Judy Wilkinson: Can allotments be a disruptive force for change in Scotland?

Allotments campaigner Judy Wilkinson says there is now an opportunity to make allotments part of a movement disrupting the present to make a future where community life, healthy living, local democracy and the natural world are intertwined through the allotment in every part of Scotland

DISRUPTORS’ events are everywhere these days from Sir Richard Branson on energy disruptors in Calgary, to RBCDisruptors to CNBC list of 50 Disruptor start ups.

The Cambridge dictionary definition of ‘disruptor’ is a person or thing that prevents something, especially a system, process, or event, from continuing as usual or as expected.

Can allotments and the allotment movement become part of this force for change? Can they change the traditional attitudes in local authorities in a new and effective way? Are plot-holders already at the forefront of a new movement that recognises our need to re-engage with the natural world, change our food system, re-think our attitude to health and our awareness of climate change?

READ MORE – The big plot: How campaigners have put allotments on the agenda

The Scottish Government is trying to bring about change at a grassroots level with, among other legislation,  the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act and the consultation on Democracy Matters. The old Allotment (Scotland) Acts were re-written in  Part 9 (Allotments) of the CEA and after two years the Guidance for local authorities on this is out for consultation.  There was a new approach to writing this with the establishment of a Tripartite Group consisting of representatives from the Scottish Government, local authorities and the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society (SAGS) , to “develop constructive dialogue surrounding Part 9, and monitor the early stages of implementation”. It puts ‘Grow Your Own’ (GYO) in the context of some of the Scottish Government’s National Outcomes, National Indicators and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The Guidance contains a really impressive list of possibilities that could indeed act as a strong disruptive force...but how can this actually happen?  What drivers are needed? How do we avoid unintended consequences?  Will the local authorities grasp the opportunities and use the duties and powers to the full? How do we ensure that the benefits of allotments are understand by the local authorities and by people in communities who have never grown their own food or even visited an allotment site and talked to the plot-holders?

Allotments are for everyone, for people living in tenements, in rural areas, cities and settlements who do not have large gardens or rolling acres. There is diversity and choice with not just one model for growing spaces - some are formal, ‘traditional’ allotments but many have community plots for groups from the local area, forest gardens, wild areas, orchards and children’s play spaces. They can be a focus for the local community with a hut for schools, meetings and events. Many are sanctuaries where people feel part of the cycle of growing and decay that is the spiritual base of our lives.

READ MORE – Gary Elliot: The food industry is inefficient and wasteful - it's time to get back to our roots

However there has always been a struggle to ensure allotments are respected and that everyone has the right to a patch of land to cultivate.  A hundred years ago the Scottish National Union of Allotment Holders was formed, later becoming SAGS; a group of passionate, committed people who have campaigned, fought and struggled to make sure that everyone who wants to share their love and passion can have a patch of land to cultivate. They campaigned for the original Allotment (Scotland) Acts in 1922 and 1950.

However, unintended consequences followed the 1950 legislation when the Housing (Scotland) Act 1950 was passed. The number of plots fell from about 70,000 to around 6,000 as sites were taken for development. Yes, people need housing but developments can and should co-exist with allotments and other growing spaces to ensure a good quality of life for everyone. If the earlier Acts had been implemented instead of trumped by the housing acts; if there had been vision and passion from the powers-that-be in the twenties and fifties, then we would not have today’s barren, concrete jungles with lack of hope and resulting despair. This disregard must not happen again. The new legislation must fulfil the promise so the quality of life found in allotments is at the core of our society.

As part of local democracy,  allotments have survived in Scotland for over 150 years, a microcosm of community life with people working together, sharing skills, negotiating disputes and disagreements. They are embedded in the culture of the local area, evolving as families, minority groups, friends and community groups take plots. There is now an opportunity for this energy and passion to spread.

READ MORE – Judy Wilkinson: We need your help to transform the places we live in

The local authorities have the power to work with local communities to make allotments an integral component of successful place-making and local development plans. If officers concerned with the food growing strategy, planning, equality and diversity, and economic development teams work together with relevant areas of the NHS such as Health Improvement and Facilities Management teams, then  GYO will be included through local participation in relevant local strategies such as social, health and wellbeing, education, environmental, economic, local outcome improvement plans, food poverty plan, and planning strategies.

Working together is not easy. Partnership and participation are worthy ideals but making it all work in practice requires a change in attitude and building the capability and capacity of everyone involved.  It could turn sour with people taking control through rules and regulations and through pressure to reduce waiting lists. Alternatively it could lead to new practices and connections developed from understanding the harmony achieved in nature. 

We have an opportunity. Working together the GYO movement through the new legislation and guidance could be a disruptive force that will bring the benefits of GYO across Scotland. The Tripartite group have worked hard to ensure that the Guidance supports the intention of Part 9. Please read and comment on the draft Guidance consultation so, acting together, we can really change the places we live in.

Picture courtesy of Keith Bloomfield