I am pleased to have secured this debate, Mr. Bayley, and I am privileged to serve under your chairmanship.
This is the second debate that I have held on the subject, the first being in 2004. I spoke then of the virtues of allotments and lamented the decline in their number. Although allotments can be owned privately by individuals or charities, or let by companies such as Railtrack or Network Rail, most are owned and let by local authorities. The vast majority of allotments fall into that category, so for the most part I shall dwell on the legislation and administration that governs that sort of allotment.
In the brief time available, I want to take stock of developments since the 2004 debate and note the unfortunate lack of progress since then. In my opinion, the benefits that allotments bring to individuals and communities cannot be overstated. I have spoken to many allotment holders in Wirral, and they all point to the physical benefits, and, interestingly, the mental benefits, of working on an allotment. Growing one's own vegetables and fruit is relatively cheap, and it is a distinct advantage for those who are feeling the pinch of economic pressures. It is also good for those who want to contribute to biodiversity.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He is a doughty fighter on this subject, and I commend him for the work that he has done. He is indeed my neighbour on the west of Wirral.
Is it not the case that in the western world there is a lack of allotment provision? That is a great frustration for our constituents. Will it be part of my hon. Friend's submission that councils should be urged to do more to even out the provision of allotments across boroughs such as ours?
It is a pleasure to have my hon. Friend's support, particularly in this context. I endorse all that he says. I shall cover those points, but it is true that in our part of the world—in west Wirral—there are no allotments, and there are waiting lists throughout the borough.
Allotments are a good place to source organic products. They are minus the food miles and the carbon footprint, and they have recently become more fashionable and vital. They are set to become ever more popular, and more of an imperative among a broader range of people in the light of rising food prices. Many plot holders have told me that increasingly diverse groups now use or hope to use allotments. It is not simply a hobby for retired men, as the stereotype used to be.
The September 2006 publication "Growing in the Community", commissioned by the Local Government Association, stated that
"allotments have a distinctive contribution to make to the achievement of social inclusion at local levels, as communities of interest bring in a wide range of people, including people from different gardening traditions and cultures, together for a common purpose".
In practice, that seems increasingly to be the case.
Gardening in one's own space brings feelings of satisfaction and tranquillity, with the opportunity to chat to fellow plot holders. Indeed, the more indirect advantages of working on an allotment have been exploited by some local mental health charities. They run various allotment schemes, including one run by the Restore charity in Oxford. I am told that it cultivates an allotment site of two acres outside the city centre in Cowley, where people grow fruit, vegetables, flowers and willow.
Children who have the opportunity to work on an allotment gain a wealth of outdoor experience and knowledge about growing fresh produce, and about nutrition. Their work on allotments contributes to solving the problems of childhood obesity. One might presume that such children are more incentivised to eat their greens if they grow the greens themselves.
There is much evidence to suggest that allotments are rising in popularity. More than 30 books on allotments have been published since 2001, and waiting lists for allotments grow ever longer. According to statistics provided by the National Society for Allotment and Leisure Gardeners, 51 of Bolton's 61 allotment sites have reached full capacity, and all the others are close to full. If that information is indicative of what is happening in other areas of the country, it suggests that allotments are hugely popular, and in demand.
In Wirral, it is thought that about 400 people are on waiting lists. I repeat that in the west of Wirral there are no allotments. In Blyth Valley, there are approximately 900 plots, but in 2007 there were 850 people on the waiting list. In Yorkshire, six towns have a combined waiting list of more than 3,500 people. In many areas, including York—although you might know better, Mr. Bayley—Medway, Peterborough, Solihull and Worcester, to name but a few, waiting lists have increased considerably over the past few years. In some places, people have been waiting for more than seven years.
In Croydon, only 200 people are on the waiting list, but the list is closed. In some cases, the numbers greatly underestimate the demand for allotment provision.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I should declare an interest: I am the holder of an allotment plot in east Finchley, near my constituency.
Is my hon. Friend aware that, especially in London, there is huge pressure from developers and local authorities falsely to reduce the demand for allotments, selling them off to ensure that they become building land, whereas in truth they should be doing their best to ensure that every new development includes some allotment space, particularly in densely built-up urban areas? That would increase the number of allotment spaces, not reduce them. It seems that the number is reducing at a time when demand is rising fast.
I agree. Indeed, I was the sponsor of a ten-minute Bill that addressed that very point.
I hope that I have established today, as I did in my speech in 2004, that allotments are a good thing. They are increasingly popular, more so than in 2004. In principle, we should encourage people to rent and use them and benefit from them. Why are there still not enough?
The 1998 report on allotments by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee concluded that
"the Government should issue a Green Paper as soon as is practicable...and develop a consolidating piece of legislation".
