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Volume 687: debated on Monday 27 November 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many allotments have been closed over the past five years; and whether any new allotments have been established in the same period.

My Lords, government office records indicate that in the past five years disposals have affected 225 statutory allotment sites in accordance with the legislative and planning framework, which is in place to protect statutory allotments. We do not require local authorities to provide figures for the disposal of temporary or private allotments, allotment gains or gains for other types of green spaces, as it is a matter for local authorities to determine levels of provision to meet a community’s needs.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply but is she aware that in one year alone, out of 56 applications, 44 were approved, which is equivalent to 84 football pitches? Is she also aware that in many areas people are looking for allotments without success and that there is a long waiting list for them?

My Lords, I was not aware of those specific figures, but I am glad to have them and should like more details. There is no doubt that we have strengthened protection for allotments since 2002, when we put in place the regime under our planning policy guidance 17, whereby consent can be given only if an allotment is surplus to requirements, if adequate provision is made and if note has been taken of the numbers on the waiting lists. We have also made it clear that local authorities must audit their green spaces. This is an important matter. I am sure that the noble Baroness shares my passion for allotments, which bring great joy to the community. There is an increasing demand for them and we want to see more being provided.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the provision of allotments on a greater scale than is permitted at the moment could be part of the Government’s campaign to combat obesity? Allotments involve not only the direct production of healthy food but also exercise for the allotment holders. Is it not astonishing that so far the Minister has said only that this matter is up to local authorities when the Government themselves are campaigning on various matters relating to obesity among young people?

Absolutely, my Lords. We are in debt to the 1908 Liberal Government—perhaps the last Liberal Government—who introduced the requirement to provide allotments. There is no doubt that, as a result, we have a generation of very fit elderly men and, increasingly, a generation of very fit young women who work on allotments and come forward from all parts of the community to grow food. Of course, my noble friend is right: that forms part of our healthy eating regime and our passion for exercise.

My Lords, as things stand at present, local authorities are able to use Section 106 planning agreements to secure land for allotments and funding for various small-scale local projects. Is the Minister aware of the disquiet created by the proposal for a planning gain supplement, which will be distributed centrally, which will put under direct threat small-scale local projects such as allotments?

My Lords, it is certainly true that Section 106 has enabled developers to make provision for allotments. The planning gain supplement is still very much under consideration. We have to be a little patient about the outcome.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that obesity exists principally among those under 30? What is the average age of allotment holders?

My Lords, the average age is certainly coming down. Interestingly, we have a very proactive policy for developing green spaces. The Public Accounts Committee praised the way that our green spaces, particularly parks, are improving in quality. We support the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers which has a wonderful scheme called Green Gyms under which young people go to green spaces, clean them up and improve them, and in the process improve their own health.

My Lords, I invite my noble friend to take a little further the advice given to local authorities. I recognise what the Government have done and that many local authorities have preserved a number of allotment sites against planning stress—I was gratified to find that my grandfather's allotment still existed in an area of great stress in west London—but does the Minister accept that a number of local authorities, including some in rural areas, allow transport, planning and housing decisions to override the need to preserve allotments of all sorts, not simply those that are preserved as a result of earlier statutory provision?

My Lords, allotments have been uniquely protected under the law since 1925. They are not treated as previously developed land. All the evidence suggests that when allotments are disposed of some are used for housing—necessarily so in some cases—but many are used for improving green spaces so they become other kinds of green spaces. That position is not categorical, and such decisions are very difficult to make, especially when they have to weigh up the criteria set out in PPG17.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a good idea if local authorities were able to set aside some green spaces for allotments for inner-city schoolchildren who otherwise never see a blade of grass?

Yes, my Lords. There is nothing to stop local authorities doing that. This particular planning statement requires them to audit and think about what green space they need and how they will use it. That would be a very good invitation to schools, particularly as school gardens are also coming back into fashion, which is a pleasure to see.

My Lords, statutory allotments are the responsibility of parish councils where they exist. Many parish councils would like to provide new allotments but cannot afford the capital costs of setting them up. Very often allotments are quite cheap to run and maintain—obviously a huge amount of voluntary labour is involved—but it is expensive to set them up, to buy the land and to create them in the first place. Would it be a good idea to have a better system of grants to parish councils to set up allotments?

My Lords, parish councils can raise certain amounts of money themselves, of course. I am sure that the noble Lord will be pleased that we are encouraging more parish councils to be created. There are other ways in which a small amount of land can be set aside and bodies such as Groundwork can help in that process. I shall consider what the noble Lord said.