2015 Afterword to the second edition of Raising Spirits

 

The second edition will be available from the end of November 2015

A few copies of the first edition are still available for sale on this website.

 

A Happy Ending – How Scotland’s allotments were saved for the future

It took stamina, persuasion and long nights to change the legal face of allotments in Scotland. We hope that the story we tell here will convince other organisations and groups that passion and perseverance can prevail.

 

For many years, allotment campaigners have highlighted the need to reform the outdated laws surrounding allotments. When the Scottish Government consulted on this issue in 2012 and 2013, food growers and local authorities agreed strongly that the legislative framework for allotments was confusing and should be simplified. The key issues were size of plots, security of sites, land for new allotments and the need to reduce waiting lists.  The Scottish Government suggested that their proposed Community Empowerment Bill (CEB) afforded an opportunity to address these issues as the main thrust of the Bill was to encourage local authorities and community groups to work together to improve their communities. Allotments fitted into this context.

 

For SAGS the legislative process has been a long journey. It began with a petition to the first session of the Scottish Parliament in 2000 and culminated in the enactment of the Bill in 2015. However, before the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act comes into force there will be transition agreements, secondary legislation and Guidance notes to be agreed so the process is ongoing.

 

Engaging with the legislative procedure leading up to the passing of the CEB has been fraught with difficulty.  As the passage of the Bill unfolded the office bearers of SAGS became immersed in unfamiliar Parliamentary procedures. Before the Bill was introduced the SAGS committee worked on responses to the two consultations. The first was on the general principle of the CEB and whether new legislation on allotments was required. This was then followed by a consultation on allotments which would be a specific part of the new Bill. The SAGS committee members divided the task of reading the responses and making a summary of the main arguments, particularly from the local authorities.

 

When SAGS saw the initial CEB (as introduced) in June 2014 we were concerned about what had been lost and whether anything at all had been gained.  Quite simply it fell far short of SAGS’ aspirations. It did not empower the allotment community. In fact it could be considered to dis-empower them and empower local authorities as they would then have disproportionate control over the provision, size and placement of allotments.  What’s more, it did not give the allotment community any benefits that were not contained in the existing legislation. This is why SAGS felt that ‘The identity and unique role of allotments has not been recognised and all the diverse food growing organisations and communities are being amalgamated into a homogeneous unit.'

 

Over the summer of 2014 the SAGS committee spent many long meetings discussing the different documents: not just the Bill but also the Explanatory Notes, the Policy Memorandum, the Delegated Powers and Financial Memorandum. They were all relevant, all lengthy and all couched in legal terms for which noone had any expertise. We reckon that in all we spent over 1000 hours individually and collectively on this part of the process. Special skills and interests came to the fore: Ian worried about the implications of changes and had a crucial insight into the significance of the 1973 Local Government Act which everyone, including the Scottish Government officers, had missed; Alistair and Kellieanne compared past and proposed legislation in great detail; Mandy had the unenviable task of keeping the records; Andrew and Barbara informed the members through emails and the website, urging them to contact their MSPs; Jenny and Mark organised  press releases and politicians; Alison and Judy liaised with other organisations; Hannah unearthed fascinating information from the archives. In Edinburgh, Peter spearheaded a campaign against a proposed allotment rent rise and this initiative informed the final legislation. Individuals with many different strengths were united in a common goal - to protect past achievements and secure a lasting legacy for future generations.

 

As the legislation unfolded, forums and federations of allotment associations across the country held meetings about the CEB.  Individual plotholders responded to the consultations and wrote to and visited their MSPs to raise awareness of what allotments are about, their unique character and the need to value them. It was grass roots democracy in action and at its best.

 

After collecting evidence on the initial draft Bill, the parliamentary Local Government and Regeneration (LGR) committee was responsible for scrutinising it. SAGS invited members of the committee to see allotments in Glasgow and talk to plotholders. Two MSPs, together with the Clerk to the LGR committee, accepted the invitation and spent a day visiting three very different sites, talking to the plotholders and appreciating the diversity of the allotment culture.  Ian, as President of SAGS, was summoned to appear before the LGR committee. With both clarity and calm, he sailed through the gruelling experience of giving evidence to a parliamentary committee which was beamed live on television.

 

The SAGS committee produced numerous briefings and background papers for the politicians and SAGS members. October saw the publication of the SAGS’ ‘5 point proposition' summarising the amendments that were deemed crucial to the success of the Act.

 

Then in January the LGR committee published its report. It was a great disappointment.  They did not recommend our proposed amendments. Again the SAGS committee swung into action. We briefed MSPs and SAGS members on the need for the SAGS amendments. Long discussions with the Scottish Government officers did not resolve the issues. The officers were trying to balance what the local authorities had indicated they could offer and the needs identified by the plotholders. Understandably difficulties arose because of their unfamiliarity with some of the defining features of allotments. These are perfectly understandable to plotholders but needed spelling out in detail to civil servants. They easily grasped the size of a plot once it was likened to a tennis court!

