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Red tape ‘weeding’ puts green spaces in jeopardy

As the nation enjoyed the pomp and pageantry of the royal wedding and collectively rode the crest of a jubilant wave, buried deep in the euphoric media coverage was a story not in keeping with the public mood. You had to look carefully for it, but it was definitely there: a seed of discontent that would lead the Independent on Sunday to predict ‘the end of the good life’.

The prediction – far removed from Will’s and Kate’s nuptials of course – linked to a government review of the legal duties of local authorities, seen by some as the first step to paving the way for the sale of the country’s 300,000 allotments.

The Daily Telegraph got in on the act too, forecasting the review and potential abolishment of the 1908 Allotments and Small Holdings Act – requiring local authorities to provide plots where needed – could spark a turf war between allotment holders and the government. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, of River Cottage fame, has warned them to ‘go after allotments at their peril’.

DCLG strenuously deny these claims, and say they are merely reviewing old and unnecessary duties, including allotments, to free councils up from Whitehall red tape. The row has even reached David Cameron, who, having been taken to task on the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions, gave his full support to the allotment movement.

The uproar caused by this perceived threat to allotments must be about as welcome as a dead rat in a water butt to the government. Yet, much like the vociferous campaign against plans to sell our forests that led to a hasty ministerial U-turn, it is another example (lest they forget) of how passionately people care about their local green spaces.

Of course, this will come as no surprise to organisations like Groundwork in the community green space sector. Our experience of working with communities – many of whom are from disadvantaged neighbourhoods – has shown us that even the smallest patch of land can make a great difference. The take up of our ‘Do Some Good’ mobile phone app with Orange, which allows volunteers to upload and share images of their favourite local green space, has revealed a great appetite for these local urban oases.

Now, more than ever, we need to find creative ways of protecting and preserving these much loved local spaces in the face of increasing budgetary pressures.

Worryingly, the picture is becoming clearer, with findings from a recent GreenSpace survey of 63 local authorities revealing 82% of local authority parks and green space teams face budget cuts, of which 30% will lose 20% of their budget.

Groundwork has found they are places where people, particularly the most disadvantaged, can meet friends, exercise, stay healthy and enjoy a sense of well-being – all crucial ingredients of a better and stronger society.

Our ‘Green for Go’ volunteer scheme at Lady Pit Lane Allotments in Beeston, South Leeds, has provided environmental volunteering opportunities for young people aged 16 – 25 over the past three years. With many of the volunteers coming from a variety of backgrounds and abilities the project not only breaks down many of the barriers they have to volunteering, but also – for some – the basic everyday tasks many of us take for granted.

Over in Burnley, our Offshoots permaculture project involves people in environmental activities that provide the most vulnerable with volunteer opportunities that provide the skills, confidence and experience needed to progress into employment. The project also uses the environment as a tool to help improve their mental and physical health.

These allotments are not only an ideal space for learning and working, but also for connecting with others and socialising. The rewards are plentiful; yields of fresh fruit and vegetables, the associated satisfaction gained from having grown them yourself; new horticultural skills and knowledge; team working skills; time spent outside in the fresh air; new and lasting friendships.

It’s projects like these that bring people together that will help bring about the big society – while providing the kind of self-sufficient life that Tom and Barbara aspired to in the 70s. My advice to the government should it ever be needed would be to take great care to not tear up the roses when digging out the weeds.

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