PETER FROST meets Watford’s battling allotment holders who have won an important legal victory against a vindictive Lib-Dem mayor, the council and Eric Pickles
They are celebrating behind Watford’s Vicarage Road Football Stadium this month. Local allotment holders have just won the latest battle to keep historic plots for the town’s people to grow fruit and vegetables.
Vincento and his daughter Roseangela are raising a glass of red wine made from the vines they have been cultivating on these allotments for more than 40 years.
In the late 1890s the locals turned to this green lung for leisure, fresh air, healthy exercise and somewhere to grow unadulterated food. They still do today despite the local council’s best efforts to see them off.
In two world wars, when German blockades caused food shortages, the Watford allotments proved a literal lifesaver just as they did all over the nation. When peace came there were one-and-a-half million allotments in Britain. Today there are less than a third of a million and another 90,000 people on waiting lists for plots.
The vast majority of these allotments are supposed to be protected by various acts of Parliament. Local councils have a legal obligation to provide these leisure gardens and growing spaces.
Despite this, rapacious developers and cash-strapped councils are casting a covetous eye over these urban oases with a view to the rich pickings that could be had by building on them.
That is exactly what happened in Watford. In the town, Lib Dem mayor Dorothy Thornhill (annual allowance something over £65,000) and Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, decided the town’s green and bountiful allotments could be stolen away from local plot holders.
So there they were, Tory and Lib-Dem coalition partners in perfect harmony. So much for Cameron and Clegg’s greenest ever government.
Depending on just who you believe, Watford Council and their profit-driven development partners would replace the allotments with housing, a hotel, shops and a new car park for the football club.
To make it all sound a little better Mayor Thornhill and the Lib Dem-dominated council called the plan a “health campus” and hinted at redevelopment or at least improvements of the neighbouring local hospital — once a workhouse. Yet even they admit that no part of the hospital will be built on the former allotment site.
Indeed the hospital development is rather theoretical at the moment with no funding in sight and not much hope of it from a government keener on shutting accident and emergency departments and entire hospitals rather than improving old hospitals or building new ones.
Last week the Watford allotment-holders won a landmark legal victory to save their fertile plots and the judgement could have important implications for many other allotment sites threatened by short-sighted and greedy councils and property developers all around the country.
It has been a long fight for these brave and tenacious Watford gardeners. Each time they seemed to have victory within their grasp Pickles and his rich mates simply change the rules.
Pickles’s initial ruling to grant permission to an earlier application had been quashed, and now the latest judicial review has again sided with the plot-holders.
This is believed to be the first time the courts have overturned a decision to allow development on allotments.
Adam Hundt, lawyer for the Watford campaigners, told us the ruling struck a very important blow for other allotment holders in a similar position.
“I have been contacted by allotment groups all over Britain since this process started.” They tell me ‘If only we had known we could have done something about our allotments being taken from us for development. Now it’s too late.’”
However Watford Council isn’t giving up. It is determined to try again to rip out this green oasis at the heart of the town.
Allotment holders’ spokeswoman Sara Jane Trebar told the Morning Star that the group was thrilled by the decision in a case funded by hundreds of small donations from gardeners and allotment groups all around the country.
“This is a huge victory, not just for allotment holders but for the average person who feels let down by their councils and government,” she said. “It shows that it is possible to fight injustice and win.”
In a statement, Watford Borough Council said it was disappointed by the ruling and would consider an appeal.
I met Bob Wakeling and his wife Ruth harvesting the last of the tomatoes on the allotment plot they have cultivated for some years. Bob was one of the three official complainants in the judicial review.
“We have had to raise every penny of our thousands of pounds of court costs. They just dip into the public purse. We local taxpayers are paying their lawyers’ fees too.
“Like so much in Cameron and Clegg’s coalition Britain, it isn’t fair. If the rules don’t work for them they simply change the rules.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 14 November 2014.