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March 25, 2015

Plot thickens

The Community Empowerment Bill took some interesting twists and turns last week as various Stage 2 amendments were debated by the Local Government and Regeneration Committee.  The part of the Bill that deals with the provision of allotments has been particularly contentious. Which is strange given that most people feel allotments are, for all sorts of reasons, a feature of community life that should be encouraged. The arguments tabled by the allotment folk won the day at Committee. Their amendments were passed – just.  But Stage 3 beckons. 



Magnus Gardham, The Herald

Scotland’s allotment holders are facing an anxious wait after ministers refused to back down over plans that could reduce the size of their fruit and veg patches.

Growers believed they had scored a vital victory when opposition MSPs voted to guarantee the standard size of a plot and put councils under greater pressure to reduce waiting lists.

But the government indicated they could overturn yesterday’s decision by Holyrood’s local government committee and use the SNP’s majority to force through their original legislation when it comes to a final vote later this year.

Allotment holders have been campaigning for changes to the Community Empowerment Bill, fearing it could spell the end of the standard 250 square metre plot.

They have claimed the proposed legislation would encourage councils to cut lengthy waiting lists by simply cutting plots in half.

They also fear it would allow local authorities to impose steep rent rises, potentially forcing some growers off their prized plots.

At Holyrood yesterday, Labour, Conservative and Independent MSPs voted for amendments that would oblige councils to offer a 250 square metre plot, seen by enthusiasts as essential because the size is required to feed a family, while letting new holders accept a smaller allotment if they wished.

They also backed a plan forcing councils to make more land available if people faced a five year wait.

The changes satisfied the Scottish Allotment and Garden Society, which also welcomed a government amendment legally obliging councils to charge a fair rent.

But the Scottish Government spokesman said the Bill was still being considered and ministers may reject the changes when it returns for its final ‘stage three’ vote.

Environment Minister Aileen McLeod said: “There is cross party agreement about the broad aims of the Bill’s provisions on the size of allotments, and we have listened closely to the views of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society.

“The committee actually agreed a mixture of both Government and Labour amendments, resulting in a hybrid of approaches, which we will carefully consider in advance of Stage 3.”

Mark Thirgood, of the Scottish Allotments and Gardens Society said: “We are delighted with the amendments the committee accepted.

“If, when the bill comes back to the chamber for stage three, the government has kept all those amendments in, this will be a piece of legislation that will serve the allotment community well going forward and for the foreseeable future.

“But we’ll see what the government comes back with. We are not in a position to say the bill is fit for purpose until then.”

SNP MSPs on the committee were outvoted by four to three on the key amendments.

Scottish Labour’s shadow social justice spokesman Ken Macintosh said: “It is only fitting that a Bill designed to empower local communities has been amended to reflect the wishes of those communities rather than reflect the authority and power of government.

“It is clear that many allotment plot holders felt threatened by some of the measures proposed in this Bill, particularly those which may have resulted in the ever increasing sub-division of plots into smaller and smaller sizes.

“Labour MSPs were proud to speak up for the allotment community and to support further proposals to ensure people living in deprived areas have access to their own plots.”

He added: “I would ask the Scottish Government to also accept the reasoned arguments presented and not to use their Parliamentary majority to overturn this decision at stage three.”

The number of allotments in Scotland has plummeted since the Second World War.

During the days of “dig for victory” there were between 50,000 and 70,000 plots but the figure has now shrunk to around 8000.

Those hopeful of securing a plot have to wait more than 10 years in some parts of Scotland.