I recently wrote a love letter to my allotment. It was an homage to my little patch of ground that had, in less than 2 years, come to mean so much to me. Its not perfect but having the space to grow my own fruit, vegetables and cut flowers had made a such a difference to my life. The saying goes ‘you can’t put a price on happiness’ and yet something happened at the weekend that made me look at my plot in the cold-hearted terms of money.
On the way to the allotment on Sunday morning I bumped into a fellow plot holder and we got chatting about the weather, his asters and his Sunday lunch. Just as we were about to say our farewells he remembered something. ‘They’re putting the price up of the allotments, you know’, he said. I didn’t. He went on to say that they would be charging by the square metre, a £1 a square metre and that he had already told them he would be giving his up, as a result.
My own plot, classed as a full size plot, is 20 metres by 7 metres and I currently pay £10 a year. Compared to rents across the country I know it is extraordinarily low but it got me thinking, just how much would I pay for my beloved plot and what would others consider an appropriate charge. Some of the most expensive plots in the country cost over £150 a year and I would be willing and able to pay this for renting my plot, although I would want a justification for such a price rise and would expect more facilities in return. But for those living on a limited income of a pension, which make up the majority of other plot holders at my site, I’m guessing that this would be a prohibitive amount. Then there are those who choose to pay the £10 a year so they keep hold of their plot but do very little with it but it doesn’t really matter to them if that £10 has been wasted. They might think differently with a significant price rise. This might not be such a bad thing if it routed out those who take up plots when they aren’t that bothered about them. But I did wonder whether there would be anyone, other than me, who would consider paying any sort of price rise let alone £1 per square metre. The idea that this might be a cunning plan to get everyone off the plots to sell off the land crossed my mind. Would I be the lone person defending my plot as the bulldozers came in?
There seems to be such variance across the country in the rent charged by councils for allotments. A study by the University of Leicester in 2011 which gathered data from allotment sites in England found rent charges ranged from 1p to 55p per square metre, with the average plot measuring 250 m2 and costing 15p per square metre. The 1950 Allotment Act states councils can only charge ‘at such rent as a tenant may reasonably be expected to pay for the land’. That’s clear then! There is also such a difference in what is offered in return for the rent. Some plots have water, toilets, communal sheds, storage facilities, deliveries of compost and bark chippings. My own allotment offers water on tap but nothing else but that’s fine as I only pay £10, I would expect to pay more for any other amenities.
Steep price rises have become common place in recent years with doubling, and even tripling of rents not unusual. Canterbury City Council proposed that a full plot for 2012/13 will cost £104 compared to £52 in 2011/12. The justification for rises such as this, across the country, is that councils are having to find ways of managing their budgets in the face of massive shortfalls in funding from central government. Are allotments now being seen by councils as cash cows rather than a subsidised facility that were never intended to supply councils with funds? In places with long waiting lists maybe councils feel they can get away with charging more but it’s a risky strategy in other places. You won’t raise more money if everyone gives up their plot.
For me, having an allotment was never really about saving money by growing my own food but for some of the older plot holders it is. Many of them grow staple crops such as potatoes and onions in large enough quantities to keep them going through the winter. Any significant price rise will wipe out any saving they are making and I suspect they would no longer be interested in having a plot.
In the days before allotments had become popular there was a dearth of plot holders in my village. As a result some of the regulars acquired more plots which they still have today, despite there being a waiting list. Pricing them out of having more plots on the face of it would seem only fair. The down side is these regulars are the ones who really do look after their plots.
Of course, all I had heard was a rumour, the rest was my imagination running away with itself. The allotments in my village are the responsibility of the parish council and are managed by the parish clerk. So to see if I could find out the facts I gave him a ring. I can’t say I came off the phone feeling any clearer about what I’ll be paying for my plot. There are quite a lot of different sizes to some of the plots and it has been deemed unfair that the charges don’t reflect this. Apparently, measurements have been taken and letters will be issued to clarify who rents what. I can think of one plot holder, in particular, who has three large plots, who will be particularly affected. The rent will go up as a new charging structure is introduced but this has yet to be decided. Only time will tell what others are willing to pay for their plots. After years of being used to, what is admittedly very low rent charges, it’ll be interesting to see who will be around this time next year. I do hope it’s not just me.
How much would you be willing to pay for your plot?