#EXallotments – Plant dreams, grow miracles

Out and about earlier today delivering Cowick newsletters, I saw this sign on a garden gate:

Sign on garden gate in Little John's Cross Hill
Sign on garden gate on Little John’s Cross Hill

I hope it’s an omen for tonight’s Exeter City Council Allotments Pre-Forum meeting!

But why a such a meeting?

For many years, the Allotments Service run by Exeter City Council was run in an archaic and dysfunctional way. It was  in need of a root and branch overhaul to modernise the way the service was delivered. I hoped that the end result would be a suitable, sustainable and well-managed service/

A consultation exercise, Securing the future for allotments,  was carried out over the summer of 2014.

As Member Champion for Community Engagement, I had t the desire that it would initiate meaningful conversations on the future of allotments in the city, and lead to engagement between stakeholders in organised conversations.

Oh, if only!

There were problems contacting all allotment tenants  (for some of those archaic and dysfunctional reasons, ECC didn’t hold a database of all allotment holders for one!). As a result, Chinese whispers spread fear and distrust like wild fire.

The Express & Echo published an article, Exeter allotment holders say livelihoods ‘at risk’ under city council proposals to save £43,000 on 16/07/14 which led to several conversations on Twitter.

I and many other councillors attended site meetings (I spent 12/07/14 on 2 sites – Guys & Hilton, and Cowick Lane) where I met with users of allotments. I was keen to point out that the the proposals set out in the consultation document were just that – IDEAS!

But one of the concerns I heard at these meetings was  the fear that ECC were looking to sell off some of the sites for development.

I was able to pont out that the manifesto that Exeter Labour Party had fought the May 2014 on contained the following commitment:
A Green & Healthy City
The need for housing puts growing pressure on our urban green spaces while rising energy prices and the consequences of Climate Change create new challenges for keeping our growing population healthy, happy and prepared for the future. We will:
– protect existing allotments, look for opportunities to provide new allotments and explore the use of public open spaces for community food production.

That seemed to allay many of the fears!

And there were further meetings, with representatives of allotment associations.

It was at one of these meetings with an allotment association that I planted a small seed – why not have an Allotment Forum?  ECC has already set up a Mobile Homes Residents Forum – it’s given a voice to a former hidden community, and has worked for the common good of both the Council and the residents on park home sites.

I  continued to mention this idea at any meeting with anyone connected with allotments…

The consultation concluded with a report that went to Scrutiny Committee: Community on 09/09/14.

Alongside this report came a series of questions to the Portfolio Holder responsible for Allotments (and a lot else besides!), Cllr Keith Owen

“Given the difficulty in conducting a consultation on allotment services, a difficulty acknowledged in the Report to Scrutiny Committee (9.3 refers), and given the diversity of experience of the allotment service across the City’s 26 allotment sites, would the Committee support the creation of a user-based Forum with representatives from all the sites to provide not only a helpful channel of communication between the Council and the allotment gardeners, but to highlight best practice, ensure information reaches all tenants, and establish a representative user-group which would assist in the monitoring of the proposed changes over the 2 year period referred to in 13.2, and engage with a further review at the end of that period?”

Keith agreed: ” Yes : All these suggestions seem entirely positive and reasonable”.

And during the discussions on the report, he stated he welcomed the suggestion of establishing an Allotment Users’ Forum.

My contributions to the discussions can be found HERE.

As a result I proposed the following recommendation to be added to the list outlined in the report:
10) An Allotment Users’ Forum be established in liaison with the Allotment Bodies.

So, with a lot of to-ing and fro-ing (including this open e-mail) about how the Forum would work, we come to tonight’s meeting – a meeting to discuss the creation of a city-wide  Allotment Users Forum, including deciding upon the format of that forum and the general terms of reference that might direct its purpose.

Invitations were extended to Allotment Associations and individuals had expressed an interest in being involved  to represent their site. A a result some 30 councillors, Council officers and allotment users attended the meeting at St David’s Community Centre.

After initial introductions, Cllr Keith Owen gave a presentation detailing the most recent history of the allotment service and the reasons behind the need for change.

He admitted that he recent review was prompted by the current financial situation and the need for the Council to save £4m across all services over the next 3 years – but he confirmed that NONE of these savings will come from the Allotments Service.

Keith re-affirmed the council’s continued commitment to allotment and the desire to better manage and expand the current allotment stock.

Indeed, allotments formed part of the process of planning applications in an effort to make allotment available in those areas under development. There was also a positive move to identify areas that could be converted to allotment use and current ‘park and open space land’ was being actively considered.

The meeting went on to discuss the terms of reference and composition of the Forum.

A small group of representatives was asked to draw up a DRAFT terms of reference ahead of the first meeting of the Forum – Cllr Keith Owen (as Portfolio Holder), Cllr Heather Morris (with here experience as Chair of Mobile Homes Residents Forum), Roger Crane (ECC officer) and Beck Wells (Secretary of St Thomas Allotments Association).

It was by common agreement that the Forum would consist of DELEGATES (as opposed to representatives) of each allotment site (26 of them across the city), all councillors, Keith as Portfolio Holder and ECC officers responsible for allotments.

allotments_map_1

As someone that helped plant that initial seed, I’m now beginning to see the first sightings of green shoots. I can’t wait to see this flourish.

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