Tories, allotments and the war on public space

Wandering around my home town of Brighton, as I pass allotments I have often reflected that many of them are on what would pass for prime development land. Rather in the spirit of John Betjeman in the 1960s, who, when spotting a pretty country church would adopt the persona of a Northern town planner and mutter “We’re ‘avin that down”, I find myself in the age of Government by estate agent imagining how that land could contribute to the city’s stock of luxury apartments with sea views.

Even though the one of the biggest bloody noses the ruling Tory party got in Brighton in recent years was over its proposal to build a 600-space park and ride facility on the allotments in my home suburb of Patcham, I felt the time would not be long in coming before the estate agent’s dream and my nightmare would come true.

And so it has proved.

The Independent reports today that allotment holders are mounting a campaign against a Coalition proposal to remove the statutory obligation for councils to provide allotments – a law that dates back more than a hundred years. The proposal is justified by Eric Pickles’ department as a measure to remove red tape.

Such comments are of course highly ideological. For Pickles, “red tape” is anything that stands in the way of unchecked commercial development and which allows local people a voice in how their environment is managed. Looking at councils like Brighton and Hove – whose basic tenet of planning policy appears to be to turn the city into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sainsbury and Tesco – the outcome is all too clear. If the provision of allotments becomes a policy decision, councils being shafted by Con Dem cuts will see the sale of allotment land as a nice little earner.

But there’s something bigger at work here. This proposal seems to me to be part of a much wider ideological war to secure the privatisation of public space; whether it is rhetoric about bossy bollards and a determination to keep the streets for the private car, or restriction on the right to demonstrate or protest, or the proposal to sell off our forests, or Westminster Council’s criminalisation of homelessness, the Tories (and of course by extension their Liberal Democrat useful idiots). What we are seeing, it seems to me, is a modern reincarnation of land enclosures or the Highland Clearances; a belief that there is no such thing as space that the public enjoys by right, and that whatever we do in the open is by leave of our economic and social superiors.

I expect that the Tories will back down over allotments. The backlash will be huge, and much of it will be from the Middle England that the Tories and Lib Dems like to claim as their own. But there’s a bigger war here, one in which a lot of ground has already been ceded, quite a lot of it by Labour.

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