Tuesday 18 October 2011

Green Fingers and the Dead Hand of Local Government

The Welsh Government recently published its Programme for Government, and just about everyone who read it commented on the lack of detail and vague, unquantifiable targets set out within it. One of the proposed measures which was mentioned a few times in news bulletins was a commitment to encourage allotments. The official document released in Cardiff simply states that the Government will legislate on the amount of land available for allotments. You can't get much vaguer than that, can you?

But let's be optimistic and assume that Carwyn Jones and his team will come up with a measure which leads to a real and substantial increase in the availability of allotments across Wales, and that even councils like Carmarthenshire will be forced to create new allotments in communities which currently have none.

The trouble is that any legislation will have not only to make more land available but also prevent local authorities such as Carmarthenshire from wrecking any initiatives by strangling them in red tape and unreasonable dictates at birth.

In 2009 there was a brief flutter of excitement in Newcastle Emlyn at the prospect of the town getting its first allotments.

The proposed site was close to the centre of town, but discreetly tucked away and pretty much invisible to anyone worried about rickety garden sheds and the usual paraphernalia of allotments. The land was flat, being close to the River Teifi, and probably quite fertile.

A small group of stalwarts was formed to try to get the project off the ground, and discussions got underway.

The first obstacle was the need for the group to purchase a licence to use the land as allotments. The council officers involved did not seem entirely sure how this licence could be purchased or from whom, but they were sure that it would cost £200 plus VAT. VAT on a licence?

The group then quickly found itself sinking in the quagmire of council bureaucracy. The project could come under something called "Rural Hubs" and the Rural Development Team, but contact would also have to be made and discussions initiated with Hydrology and Planning.

A couple of meetings took place with council officials to try to find a way forward, but the initially enthusiastic volunteers came to feel that the meetings were being dominated by bossy and unhelpful officials who seemed more interested in laying down the law than trying to make the allotments a reality.

One problem with the site which rapidly became clear was that it was overrun with rabbits. The solution was rabbit-proof fencing at an estimated cost of £1,500. Next, the volunteers were told, work would have to be undertaken to reinforce the ground around the entrance to the site. Cost unknown. Then the council announced that the site would need a toilet, preferably of the composting kind. Cost unknown. Moreover, allotment holders would not be permitted to erect their own little sheds and lock-ups, but would have to fund a single shed serving the whole site, and the specifications and design of the shed would have to be approved by the council. There would also be further charges to have the ground staked out and prepared (but not dug), also work which would have to be undertaken by the council. In addition to that, there would of course be annual charges for the plots themselves.

By this time it was clear that the dozen people who had shown an interest would be facing bills of at least £500 per head before the first spade had gone into the turf. That's a lot of fruit and vegetables.

Sadly, the volunteers began drifting away, and the project broke up in acrimony. Remnants of the group carried on and entered into a few land sharing schemes in neighbouring villages, but that meant travelling four, five or six miles for anyone in town, rather defeating the whole idea.

And so we reach the end of this sorry tale. More suitable land is undoubtedly available, but the problem is that it is on the other side of the river in Ceredigion, and since that would involve cooperation between local authorities, only a madman would give it a second thought.

Meanwhile, Carmarthenshire showed what it thought of allotments in its proposed Local Development Plan. Scores of documents and thousands of pages, but not a single reference to allotments.

No comments: