Pottering amongst the Cabbages.

Brighton and Hove Council met on Thursday 23rd February to debate the Green administration’s proposed budget. The allotment rent rises look to have been prevented or at least temporarily limited as a result of Labour amendments, and the proposed 3.5% Green Council Tax rise has become a freeze. These changes have implications across the council budget. Here I outline the issues raised by the proposed allotment rent increase, a relatively minor part of the overall council budget, but one that became a focus for action and debate. The issue: why allotments weren’t central to the vision for a ‘green’Brighton, and anger at the lack of meaningful consultation by organisations supposed to ‘represent’ allotment holders and growers across the city.

Background:
Allotment rents in Brighton and Hove have risen from £46/plot in 2010 to £64.40 in 2011, a 40% increase. The recent proposal would have increased that to £110/plot, a further 67% increase over 2 years.  At the same time as rents have been rising, plots have been getting smaller, an approach used to reduce waiting lists rather than open up new sites. The strategy has been to halve every vacant plot and re-designate these ½ plots as ‘standard plots’, while standard (10 rods) plots have been re-named ‘old full plots’. There has also been pressure on plotholders with more than 1 standard plot (10 rods) to give up part to someone on the waiting list. The increases both last year (of 40%) and this year (proposed 67%), from £23 in 2010 to £32 in 2011, then the proposed £55 in 2012-13, were also quoted in terms of the cost of a ½ plot rather than a full size 10 rod plot, so the true cost of the proposals were less evident. Statements that the 25% concession would still remain – although that also wasn’t guaranteed and was open to review – obscures the fact that a 25% concession on £110 would still amount to a standard allotment rent of £82.50/year

During the debates, after the budget proposals surfaced publically, the issue became a question of enforced and inevitable austerity, of making a choice between allotment rent rises or, for instance, cuts in adult social care or supported housing for the homeless, demonstrating that the Greens are as much the masters of spin as any other political party. It showed a complacency and ignorance about the value of allotments in the life of the city. A rise to £110 would result in allotments becoming a luxury, a life style choice afforded only to those with good salaries and jobs; even the community allotment projects are faced with rent rises, when only recently most of the community projects were rent-free in acknowledgement of their value as a community resource, a social space, a source of ‘growing’ knowledge and a green space in a city with few public green spaces.

Manipulating Language:
The vocabulary used has also betrayed a manipulation of meaning. Talk of the ‘historic allotment subsidy’ has suggested an arrangement that had not received proper scrutiny for years and that such ‘subsidies’ were something we could no longer afford. The ‘historic allotment subsidy’ was introduced in response to the Allotment Act 1908, across local authorities in England to ensure access to land that was affordable to rent while still making it possible to grow food economically. As people face loss of work, cuts in their hours, alongside rises in food costs, fuel and other household essentials, growing food for the family again is a necessity, echoing the situation families found themselves in during the 1930s Depression, and again during and after the Second World War.

Democracy and accountability
The swift Facebook campaign, the petition at Seedy Sunday, and the Twitter campaign by local plotholders horrified at the budget proposals, ensured that the issue would not remain buried in the detail. It demonstrated city-wide anger amongst allotment tenants. What it also clearly indicated was the complicity of Brighton and Hove Allotment Federation in agreeing to the rise in the 1st place, and its failure to consult. The Federation chose to negotiate with the council without the benefit of knowing plot holders’ views. The Chair of the Federation has publically acknowledged he didn’t consult members:

I can confirm that it was my decision not to make the proposed rent increases general knowledge to allotment tenants, at the time the increases were proposals, and I did not want to worry tenants unnecessarily if the committee in consultation with the City Council could either (a) just agree a cost of living increase or (b) reduce the increase to a more manageable amount

In the minutes of the Allotment Site Reps meeting he indicated an unwillingness to challenge the Council’s budget proposals:
After the budget has been set, it will be too late to reverse the increase. Even now, the council are very unlikely to change or challenge any of the proposed figures unless extraordinary public pressure is brought to bear very quickly. 
BHAF 17.2.12

The Site Reps at their meeting were very clear about their rejection of the rent rise, voting against the rent rise in all its proposed forms. This doesn’t seem to have had any effect on either the Federation or the council; Pete West, Green councillor with responsibility for sustainability issues, was at the meeting, but seems to have missed the signs of revolt. He continues to reiterate, in all his correspondence over the proposed rent increase, that the council had consulted the Food Partnership and the Federation, as representatives of allotment holders.

The Allotment Federation  were complicit in agreeing to, rather than opposing, last year’s 40% rent increase imposed by the previous Conservative council administration. That increase had been agreed to without any consultation amongst the Federation membership (ALL allotment holders across the city are Federation members). The Fed have repeated their failure to consult during this recent debacle over the 67% rental increase; bear in mind this was to be 67% on top of last year’s 40% increase.

If tenants across the city had been clear about the full implications of the rent proposals perhaps the Federation would have been strengthened in their negotiations with the council over the rent rise rather than becoming complicit in accepting it.

The issue of allotment rents has not only thrown into relief the cosy arrangements between the Allotment Federation and the local Council; it has also made it clear that the local Food Partnership has limited understanding of the allotment movement,  & only presented itself as the conduit to the council on behalf of local growers when it realised the level of anger:

We recognise that steep increases in allotment rent may exclude some people from the opportunity to continue allotment gardening or to take on plots in the future.  If you feel that this would be the case for you, or someone you know or work with, please get in touch with either your site rep or The Allotment Federation whose role it is to represent individual plot holders on these issues[…]

We would like there to be further time given to better understand the impact of the removal of the subsidy on individual plot holders and how to implement any increases to rents in ways that do not further marginalize people who are already struggling with bills. […]

In our remit of supporting growing projects we have responded to the Council’s budget proposals on the removal of the allotment subsidy and asked for consideration of the position of community groups with allotment plots. We will let community plots know when we have a response to this.

It would be useful to see the representations made by the Food Partnership to the Council along with their response; just as it would be useful to know what arguments were made to the Council by the Allotment Federation.

The Greens are now using the Fed’s tacit agreement to the original rent rise proposal to argue that they understood the rent rise had been accepted as necessary by allotment tenants across the city & any misunderstanding was not their fault – a classic case of passing the blame down the line.

The Greens, Allotments and their manifestos:
Beyond all these local actions, the main feeling has been disbelief at such a proposal by a Green council with a stated support for allotments. The other issue emerging is the role of allotments in the sustainability agenda in the city. Allotments and the community growing projects in particular, could be the central core of the process of making Brighton a more food-secure city as well as addressing food poverty amongst the poorest of the city’s citizens: growing food in a sustainable way and addressing ways of using marginal land sustainably alongside training in growing skills, developing community growing: the community works, the community eats, the community grows.

Caroline Lucas’ election manifesto 2010 makes interesting reading:
‘providing many more allotments. Most people who want an allotment should be able to get one. Councils should use existing powers to designate new allotments in perpetuity.

Allotments – seeding the future

30,000 people have allotments – and 100,000 are waiting for one. Allotments cut carbon and are seeds for communities to grow.’

The Greens’ national manifesto also refers to the significance of allotments:
Allotments
AG627 The Green Party recognises the vital role that allotments have to play, particularly in maximising the potential for urban food growing. Allotments need to be recognised for their environmental, health and social benefits

Set against the backdrop of these public statements, Caroline Lucas’ recent response to an allotment holder suggests a distancing of herself from the Green Council’s action:
[…] I share your concerns about the removal of the allotment subsidy. Whilst I understand that concessions will still remain for the elderly and those on low incomes, access to a low-cost allotment, in a city that in some parts lacks green open space, is something that should be widely available to residents.
[…]
I believe that Cllr West has been in touch with the Allotment Federation to discuss longer term plans to help develop the allotment service, and I hope this will be helpful.
In the meantime, please be assured that I share your concerns and that I will voice them strongly with the Council.

The Wikipedia entry for Allotment (gardening), under United Kingdom, now has an entry drawing attention to these recent attempts by the Green Council to raise allotment rents:
The rent is set at what a person “may reasonably be expected to pay” (1950), in 1997 the average rent for a 10 square rods (approx. 250 m2) plot was £22 a year. In February 2012 the UK’s first Green-controlled council (Brighton and Hove) caused controversy when they stated their intention to raise the rent for a standard 250 m2 plot to £110 per year with many people suggesting that this was contrary to the environmental agenda on which they were elected.

The allotment movement rarely rears its head, preferring to potter amongst the cabbages; the Greens might be wondering how they managed to waken Brighton and Hove’s urban growers, and should worry about how long they’re likely to remain alert.

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