Green space v social housing: the fight for the future of London's oldest allotments

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.”

Which do we value more: green space or houses?

Pathways – previously the Ealing Consolidated Charity Board – are also landlords for the allotments, having acquired responsibility following a century of mergers between charities. In September 2016, Pathways proposed rebuilding Robin’s block, Dean Court. They would also construct 15 new social housing flats in a three-to-four storey development on the north-west corner of Northfields Allotments , along with four private houses that would part fund the development. The Dean Court residents would move into this new block on the former allotment site while Dean Court itself was being demolished, rebuilt and expanded with flats that met the higher standards of current planning regulations. Overall, this would provide around 55 additional almshouses. These plans are still not finalised, with Pathways reducing the overall footprint as they explore other avenues including creating flats for the private rental market rather than townhouses for sale.

When they were tipped off about the plans by a local councillor, the allotment holders were horrified. At the time, they stood to lose 10% of their precious green space. “We had an emergency meeting outside the gates and I asked what people wanted to do,” says Fox. “Everybody said we had to fight.”

Ensuring the long-term survival of what remains of Northfields allotments is paramount for the campaigners. They were founded by the bishop of London in 1832 for the working poor of Ealing, with the principle aim of getting them out the pub and into gardening. Now 27 different nationalities have plots, and for many it’s their only outdoor space. A well-tended plot can feed a family, while access to green space provides vital sustenance for body and mind.

The allotments remained largely intact until the 1970s, when drastic change occurred. At a time when allotments were generally out of favour, around 60% of the original site was compulsory purchased by the council and developed for a mix of council and charity housing – including Dean Court – as well as a park. It was at around this time that the remaining allotments became known as Northfields rather than Ealing Dean. No further development took place and now Northfields is all that remains of the original historic space.

Allotment holders are worried that history will keep repeating itself until nothing at all is left and point to what is happening to allotments around the country . Rhiwderin allotments in Newport were redeveloped for housing in 2009 and Manor Gardens allotments in Newham disappeared underneath the Olympic Park in 2007. In 2016, advocates for Farm Terrace allotments in Watford lost a court battle to protect their plots from eradication. The latest to face development are Wellesbourne allotments in Warwickshire.

Pathways argues that its priority is to keep the current residents of Dean Court together as a mutually sustaining community, which rules against rehousing residents in temporary accommodation across Ealing during the rebuilding process. The plot-holders are conscious of the needs of vulnerable residents, but maintain that allotment users also constitute a community whose needs are not being considered.

The allotment campaigners question what alternatives Pathways has considered, and object to the private housing element – although the charity says this will fund the development. Their long-term fear is the eventual eradication of the entire allotment, despite an ongoing petition and Northfields’ status as an asset of community value. “It’s like a bar of chocolate, you might only want to eat a square but you’ll come back until there’s none left,” says Fox.

Local MP Rupa Huq is among those who oppose the development. “Like most London boroughs, Ealing has a housing crisis, however, any development must be balanced against all of the community’s needs,” she says. “Nobody’s against social housing but it’s the location that I am in disagreement with; this unique green lung needs protecting at all costs and encroaching on what is currently public good would be a huge mistake.

“Let’s not forget that while there is a social element to Pathways’ plans, they also intend to build luxury homes for private sale on the land, directly benefitting from the inflationary effect that Crossrail has had on local property prices while depleting green space in an already arguably over-developed part of west London.” (Pathways would have to seek charity commission approval if they were to build private homes on the allotment land.)

Having initially appeared bullish – Fox says one former chief executive dismissed the protestors as “pussycats” – Pathways now appears more conciliatory, insisting it is “crunching numbers” and “looking at alternatives” even if it has not been in formal contact with the allotment holders directly since the end of 2016. After consultation, a car park was removed from the development reducing its impact to around 5% of the allotment space. Nine plots will still be lost, and the 70-plus waiting list is on hold while Pathways finalises its plans.

When that will happen is unclear. Tim Edwards, Pathways trustee and the chair of the asset management committee, says the charity is investigating alternatives but expects to go to planning within six months.

“To a large extent it’s still a huge work in progress,” he says. “Clearly we owe it to everybody involved, including the folk on the allotment, to look at it very thoroughly and look at all the alternatives. The site is the only land in Ealing we own. We aren’t Berkeley Homes, we are a small organisation and this project will be the only major scheme for the foreseeable future.

“Our primary responsible is the residents. I think that’s absolutely critical. But we also have wider community objectives that we have to consider. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Over at Dean Court, Simpson doesn’t think it’s a difficult situation at all. For him, it’s a straightforward choice between losing a relatively small portion of land and building much needed social housing. “MPs and councillors keep banging on about needing more social and affordable housing and that is what Pathways are aiming to provide,” he says. “But there’s always somebody standing in the way. Ealing is in desperate need of new social housing, so let’s get it going.

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“I do have some sympathy with the allotment holders but it’s just a little space and housing should be our priority. There are a lot more people like I was eight years ago who need the help of people like Pathways. For the sake of half-a-dozen allotments? Come on, give people a chance. It’s saving people’s lives. To put it in a nutshell, that’s what they did for me. They saved my life.”

Simpson has a point. Many Londoners accept the need for social housing but then flinch at making the ugly decisions that are required. On the other hand, the allotments do bring a crucial splash of green to the urban landscape. Green land should be cherished in London, given its relative scarcity, its beauty and the enormous benefits it provides in terms of biodiversity, the environment, flood defence as well as both mental and physical health. They also offer a public benefit, with allotment open days drawing hundreds of visitors.

With Pathways’ permission, Fox wants to create plots for schools and other local community groups. Once gone, these allotments cannot be replaced. If there is no alternative, what will stop Pathways coming back for more land at some point in the future?

Edwards says that “the current board has no intention of developing any further. I can understand why allotment holders won’t be satisfied by that. How we can reassure those people we are genuine I don’t know.” He may be sincere, but 30 years down the line, a new board at Pathways could feel differently. Then the Northfields allotments will be lost forever.

Read more London news here.

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