A charity’s plans to build social housing threaten allotments established in 1832 for the working poor of Ealing. While most London development stories divide along simple lines of villain and victim, the Northfields case is more complicated
nce you pass the aged hedgerow that protects the old Ealing Dean allotments from the busy Northfields Avenue in suburban west London, you are rewarded with a vision as beguiling as it is unexpected. Here is nature in all its forms, from tidy rows of neatly tended vegetables to idiosyncratic plots of wildflower meadows or small orchards.
There are haphazard green-roofed sheds, an old air-raid shelter and pre-Victorian water pumps, as well as children’s playhouses and a hammock. Songbirds, ladybirds and butterflies flap lazily past. Everything smells delicious. It’s hard to believe this beautiful space may not be around forever. Christina Fox, who manages the allotment – now known as Northfields – on behalf of the 141 plot-holders, shakes her head. “In 50 years all of this will have gone. There’s no doubt.”
Northfields is the longest-surviving allotment space in London, having been established in 1832. Plans to build on the allotments were proposed in September 2016, but while most London property development stories divide along simple lines of villain and victim, the Northfields case is more complicated. It puts social housing in direct competition with green space, causing conflict between two of the most important issues in the capital.
Which do we value more: green space or houses? How did we get to the situation where the solution to the social housing crisis is to build on top of a 185-year-old green space created for the working poor?
Seventy-year-old Robin Simpson lives across the road from the allotments. A pot of jelly beans sits on the coffee table in a one-bedroom flat full of records and cinema memorabilia. Simpson remembers how he arrived in this Ealing almshouse. “Eight years ago, my life took a turn for the worse and I found myself homeless and jobless,” he says. Friends put him in touch with Pathways , a local charity that provides housing for elderly residents with no means of support. “They had a flat for me. It turned my life around. Goodness knows where I’d be now. I was rock bottom. Now I’m 90% up there.”