That has not been done. The Committee also said:
"The Government should aim to introduce the resulting Bill within the lifetime of this Parliament."
That was 10 years ago. Sadly, there is much evidence to suggest that almost no progress has been made.
In 2004, I asked for specific, simple improvements that would not require legislation. I asked for greater protection for allotments from development, the point made by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn. In the absence of Government-led initiatives, I sponsored a ten-minute Bill that attempted to address that question. It received considerable support from Back Benchers. I also asked for better security measures, yet allotment holders in my constituency tell me of their struggle against persistent and ongoing attacks of vandalism on their sites.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. In securing this debate, he has inspired my constituents. Christopher Martin of Thornaby asked me specifically and purposefully to attend. He is pleased that we are debating the matter.
It is fortuitous that I am speaking, because Stockton borough council seems to be an exception to the rule. It has invested more than £100,000, which means that allotments are secure and their pathways are infinitely improved. We have only 200 plots, and 60 people are on the waiting list. There is great demand, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend is making such a powerful case. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response, because if the Government were to be slightly more generous in their grant-related expenditure or their standard assessments, local authorities could be much more positive. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that.
Indeed. I hope and pray that all councils will follow Stockton's example, no doubt encouraged by the efforts of my hon. Friend.
As I said, vandalism continues, and allotment holders perceive a lack of response—that councils are not introducing measures against it. In 2004, I asked for a big push on the promotion of allotments. The fact that the issue was discussed at length in "Growing in the Community" suggests that it has not yet been fully addressed. I asked for more investment in plots to provide facilities such as a regular water supply and toilets in order to broaden the range of people, especially women, able to spend time at allotment plots. However, Wirral's allotment societies have not been offered a significant regular increase in what I regard as the pitiful amount of funding that the councils give for the purpose.
I suspect that the situation is the same elsewhere. I asked for more plots, but we have ever-longer waiting lists. Any increase in plots has not been synchronised with demand. Four years after my original debate, I find myself asking for the same provision, which is not good enough.
Let me give another example from my constituency, which I imagine applies equally to that of my hon. Friend Stephen Hesford, to illustrate what allotment holders and societies are up against. The council has published an allotment strategy, complete with plans to prevent vandalism and provide toilet facilities where possible, but there is little evidence that it is being implemented, or that it will be. The council's view is that it cannot allocate resources until it knows the full picture, but that will happen only when the necessary research is conducted, and nothing much is happening in the interim. My constituents tell me that the council is not fulfilling its responsibilities to market and provide allotment usage in any form, and that there is little knowledge about allotment provision.
It has been suggested that the council's long-term strategy is to encourage self-management of sites, including funding, through allotment societies, which should apply to the lottery and other sources. Only allotment sites that have formed societies can avail themselves of grant funding, and a committee has to be formed and a bank account opened before funds can be applied for and released. At least 16 sites in Wirral have not formed allotment societies. It seems to me that the council, like others, is trying to shift the burden of responsibility to the allotment societies, by giving them the burdens of management and funding. Frankly, allotments seem to be near the bottom of the council's list of priorities. In essence, the process of amelioration, if it happens at all, is slow, and slower than it should be. I believe that my area is not an exception, but a reflection of what is happening in the rest of the country.
What are the causes of this disappointing lack of progress? Principally, there is a lack of reliable national data on unmet demand for allotments. If we do not have a clear picture of national demand, how can we take appropriate action? The last review of the issue was carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004-05, but the returns have not yet been analysed, so we are none the wiser. The most reliable statistics we have are from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee report of 1998. The data show that in 1943 there were 1.4 million allotments and only 300,000 in 1996. Worryingly, we have no evidence to suggest that numbers of allotments have not plummeted further. There is certainly no evidence from my own constituency or from research that I have conducted that there has been a widespread, consistent attempt by local authorities to provide new allotments to keep up with demand.
I have asked a large number of parliamentary questions on the subject of allotments in the past five years. More than half the answers to those questions stress the fact that local authorities rather than the Government have a duty to provide allotments according to local need. However, I think that the Government have responsibilities, too. I appreciate that the green spaces database has now been launched, which will in time give us the information for which we have waited so long. I welcome that, but it will not help to bring back the allotments that have already been lost. Indeed, some would argue it is too little, too late—I argue that it is too token.
The other major cause of a distinct lack of adequate allotment provision is the legislation. The Smallholdings and Allotments Act 1908 contains a mandatory obligation on the municipal authority to provide and let allotments, but the obligation is not bound by any period of time, thus in effect absolving the authority from the responsibility to look for suitable land. No realistic sanctions can be brought against a recalcitrant authority, apart from an action before the county court on the basis that it is in breach of its statutory duty. Generally, would-be allotment holders are unable to go to such expense or take such risks simply to prove a point. Where local authorities seem to be matching demand, the standard 300 sq yd plot is being subdivided. As such, the figures are somewhat misleading, but the plots are less useful for growing food, as that requires more space.
