showing the lack of available allotment plots in Greater Manchester. To give a few examples, Bolton has 1,000 allotment plots and a waiting list of 200, with average waiting times of 18 months. Bury has 516 plots and a waiting list of 378. Oldham has 431 plots and a waiting list of 220. Rochdale has 450 plots and a waiting list of 175. Salford has 356 plots and a waiting list of 291. Stockport has 1,203 plots and 394 people on the waiting list. Trafford has 1,500 plots and 600 on the waiting list, and some people there have to wait up to six years. Finally, Wigan has 317 plots and 800 on the waiting list, often with a wait of three to four years.
Unfortunately, I could not get any information from Tameside borough or my own council, Manchester city council, but the figures, despite being incomplete, show that more than 3,000 people are on waiting lists for allotment plots in Greater Manchester. Although I could not get figures for Manchester, I did get some for my own constituency from the Association of Manchester Allotment Societies showing that my constituency has 450 allotment plots and 280 people on the waiting list. That is in just one of five constituencies in Manchester, which shows the scale of the problem across the city.
The situation has been worsening over the past 10 years, and waiting lists have lengthened with no sign of demand being met. Ten years ago, the situation in Manchester was somewhat more mixed. For example, there were plenty of empty plots at Southern allotments in my constituency, and there was even talk of the site not being an allotment site in future, but today it is full. Other sites were full 10 years ago and are now more so.
Attitudes to allotments have changed. Long gone is the image of the allotment holder as a retired man. Allotments have surged in popularity among young people, particularly women. There is no obvious single reason for that increase in popularity, but significantly more people in south Manchester live in flats and apartments with little or no outdoor amenity space, which has led more people to look to allotments as a means of accessing outdoor space.
I know that my hon. Friend will acknowledge that the problem is not specifically an urban one. I represent a rural constituency where we face the same problems as the voters of the Greater Manchester area. He talked about young people’s renewed interest in allotments and growing their own produce. Will he consider the transition towns movement in constituencies such as mine, which has engaged people of all ages in developing community gardens? An innovative scheme in my constituency is the “adopt a garden” scheme, which uses gardens that are not as productive as they might be for the good of those people.
People in my constituency are certainly looking into using abandoned bits of land as community gardens. They are not suitable for allotments, but they are suitable for community gardens. That should help to provide outdoor amenity space.
There are many different reasons why people are interested in taking on an allotment these days. A lot of people now see it as a particularly good way to keep fit and healthy, an opportunity to grow their own produce and a way to cut down on food miles. However, I am afraid that it looks as though the situation is getting worse. Didsbury faces a further threat to allotments from the Environment Agency’s plans for essential flood defence work. The agency’s preferred option is to cut a channel through the Bradley Fold allotments, which could result in the loss of up to 40 plots.
Local councillors and I have been supporting allotment holders opposed to that option, which I think was proposed only because the Environment Agency thought that it would be the cheapest and easiest option. However, I am confident that during the consultation period, the agency will come to agree that there is a more cost-effective solution that will avoid impacting on the allotments, because the agency does not appear to have taken into consideration the need to find an alternative site for the displaced allotment holders.
The waiting list for my constituency is not unusual. The figures for Greater Manchester show a consistent pattern of high demand and lack of supply. In previous debates in the House, other hon. Members have highlighted similar shortages in their constituencies and local authorities.
So what is the solution? Locally, I have sought to persuade the council to increase the number of available plots. At Southern allotments, after discussions with members of the Association of Manchester Allotment Societies, I introduced proposals to extend the site on to adjacent land, creating an additional 20 to 30 plots at very little cost. I have also encouraged the use of section 106 money from developments to expand and improve allotment provision, and I know that other hon. Members have suggested that as a good way to get extra resources to put into new allotments.
We have also urged the council to reopen the former Parrs Wood allotment site, which was closed several years ago to be sold off for development. The site was never sold and has been allowed to become overgrown. So far, unfortunately, the council has refused to agree to reopening it, with the feeble excuse that the quality of the ground is not good enough for an allotment site, even though it used to be one.
Even if the council agrees to reopen Parrs Wood allotments and expand Southern allotments, Manchester would still have a massive shortage of plots. What can be done to ensure that local authorities provide an adequate number of allotments? The Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 seems pretty clear that if there is a demand, the local authority has a statutory duty to provide a sufficient number of plots. In a previous Westminster Hall debate, the then Minister said:
“The council must assess whether there is demand for allotments in its area. If it decides that there is, it has a statutory duty under that Act to provide a sufficient number of plots.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 235WH.]
