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Saturday 11 June 2011

Small island in which I rejoice

VJA Committee meeting - first anniversary
Jeevan, Imran and I on the Victoria Jubilee
The Victoria Jubilee Allotments (VJA) Association met in its clubroom on Saturday morning 11 June 2011; Phil Rose in the Chair. I said I wasn't a committee member but was welcomed (my commitment now is to stop talking, which I do well, and prove to myself I can grow food). People went round saying 'hullo' - Scylla - our secretary - Lorraine, Kashmeer (spelling?), Jeevan, Peter - our treasurer - Judy, Imran, Anna, Sonia, Carol, Robin, and another Lorraine - "Lorraine L". It was a chance for me to get an impression, over and above the progress I could see by strolling round the site, of progress behind the scenes [Photo with permission]
There were hiccups with the drains and the loo. The city council to whom we were all contracted was looking into that. Every plot was taken. There were people waiting. A grant had been won from Awards for All to construct a sensory garden. There was of course a shop staffed by volunteers on rota, with a supply of compost and sharps sand and access to further products on request, a selection of useful tools for gardeners to borrow including a rotavator, a strimmer, a trolley and hand truck. Finances were in good order. What I noted and enjoyed most was the slightly messy and relaxed banter of a reliable working committee, capable of making and following through decisions, allowing diversions but sticking to the agreed agenda while having a laugh now and then; not dominated by any one personality.
As I expected, the matter arose of plotholders who, for one reason or another, were allowing weeds to mature. I was inclined to keep my head down, though I have cut back on most seed heads and am slowly digging my way north, but one plot-holder, a friend - his largely fallow plot near ours  - was swift to remark the subjectivity of the term 'weed', knowing names - Horse’s tail, Oxeye daisy, Japanese knotweed - there's a devil - Bindweed, Yellow toadflax, Ragwort - the famous 'stinking willie' - Creeping Buttercup. Common Chickweed, Ground-elder, broadleaf dock, cushy-cows, kettle dock, smair dock and the prolific thistle family to name just a few - but pointing out that for some Fat-hen - Chenopodium album - an annual covering much of the site last summer and no doubt returning soon - is a cash crop eaten all over the world, expanding, when requested to cut his weeds down even if he didn't want to, or couldn't, dig his soil right now, on the point that some weeds if cut back grew even worse and, if dug up, made way for ones that are even less welcome.
"Will you just cut back the stuff on your plot, please, so the seeds don't fly all over the hard work of people who've been breaking their backs to draw a crop from their garden?"
The chair moved on over muttered interjections. There was an agenda item about a website for the VJA.
I and a committee member, Anna, pointed out that until such a time as one of us volunteered to design and maintain a website we could provide information about ourselves and communicate via an existing blog like mine, which could be searched for references under 'VJA' or 'Victoria Jubilee Allotments', or a set of pictures on a photo hosting site like flickr, with the option of adding links between pictures with texts containing further links to that blog or other relevant sites. At a pinch I suggested anyone could just search under 'Victoria Jubilee Allotments'. The name has a rich web presence because the internet had been so available while we were campaigning. I promised I'd post some links on Democracy Street that would point people to things that had gone on before the new VJA opened on 12 June last year - on the 11 June 2011 entry, the new VJA's first anniversary.
While I and others were campaigning to prevent a private housebuilder winning planning approval for building over the whole site, including our present allotments and the area now reserved for playing fields, we called ourselves, on the basis that information is power, the Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG) and produced a detailed argument for not building on any of the site, that revolved round the fact that there was enough demand for allotments in the area to take up all the plots on the private allotment site that had existed there since the 19th century. The Case for the Victoria Jubilee Allotments - report and appendices on
Around the time we were formulating our case and holding public meetings and circulating leaflets two films were made by the BBc that features the VJA.
1. Victoria Jubilee Allotments: BBC Private Investigations
2. Losing the Plot - Midland Report BBC 2000
Bobby, Scylla (Hon.Sec) and Joey - VJA 11 June 2011
And this was the case I made in 2003 to Birmingham City Planning Committee which 'compacted'- we were allowed 3 minutes - our case against the developer's application and delayed approval until a more generous planning gain agreement was concluded with the applicant and won us the site we now enjoy:
Comments by HAIG (Handsworth Allotments Information Group) on application N/01514/03/FUL – Victoria Jubilee Allotments (VJA)  - at Birmingham City Council Development Control meeting on 4 December 2003
I’m going to explain why the decision recommended to you is in clear breach of your duty as a Council to assess demand for allotments – not just on the VJA but across the city. I will, in your interests, take you through the key points
1. Para 3.62 of the Unitary Development Plan said “Where it can be demonstrated that the demand for allotments has fallen, consideration will be given to alternative uses for surplus allotments.”
