Well that was a difficult growing season!
People who have been growing for decades say that was one of the hardest years they can remember. The strange early warm weather followed by a cold and wet spell produced a massive slug and snail attack and then the blight in the humid summer all combined to decimate peoples crops. If there is one thing you need to learn as an allotmenteer it is resilience! There were some successes to be had. Blight resistant potatoes did well. Courgettes were plentiful as usual and resowing and replanting again and again meant I finally had a crop of runner beans in September! If you are new to allotmenteering and had a bad year, don't be put off, it was difficult for everyone... including, it seems, the allotment service itself...
We all know that the service has not been performing as well as it should lately due to a combination of factors. The Covid pandemic on top of an already under-resourced service and difficulties in employing maintenance staff have all come together to severely impact on the service. Some site reps have felt unsupported, plot holders reported sporadic answers to communications and many plots have fallen into very overgrown states as there have not been any proper inspections for two years. Plot lettings have not been happening at the usual rate either and this has left a feeling that the sites are deteriorating.
Sadly, the relationship between BHAF and the allotment service has not been optimal as a result of our frustration. However, we now desperately need to put past differences aside and all work to pull the community back together, bring the city’s sites back into cultivation and to get the vacant plots let as quickly as possible.
We are currently trying hard to get a speedier plot letting process implemented. The current letting process, (which has been restricted due to GDPR concerns) is slower than it has ever been at a time when it needs to be faster than ever before. We suggested a speedy process which is GDPR compliant but sadly so far this has not been implemented. We will keep trying to impress on the Council that we are really in a near emergency situation. As plots fall into three years of overgrowth, they become impossible to let without expensive work to clear them. It is potentially a very slippery slope.
It's not all doom and gloom though. In positive news a small team from the BHAF Committee have at last started working together with Paul Campbell (City Park Projects and Strategy Manager) and Beulah Knight to work on delivering the 2014-2024 Allotment Strategy, much of which remains undelivered. Beulah Knight has been employed by the Council as a project officer for a year with the sole purpose of delivering the Allotment Strategy. Many of the recommendations of the strategy, when implemented, will help not only restore the service but help it function better than before. Delivering the strategy is crucial to bringing about the changes which need to happen to safeguard our sites going forward.
The allotment service has also allocated an extra (if only temporary) admin person (Jess) to help catch up on communications and admin. We all know how hard Ben works for the allotment service and hope this takes some of the heat off him.
See the Allotment Strategy here
The BHAF strategy priorities are focused on increasing participation in helping run the service but with a clear focus on proper representation and transparent and democratic governance. As a community, we need to take on more responsibility. The roles and responsibilities of everyone involved from the allotment service itself to site reps, associations and even plot holders need to be clearly defined.
The rules also need to be reviewed with a focus on protecting bio-diversity and the environment. As we all know, the environmental benefits of allotments are huge. We also want to see an improved ICT system which will allow a smoother running of the service. We are also investigating ways to improve the perennial problems of leaking taps, broken locks and gates and rubbish removal.
One thing is clear and that is that the budget for the allotment service will continue to be severely restricted.
There seems to be a good case for greater degrees of self-maintenance on sites. The day-to-day problems are repetitive and easy to solve. Broken gates, broken locks and leaking taps are all easily fixable for a handy person. Rather than waiting sometimes days for work to be done it could be beneficial for larger sites to have a designated maintenance person and for the local Association to have a budget to pay for parts etc. This would probably work out more cost effective and definitely quicker than the current situation.
Some sites and reps have tried to do this in the past but the Allotment service has historically seemed reluctant to allow this to happen. (For example, not telling Site Reps where the stop cocks are!) Hopefully this situation is about to change. There are undoubtedly many handy people on our sites who would not want to do the traditional role of site rep (letting plots and the paperwork etc) but may be happy to do a little maintenance for all our benefit every now and then. So perhaps the way forward is to have more 'Site Stewards' with differing roles. This has worked quite well on some sites already. Please consider if you have handy skills which may benefit your site and please let us know your thoughts on this idea as well.
We may see some restructuring of the service. There are many people very willing to help in the running of the allotments service, we need to make sure that the new structures are open to everyone and transparent in how they are made up. We are a diverse community and the volunteers should reflect that diversity. People should feel encouraged to come forward to help, there should not be any barriers. We believe there is an army of people out there wanting to help protect and run these amazing spaces and we are hoping that the Council will allow us to help run and improve our service in a way which we all feel is appropriate.