Does the Minister believe that waiting lists of more than 3,000 indicate that Greater Manchester has a sufficient number of plots? Is a waiting list of 280 for 450 plots in Manchester, Withington alone a sign of sufficient provision? I would argue that it is not.
In the most recent publication of the magazine of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, there is an article by a lawyer called Bryn Pugh, which states:
“It is arguable, in strict legal theory, that if there be a single person on a waiting list for an allotment, the municipal authority in quo is in breach of statutory duty. This statement might raise hollow laughter from those who are in areas where a would-be plot holder is more likely to accede to a burial plot before an allotment plot.”
Can the Minister comment on that view? Does he agree that this is a breach of statutory duty?
It is clear from previous debates on allotment provision and also from recent parliamentary questions that the Government have been reluctant to take the initiative and enforce the relevant legislation. Local authorities continue to exploit the Government’s reluctance to act by clearly breaching the 100-year-old legislation. Unless we take action now, the situation will only get worse.
The Government need to issue further guidance to make it absolutely clear to local authorities that they have a responsibility to provide allotment plots. Perhaps the Minister could also provide guidance on the use of section 106 money from developments to increase the provision of allotments. Ultimately, however, if local authorities continue to ignore the guidance, the Minister seriously needs to look at finding ways to compel them to comply.
I thank the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for securing this debate and I congratulate him on keeping this matter at the front of our consideration in our debates in Westminster Hall. I should also like to thank both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister for allowing me to speak very briefly before the Minister replies.
It is very appropriate that we are discussing this matter at the time when allotment plots are traditionally re-let, at the end of the autumn season. I would also like to thank the Croydon Federation of Allotment and Garden Societies, the Park Hill Allotment Society and the Norbury Park Horticultural Society for the advice that they have given me. I am also particularly grateful for the advice given to me by Croydon council, which is an excellent authority when it comes to encouraging allotment provision.
Nevertheless, Croydon is an example of many of the problems that are faced across the country regarding allotments. Sometimes the waiting list for allotments in Croydon is not too bad, compared with the rest of the country. Sometimes the wait can just be a few months, but at other times it can be as long as 10 years. There is land within the borough of Croydon that was formerly used for allotments but is no longer being used. Unfortunately, I think that those resources are not being used by the council. Perhaps the council would argue that it would like grant money, and I would support it in that regarding allotment sites that are not being used. In one particular case, there are water problems with the area around South Norwood lake, so the council is not fully letting out allotments there.
Also, the Croydon Federation of Allotment and Garden Societies is in conflict with the local authority about whether or not the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 and the Allotment Act 1887, legislation to which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington referred, are being properly used in terms of the undertaking given in that legislation that money acquired from land that is sold that is statutory allotments land should be reinvested in allotment provision. Regarding this allegation by the CFAGS, I am advised that it has never been tested in law in front of the courts. Obviously it is disappointing to think that, within my borough, that money is not being reinvested as it should be.
In the remaining minute and a half that I give to myself, perhaps I can proffer to the Minister some possible solutions, because I think that we will not get very far if we ask the Government to conjure up land out of nowhere; instead, it is a matter of better usage of land. What the Mayor of London is doing, with his proposals for food for Olympians in 2012 that is provided by the use of roof gardens, is good. The policy that is being pursued by the Scottish Government, to try to encourage public bodies to identify land within their ownership for allotment use, is also good.
Furthermore, I am very encouraged by ideas that are being pursued for pensioners to consider giving up some of the land in their possession, in co-ordination with traditional allotment holders, in return for a share of the crops that come from that land. There is perhaps a role there for local authorities and Government, to ensure that there is due and proper process in this area.
Finally, I should like to highlight the very good work that is being done by Eastbourne council regarding allotments, bearing it in mind that Eastbourne is an area that a lot of people retire to. The council has a very open-minded approach, encouraging applications from people for allotments well in advance of their actual retirement.
I thank everyone very much indeed for allowing me to speak in this short gap between the two main speakers today.
I would like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) for raising the important issue of allotment provision in this debate. I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) for his short but useful contribution.
Allotments are valuable green spaces, as has been said, and they provide many great benefits for communities. They play a vital role in connecting people to the process of food production and in promoting healthy eating. As was said during an intervention, there has been a revival in interest in “growing your own” fresh and cheap food, while reducing food miles. It may be a century since the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1908 was passed, but allotments continue to provide benefits to their communities and to grow in popularity.
It has been commented that the age profile of allotment holders is growing younger. As far as allotments are concerned, I remember Arthur Fowler in “EastEnders”. Although we do not have statistics on the age profile of allotment holders, we know from anecdotal evidence that, for the reasons that I have given, allotment users and those on the waiting list for allotments are getting a lot younger.
For many years, the Government have recognised the importance of allotments. The provision of allotments and their protection is set out in statute, as has been said, and my Department also offers guidance. However, I need to say at the outset that the provision of allotments is the responsibility of local authorities. Someone either believes in devolution or they do not; we believe in it. We believe that it is right and proper for local authorities to be in charge of the provision of allotments and for them also to be charged with the task of being responsible for allotments.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but he needs to be quite clear. During his short speech, he said that he wanted guidance, action and compulsion. That makes me nervous, as someone who believes in people power at the lowest possible level. I was not clear if he was suggesting that the Big Brother state in Whitehall should step in and intervene on every single local authority to bring court cases and court challenges. Is that the policy of his party?
I was not for one second suggesting that the Government need to go with a two-footed approach to this issue. All I was saying is that, if local authorities are ignoring the guidance and the legislation, ultimately the Government need to take some additional action if local authorities refuse to abide by their statutory duties.
Before I continue with the rest of my speech, I think that the hon. Gentleman and those reading the debate need to be clear about the role of Government and the separation of powers. We pass laws and make legislation, but a good question, one that is worth asking, is who enforces those laws? We empower citizens to have rights to bring actions, if they need to do so. During the course of my short response, I hope that he will see that there is already sufficient guidance and legislation if constituency MPs and councillors wish to utilise them. I shall refer to that guidance and legislation further during my short contribution.
Of course, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that section 23 of the Smallholdings and Allotments Act 1908, as amended, places a duty on local authorities, except for inner-London boroughs, to provide allotments where they consider that there is a demand for them in their area. If a local authority is of the opinion that there is such a demand, they are required to provide a sufficient number of allotments for letting to those residing in the area who want them. The community can and should influence the provision of allotments. Written representations may be made to the local authority on the need for allotments by any six resident registered electors, or persons liable to council tax, and the local authority must take those representations into account. That is provided for in section 23(2) of the 1908 Act. It is for the council to decide whether there is a demand for allotments in its area, and it has a statutory duty to provide a sufficient number of plots.
The hon. Gentleman has rightly pointed out that the legislation is more than 100 years old, but we do not believe in scrapping legislation simply because it is old, especially if it is good after amendment. The legislation means that allotments are uniquely protected. Under section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, allotments cannot be treated as previously developed land. That makes it very difficult to dispose of or build on them. A council may dispose of an allotment only in exceptional circumstances, if it can fully justify to the Secretary of State, against robust criteria, that there is a need for a change.
We have discussed the roles of Government and Parliament. Our role covers disposal, and there are robust criteria for the Secretary of State to use when a local authority wishes to dispose of allotments. If the hon. Gentleman has an example in which his local authority, or a local authority near to him, has disposed of an allotment, I will be happy to ask my right hon. Friend to look into that.
Our guidance on open spaces supports the legal framework, and in 2002 we sought to strengthen protection. In 1998, a Select Committee inquiry into allotments concluded that the criteria for assessing the disposal of statutory allotments were too weak. As a consequence, they were strengthened and reinforced in 2002 by the revised planning policy guidance note 17 to ensure that the community’s need for the allotment in question would be taken into account, and that it would be considered surplus to need. That has had the impact of slowing down the loss of allotments. So, there was legislation in 1908 and 1925, a Select Committee report in 1998 and Government guidance in 2002, and far fewer allotments have been lost as a result.
Through PPG17 and planning policy statement 3 on housing, the planning system provides a robust framework for the protection and provision of all types of open space, including allotments. PPG17 advises local authorities to provide for all types of public open space. It expects them to undertake robust assessments of local need, to audit existing open space and to establish standards for new provision. Local authorities should use that information to plan how to meet their population’s future needs and to place standards of provision in their development plans. I hope that when local authorities prepare development plans, they will take into account the fact that younger men and women want to use allotments, perhaps as part of a lifestyle choice.