 

 

 

 

In February came the Stage 1 debate when the continued passage of the Bill is either accepted or rejected. Many MSPs spoke in support of allotments. We briefed the  press and allotments became a live media issue with various items featured prominently in newspapers, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

 

The CEB was the responsibility of the Minister for Local Government and Communities, Marco Biagi, but allotments were the responsibility of Dr Aileen McLeod, Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform,  so both Ministers were involved in trying to reach agreement. It was a cold spring. There were two meetings in a freezing, but welcoming, community hut, at Inverleith allotments. One was with the Local Government and Communities Minister and his aides, followed by one with three members of the Shadow cabinet and their aides. More meetings took place, (one with the Cabinet Secretary Richard Lochhead present), more email discussions, more briefings, more press releases, and yet more fact sheets.

 

In March 2015 Stage 2 of the Bill was dramatic. This stage takes place in committee when the LGR votes on the amendments tabled in the initial Bill as introduced. Ken McIntosh, the Shadow Minister for Local Government, presented allotment amendments. These were accepted by the Committee with four votes to three. However, our jubilation was short-lived.  The Government’s response what that because local authorities were concerned, the amendments might be removed from the Bill  when it returned to the Chamber for the final Stage 3 debate. Since the Government had the majority of votes in Parliament it could over-rule the amended Bill.

 

We hatched Plan B. SAGS issued an ultimatum. If the Bill was passed without our amendments the allotment community would deem the Act to be a failure. SAGS warned that, if the amendments were rejected, Scotland’s allotment community would feel betrayed and abandoned. In effect allotments would have disappeared as an identifiable entity and would have simply become part of the amorphous mass collectively known as ‘Community Growing Projects’. Given the significance of this, history and the responsibility for future generations weighed on everyone’s mind. We even plotted a mass demonstration outside Holyrood with pitchforks and barrow loads of dung.

 

However, a last minute effort to find agreement culminated in a meeting between Scottish Government officers, representatives from the local authorities and SAGS. Finally sitting round a table with a professional facilitator resolved the tensions. We agreed final amendments in principle and a positive outcome looked possible. At Stage 3 Dr McLeod submitted the amendments. Plotholders experienced the democratic process at first hand, either sitting in the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament or watching the broadcast proceedings on television as this milestone legislation passed into law.

 

So what changed after 15 long years of campaigning?

 

Part 9 of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 replaces the existing legislation for allotments . It contains several important new clauses protecting allotments and plotholders.

 

1. Local authority mandate:  Local authority allotments are now secure. Local authorities will be required not only to consult with Ministers prior to closing an allotment site, but will also need to provide a replacement site locally if there is still demonstrable demand.

 

 2. Defining the size of an allotment plot: The size of a standard allotment plot which prospective plotholders can request is now defined as approximately 250 sq. m. This will enable people to choose the size of a plot that suits their needs and not fear that the authorities will offer smaller and smaller plots to cut waiting lists without finding more land.

 

3. Legal duty to provide allotments: The Act requires local authorities to maintain a central waiting list of people wanting an allotment, and to take ‘reasonable steps’ to increase allotment provision if the number of people on the waiting list exceeds 50 per cent of the number of existing plots, or if anyone has been on the waiting list for five years or more. Five years is still a long time but it is hoped that as local authorities work together with allotment associations sufficient land will be found close to people's dwellings to satisfy everyone's need.

 

4. Fair rent clause; The Act states that allotment rents must be calculated on a basis that is fair and reflects the level of services provided and the plot-holder’s ability to pay. This clause in the Bill is a key social justice issue, as it ensures that allotments will be affordable to everyone in Scotland and will not simply become a hobby of the middle classes. This would become the case if rents were allowed to rise to reduce demand.

 

5. Food Growing Strategy:  Each local authority must prepare a food-growing strategy that will identify land in its area that they consider may be used as allotment sites, or used by a community for the cultivation of vegetables, fruit, herbs or flowers. This duty has the potential to transform access to land for growing across Scotland.

 

There will be Guidance Notes and regulations to accompany the Act and a tri-partite group, chaired by the Minister for the Environment with representatives from SAGS and local authorities, will be set up to monitor the progress of the Act.

 

Although only local authority allotments sites are covered by the legislation in Part 9, the food growing strategy and other parts  of the Act contain legislation that is relevant to all allotments and other growing communities, with more devolved management and asset transfer. These clauses offer opportunities and future challenges.

 

The Act is a positive step forward. There is now Scottish Government acceptance that citizens have a right of access to sufficient land to grow food for themselves and their family with all the associated benefits in term of health and well-being, engagement with the natural world and participating in the local allotment community. However for this to happen we need enthusiasm, commitment and engagement from all members of the allotment community in Scotland. We must all ensure the Act fulfils our needs and that if there are any 'unintended consequences' these can be addressed positively for the new generation of plotholders.

 

Following the enactment of the Bill, Dr Aileen McLeod confirmed the Scottish Government’s recognition of the wide benefits of allotments when she said:

 

The Scottish Government strongly supports the development of allotments and other forms of food growing in Scotland. We understand the important role that allotments play; along with the wider benefits that they bring to our communities.  We recognise the unique identity of allotments in terms of the long history there is of growing food in this way and also in relation to the scale on which food is grown.

 

All of us who had worked so hard to secure this recognition and the protection afforded by the Act could now breathe easily. We had achieved what we set out to do. Our spirits, like the numerous seeds we had sewn in our allotments over many years, were well and truly raised.