There are many competing factors where local authority land is concerned, not least potentially lucrative buildings, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North referred. Councils, including Wirral, find it difficult to provide money for allotments, but they do not necessarily find it difficult to find money for other things.
The problem can and should be remedied. Current legislation could be changed to put time limits on a municipal authority in which they must provide and let allotments. There should be sanctions to deter non-achievement of such objectives. The word "sufficient", which is always used in regard to the requirement on local authorities to provide allotments, is wet and open to whatever interpretation a council may choose. Generally speaking, "sufficient", to the layman, means, simply, "insufficient".
I thought that I would come along to support the hon. Gentleman today, and I would very much like to commend his words on behalf of my constituents. I think he has made an excellent contribution.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman—his remarks are much appreciated.
I understand that the Department for Communities and Local Government—no doubt the Minister will tell us about this when he responds—has already put out to tender a contract for work advising on how it can maximise allotment potential. That is good news, but there is no point looking into allotment potential if there is little scope for using such potential. Other issues, such as the upkeep and promotion of allotments, need to be addressed. Local authorities are used to being set targets in other areas, and I see no reason why targets for allotment provision and facilities cannot be introduced. As it is, local authorities, rather than Government, respond to local demand for allotments, and they should be encouraged to develop their own allotments strategy. To make that manifest, enough provision must be made in budgets. That can only be achieved with effective and rigorous backing and monitoring from Government.
Ultimately, my main message is that there needs to be a sense of urgency regarding allotment provision. As I mentioned in the first part of my speech, and in 2004, allotments make many positive contributions to people's lives and communities. There is enormous scope for joined-up government, incorporating objectives from different Departments, from health to biodiversity and education, and social interaction and cohesion within communities. That the Government have up until this point failed to capitalise on what allotments have to offer shows a failure of drive and imagination. The launch of one database here and a stand-alone publication there is not enough. We must do better. Allotment provision provides a big bang for a relatively modest buck. Let us ensure that it happens. The sad paradox of increasing demand and decreasing opportunity should not be allowed to continue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Ben Chapman on raising this important and increasingly relevant debate on provision for allotments. I agree wholeheartedly that allotments are valuable green spaces and that they provide many great benefits for communities. As he mentioned in his excellent contribution, they provide opportunities for people to exercise, socialise and, more importantly, to grow their own produce, which has an impact on carbon footprints.
My hon. Friend will be aware that interest in allotments has undergone a recent revival in line with current thinking on healthy eating, organic food, exercise and reducing carbon footprints and—let me be blunt—the rising food prices that we have seen in the past few months mean that allotments will be increasingly important to communities. We should welcome that and embrace it as much as possible.
For many years, the Government have recognised the importance of allotments. The provision of allotments and their protection is set out in statute and departmental guidance. It is clear—I say this especially because we are pushing for matters to be decided as locally as practicably possible—that the provision of allotments should be the responsibility of local authorities.
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. If a local authority is of the opinion that there is such a demand, it is required to provide a sufficient number of allotments for letting to those residing in the area who want them.
That is a very important point. Inner-London boroughs are not required to provide allotments in the same way as other local authorities, but the corollary to that ought to be that the outer-London boroughs take into account the demand of people from inner London to get allotments in outer-London boroughs. As far as I am aware, none of them currently does that. That means that people living in inner-London boroughs who could benefit from allotments often find them almost impossible to get.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I shall contact London Councils to find out whether there is strategic, joined-up thinking about the provision of allotments in the capital. I am keen to help him in that regard.
Importantly, communities can and should influence the provision of allotments in their areas. Written representations on the need for allotments can be made to a local authority by any six resident registered electors or persons liable to pay council tax, and under section 23(2) of the 1908 Act, the local authority must take those representations into account. 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.
That is the problem—"sufficient" can be defined in a variety of ways. Although councils are required to take account of representations, they are not required to actually do anything about them.
I shall mention community empowerment later, and this is a good example of a matter on which a community can hold its local authority to account by lobbying, petitioning or whatever. As we suggest in the community empowerment White Paper, there is an increasingly relevant need for allotments to be provided.
I turn to departmental guidance on open spaces, which helps to support the legal framework that I have mentioned. My hon. Friend will know that through planning policy guidance note 17, "Planning for open space, sport and recreation", and planning policy statement 3, "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 make provision for all types of public open space and states that they are expected to undertake robust assessments of local needs and audits of existing open space, and to establish standards for new provision.
