Saturday 28 March 2020

Dig for victory

A timely new study has called for more allotments in cities, and the local people to make them productive on a sustained basis. The new PhD research, from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield, surveyed 10 medium-sized UK cities such as Bristol and Glasgow.

It's behind a paywall at the Landscape And Urban Planning journal, but newspaper reports state the study found that waiting lists for city allotments grew five-fold between 1996 and 2013. Meaning a 6 to 18 month wait to get a good plot, at 2013. Although I'd add that you can usually get on a ratty neglected plot far quicker than that, if no-one else wants it.

The choice of a 1996 - 2013 period looks a bit skewed though, as it covers the decade in which Labour allowed the mass sell-off of allotments (a secret report in 2006 found the loss of "nearly 800 between 1996 and 2006"), and then the 2007-2013 period when there was very high demand during the Great Recession. One has to wonder what the 2013-2020 period would look like, if it could have been reliably added to the study. My feeling would be that the headline figures for urban waiting-lists would have markedly improved between 2013 and 2019, as demand slackened during the jobs boom and new plots were created.

The study goes on to suggest that re-opening former urban allotments would wipe out the waiting-lists, but this risks misleadingly implying that the urban waiting-list levels in 2020 are still at the level they were in 2013. They might be, they might not be, but that the study doesn't appear to consider this gap must raise fears that it could be slanted by omission.

In the press release the Institute for Sustainable Food then further extrapolates that across the UK "there is more than enough space to grow what we need on our doorsteps”, rather than importing veg and greens from abroad. Yes this is true, and we can be self-sufficient if we have to be. I looked into that in detail some years ago, and it seems we just have to cut out the fancified air-blown snacks and prod some youngsters and prisoners into the fields, and then as a nation we'll do fine for food.

The new study comes at time when an army of long-term unemployed is looming. 9m people in the UK are effectively on 'paid gardening leave' with the kids, and because of this many firms and organisations may not be there for them to go back to in June. With some 3m or 4m not getting their jobs back in June, there may be 1.8m left on the long-term dole by September, and thus ministers may have to start to think about big 'work-for-dole' solutions that go far beyond the old YTS schemes of the 1980s. Even if the virus is effectively over by the end of May, the solution to this could look more like the vast Works Progress Administration (WPA) programme that was put in place during the USA during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

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