Eric Pickles’ plots are an opportunity for gritty growers of vegetables | Alys Fowler

A government initiative to encourage allotments on disused, public land is to be applauded, despite the challenges involved

My heart leapt when I heard that Space for food growing, a new guide by Eric Pickles’ Department for Communities and Local Government, is championing a “spot a plot” initiative that is going to create more land for growing. The how-to guide suggests that if you can find public land that is disused, derelict or just underused (those endless boring green patches around towns spring to mind), then as a community you can challenge your local authority to change its use to a growing space – be that more allotments, or community gardens.

The guide is both ambitious and surprisingly progressive. It suggests the development of mixed-used gardens, playgrounds for the young, plots for mum and dad, tree houses, and a sculpture or two (I’m not entirely sure how that will get people growing, but I’m all for more public art). It likes the idea of ponds and trees for wildlife, and is keen to see people eating in those spaces, too: throw a barbecue, have a tombola, win at the local veg competition. Readers end up with a mental picture of Eric Pickles and his gang eating lashings of cream cakes and sandwiches on green grass. Gosh, it’s going to be fun.

Still, it is a hugely important initiative. There are three tenets to food sovereignty: access to land; maintaining and enriching soil; and skills to grow food. This report does recognise the role of all three, although it slightly brushes over soil fertility.

A lot of brilliant, hard-working charities such as Groundwork, the Federation of City Farms and Communiy Gardens, Garden Organic, Landshare and the Royal Horticultural Society, among others, have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that we have both land and skills to grow food.

The real triumph of this guide is that the government recognises all the work that these bodies have been undertaking, although last year’s Localism Act will make challenging land use easier, but a lot of the report’s material is not new. For example, Incredible Edible Todmorden signed a community growing licence with Calderdale council in 2009, allowing them to turn underused areas into community food-growing initiatives – everything from community orchards to containers for growing vegetables in public spaces.

However, acknowledging that we, the public, can now start to challenge the way our communities grow and eat food is a huge step forward and one for great celebration. But it is still a very steep hill to climb. A bit of ground-growing buddleia or grass may look simple enough to turn into growing land, but there can be considerable barriers. Food growing needs good soil and much of ours, particularly in cities and towns, is highly polluted. The report does refer to soil contamination as a considerable and often costly issue. Good, healthy food needs good, fertile land and disused spots may be years away from that.

Raised beds are one alternative to growing in polluted soil, but the truth is that there is not a great deal of research available to the public on how to grow in contaminated areas. Anyone who has battled through the first few years on a neglected allotment can empathise with how physically hard it is to change a weed-strewn area into good soil. It takes time and skills to grow good food. And it will take money, too: most of these sites will need at least fences and access to water (though the guide does offer advice on where to find funding).

Despite all these challenges, if you’ve got grit, there’s potential land out there for you – and a comprehensive guide to wave in the face of opposition. I, for one, intend to take the government up on this opportunity.

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