The important words are demonstrate and demand – which refers to evidence of expressed and potential demand for allotments. Furthermore it says there must be “exceptional circumstances” to justify permitting “other forms of development”. Have exceptional circumstances been demonstrated?
2. This application, and your officer’s arguments for it, do not pass the first hurdle set by your own UDP – namely the demonstration of fallen demand.
i. On p.13 of his report your officer says waiting  lists in the vicinity of VJA equals 124 plots
ii. And on p.14, acknowledging the City holds no centralised waiting list information, he relies on a population based analysis of demand to suggest an over-provision of 279 plots.
3. Before accepting this “paper exercise” as a legitimate demonstration of fallen demand as required by the UDP, we must understand that by relying on points 2i) and 2ii) for this purpose, the officer is in clear breach of a duty to assess the need of the local community for allotment space. In effect BCC is relying on its own failure to assess demand to show there is no demand. 
4. The duty to assess needs for allotments is very clear
Paras 1,2,3,5,10 in PPG17(see PPG17: Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation)
5. Where then is BCC’s assessment of the need/demand for
allotments on VJA?
allotments within 1 mile (or whatever is an appropriate minimum travel distance) of the VJA?
allotments within the district i.e. Handsworth or North B’ham?
allotments within the city?
6. No such assessment has been made by BCC. Given this clear breach of duty, involving a significant loss of allotment space, BCC cannot approve a project, or defer it merely to pursue a legal agreement with the applicant. It must either
defer and meet the duty to assess, or
reject (we note, by the way, that Westbury have not demonstrated  fallen demand through an independent assessment (see 3.2. Assessing needs etc in PPG17 companion guide)  )
7. In these circumstances the “paper exercises” of 2i) and 2ii) are insufficient. It doesn’t matter whether appropriate minimum provision is 7 plots per 1000, because BCC cannot rely on a paper exercise in the absence of “comprehensive” (3.1. Assessing needs etc in PPG17 companion guide) and “robust assessments” of the “existing and future needs” of the population for open space (PPG17 para 1). If there is an assessment meeting PPG17 duties, why does your officer’s report not refer to it?
9. So that makes 3 breaches in the recommendation before you – two of omission, one of commission. These entail
a) failure to assess need
b) failure to take into account the material consideration that need for allotments has not been properly assessed, and
c) taking account of an immaterial consideration, i.e. inadequate “paper” exercises claiming to prove a fall in demand which those of us who live in Handsworth have gone out on the streets to prove is not the case.
Planning Officer’s report to BCC Development Control Committee on N/01514/03/FUL – 4 Dec 2003
Planning Policy Guidance 17: Planning for Open Space, Sport and Recreation: ODPM Aug 2002
Assessing needs and opportunities - companion guide Planning Policy Guidance 17: ODPM
This was the opening day of the new Victoria Jubilee Allotments - Saturday, 12 June 2010.
My son Richard took photos of people signing up for their plots on that happy day and I shall try to collate and publish these, while this blog features day to day activities on the VJA from a more personal point of view. If any gardener would like more information or any document, map or image relating to the VJA just ask me when you see me, or email me at
January 2007: still waiting for plots
And at last we've got the plot
12 June 2010: Delith, Jeevan and Rachel wait to register for plots
Got the plot
This afternoon I borrowed the associations trolley, perfect for getting some heavy slabs down to the bottom of our plot as foundations for the shed. I've bought a hand earth tamper to help me flatten down the foundations. Lin who did all the plaka in the garden at 208 Democracy Street will come down on Sunday to start laying the slabs flat. My knees and hips are aching...
...and something, probably a pigeon, has eaten the better part of the broccoli we planted yesterday.
And there's Dr Vanley Burke at work on his plot across the way from Plot 14 where we are struggling - gamefully. "Can I take a photo, Vanley?" He nodded assent.
Afterword - 13/6/11: Contemplating the matter of weeds. I was having a chat on Monday morning with Delith who has a plot near ours and Rachel's. We've all got a variety of what constitute weeds on our plots.
"They look beautiful"
"Oh I know. In another setting make a meadow, full of the insect-filled diversity that's been so harmed by mono-cropping. I find it ironic that I'm striving to get rid of these on my allotment."
"There's a theory - no-dig gardening - that says you'll never get rid of weeds" said Delith
I mentioned an episode of Old Country  my stepfather broadcast on Channel 4 in the 1980s. Wandering along a downland slope he compared a ley grass monoculture - cocksfoot, ryegrass, white clover, with (at 09.58 on on a 14" clip) an enclosed piece of old common land full of flowers - thirty and more varieties of herbage.and the insects that live on them.


  1. Simon, could I suggest that if one of the plot holders is interested in making a website that they look at It is a free (for community groups and charities) website builder and is very easy to use. Have a look at Walsall Road Allotments website -

  2. Thanks Betty. Walsall Rpad is a phenomenal example of how to run a successful allotment site. I suspect everyone evolves in its own unique way, and now, a very new site, have even less attention from the Council following cuts. At least we have quite a few special plots dedicated to schools, elderly disables and one run by the park staff. So we have expertise on the ground that is more than welcome to a beginner like me.


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Simon Baddeley