Using that information, local authorities should plan to meet the future needs of their population, such as those linked to new housing developments, and can include provision standards in their development plan. PPS3 states that local planning authorities should have clear policies for the protection and creation of open space. New housing developments should incorporate sufficient provision—there is that word again, I am afraid—if such spaces are not already adequately provided within easy access of the new housing.
That is an important point, because as Housing Minister I am keen to ensure that we have more homes for the population of this country. However, I am equally aware that gardens may be smaller than they were a century ago, and that there might not be scope to have a vegetable patch in one's garden, as people of previous generations might have had. As part of a coherent strategy for the building of new development, it is important that sufficient consideration be given to the provision of allotments and open space in general. I am passionate about ensuring that that happens.
Under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, it is possible for local planning authorities to negotiate agreements to provide allotments with developers before granting planning permission. Research conducted in 2003-04 by the university of Sheffield shows that 20 planning obligations to secure developer contributions for allotments had been recorded by the local planning authorities that responded to the survey, which represented about a third of all local authorities. Of those contributions, 19 were financial payments worth some £130,000. Those data show a reasonable use of planning obligations to secure developer contributions for allotments.
We all know about PPG17 and the 1908 Act, and we know that planning gain should reflect that guidance, but the fact is that there are 200 allotments in Thornaby and 60 people waiting. The chances are that they will wait for ever. Other Members do not have allotments in their constituencies at all. We need something more than the current legislation if we are to secure the type and number of allotments that we require.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her passionate criticism. As a north-eastern MP, I am very frightened of her and concerned to address her concerns. She makes an important point.
Yesterday my noble Friend Baroness Andrews met Tony Baldry, who promoted the ten-minute Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South mentioned, to discuss precisely that issue. I understand that their discussion focused on what action could be taken to ensure that local authorities are aware of both the benefits to local communities and their duties in the legislative and planning framework. That important work will be undertaken by a green space organisation once a grant has been awarded, and it will involve supporting a dialogue between the Local Government Association and key allotment organisations to decide how best to support local authorities and link up with wider agendas such as health and education. It is important that we put a rocket up local authorities to ensure that that takes place and that the concerns that have been clearly articulated today are addressed.
However, our legislation is strong and provides for the protection of allotments, which is a unique protection. Section 8 of the Allotments Act 1925, reinforced by planning guidance, states that allotments cannot be treated as previously developed land. That might seem a technical matter, but in practice it makes it very difficult for them to be disposed of or built on. A council can dispose of an allotment only in exceptional circumstances and if it can fully justify to the Secretary of State that there is a need for a change of use, against extremely robust criteria.
In 2002, we sought to strengthen the existing protections. In 1998, a Select Committee inquiry on allotments concluded that the criteria for assessing allotment disposals were too weak. As a consequence, we strengthened the criteria for the disposal of statutory allotments. As I said, they were reinforced by PPG17. The purpose of that was to ensure that the community's need for the allotments in question would be taken into account and that they were considered surplus to need. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South mentioned the difference between the number of allotments in 1943 and now, but that change has meant that the loss of allotments has decelerated. That is welcome, but of course we need to turn the curve and ensure that more allotments are provided.
The key is to ensure that allotments are there for those who want them and that they are properly protected and managed. Responsibility for that lies with local authorities, but central Government remain incredibly interested. We have taken a number of actions in the past 12 months to reinforce our commitment to allotments. For example, we published in June 2007 revised guidance for plot holders, "Allotments: a plotholder's guide," to ensure that they know their rights.
In the past year we have also worked closely with the LGA to produce a second edition of "Growing in the community", which was launched in March 2008. That updated guide reflects the significant developments in the allotment movement since 2001 and contains some excellent examples of current good practice, showing innovative use of allotments that has benefited all sections of the community and highlighting their importance in promoting health, community engagement and community cohesion. It also includes a section on allotment provision, an up-to-date policy framework, a guide to legislation and examples of good practice affecting allotments. The LGA has sent a free copy to each local authority, and we hope that it will help local authorities to make full use of the legislative programme and the protection afforded to allotments.
We are working closely with organisations with an interest in allotments to consider a point that my hon. Friend mentioned: how to engage more effectively with local authorities to ensure that they are clear about their responsibilities under legislation and planning guidance. We will offer clarification through the revised good practice guidance.
Allotments are an incredibly important matter, and one in which I am passionately interested. I am quite keen to get an allotment myself, because I am interested in the health benefits—they are sadly needed, as hon. Members will see—and in people growing their own produce. That is important, and I would like to encourage it as much as possible. Members have expressed the view that allotments provide great positive benefits for the community in healthy living, active ageing, community cohesion, combating climate change and protecting and enhancing community empowerment. That should be recognised in local authorities' development plans and enforced as much as possible.
The sitting having continued for two and a half hours after half-past Two o'clock, it was adjourned without Question put.
Adjourned accordingly at Five o'clock.