The Minister misses the point when he talks about the Government having strengthened the legislation to prevent the further sale of allotment sites. I accept that the legislation has been improved in that respect, but no action has been taken to deal with increased demand and the need for more allotments. This is not simply about preventing their loss.
I note the time and the tenor of the debate, Mr. Cook, and I do not want to cause offence, but I inevitably will. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. He does not want a Big Brother Government, but he wants us to intervene. He and his colleagues complain about developments on the green belt, but there is a demand for housing and finite space. Last time I checked, we were an island. He thinks that we should demand that local authorities provide more space for allotments because of demand, but supply and demand work in funny ways.
We believe in devolving powers down to local authorities, and that councillors—I used to be a councillor, and so did the hon. Gentleman—are the right people to devise and decide on development plans. I believe that communities have the skills, the advocacy and the intelligence to elect councillors who will deliver on local community’s needs. I do not believe that the Government, including those of us who are based in Whitehall and are not connected to Manchester because we are MPs for places such as Tooting, are the best experts to decide what should go on in his area.
If the hon. Gentleman’s points prove to be properly made and there is sufficient demand to justify the provision of more allotment space over the provision of more housing, schools, community centres or open spaces, he should make that argument to his local authority.
As a south London MP and a former councillor, I agree entirely that it is important to give local authorities discretion. Nothing irritates more than the taking away of such powers. Would it help the Minister, in setting any future legislative framework, if I gave him more detail about the case that I have mentioned? Allegations have been made that the legislation, which we think might be satisfactory, is not being followed, because money is not being transferred in relation to statutory land. Would that guidance help with continuing policy?
As a new boy in week five of this job, I welcome advice, and I would be keen to look into such examples.
As the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington has pointed out, a local authority can use section 106 agreements to get the maximum possible planning gain for the local community. He has given good examples from his community in which the local authority has taken advantage of that facility. I repeat that it is the local authority’s responsibility to ensure that allotments are properly provided for and managed.
We have mentioned disposal. The Government and I believe in devolution and that local authorities are best placed to ensure that there is local provision. However, that does not mean that we cannot do anything, or that we will wash our hands of allegations of malpractice or of local authorities not discharging their duties under legislation, not following guidance or not keeping to the spirit of guidance.
In June 2007, we revised our guidance for plot holders and ensured that they know their rights. That is another example of how we are empowering citizens to know their rights. We are not just talking the talk, but walking the walk. In the past year, we have worked closely with the Local Government Association to update and produce a second edition of “Growing in the Community”, which was launched in March. The updated guide reflects the significant developments in the allotments movement since 2001. It contains excellent examples of current good practice and shows innovative uses of allotments benefiting all sections of the community and highlighting their importance in promoting health, community engagement and community cohesion. Indeed, we could be said to be victims of our own success. By encouraging the use of allotments and encouraging plot holders to follow good practice, we have encouraged more people to want allotments. We cannot have a dam holding back demand, especially if there is also a need.
We are working closely with organisations that have an interest in allotments to consider how to engage with local authorities more effectively to ensure that they are clear about their responsibilities under legislation and planning guidance. We want to use that partnership work to build on current guidance and to ensure good practice. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about any matters with which he thinks I can assist him, or help to lubricate the machine within the authorities, I am happy to endeavour to do so. The same applies to any examples that he might want me to follow up.
We recently gave a grant to the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens to deliver support and best practice in relation to allotments, and to enable better dialogue. My colleague, Baroness Andrews, has taken a lead in those dialogues and will continue to support the work of partners, including allotment representatives, better to address the issues that allotment authorities and users face. Further provisions on community empowerment will be announced in the Queen’s Speech, giving citizens more rights to bring pressure on local authorities. I suspect that allotments are one area in which they will bring pressure.
To summarise, my Department is committed to allotments, and there is a strong legislative framework in place. There is also planning guidance on open spaces, encouraging local assessments on provision and need, and a policy of empowering local communities to highlight their needs. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He has been a passionate advocate for these issues in his community. I thank hon. Members present for staying behind at this late hour to listen to the debate, and I hope that those who read the report of the debate will be encouraged and reassured that the Government take their concerns seriously.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Five o’clock.