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Monday, 21 April 2014

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Why I will dig deep to save Seaton allotments site

ROB McCRACKEN writes about how his father inspired his devotion to Seaton allotments, and why he is fighting to secure their future.

allotmentrob 0802
DIGGING FOR VICTORY: Rob McCracken, secretary of the village allotment association in Seaton, on his allotment

Seaton allotments have been around since the 1930s when there was a keen interest for people to grow their own produce and raise chickens and rabbit for the dinner table.

The site is located in the centre of one of the UK’s largest villages, but as the village has grown it remains somewhat hidden and its existence, until recently, wasn’t known to the majority of 5,000-plus residents.

Throughout time, the allotments remained a busy place for working class families who needed to reduce living costs.

I was introduced to the allotments when I was about 10. My dad had a large plot where he grew vegetables, kept chickens and geese and even had a greenhouse built from old window frames.

I helped out a great deal and spent many a day digging over the plot, watering plants and tending to the animals while avoiding the geese at all costs.

The site was never very well run by the council and it was a very much an ad hoc operation, but things plodded along with not too much bother.

Throughout the late to mid-1990s, the site became somewhat abandoned as allotments fell out of fashion and big supermarket chains took a hold.

Around seven years ago my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and he was adamant to pass down his growing knowledge (as he always was right!) so from the kitchen window back home he directed me to dig up a section of the back garden and plant a variety of veg, all which flourished later that year.

My dad grew increasingly ill and passed away just over five years ago; but he had, for want of a better phrase, planted a seed with me.

In memory of my dad I wanted to create an allotment he would have been proud of and I set off like a man on a mission.

I only live two minutes walk from the site and when I got there it was heartbreaking to see the area which was for the most part wasteland, overgrown with brambles and a dumping ground for flytippers.

Undeterred, I asked a couple of the remaining plot holders how could I secure a bit of this land to use as an allotment.

After a lot of research and contacting various people, an old-timer said I could take over his very large, overgrown plot as his knees were no longer up to it.

So I set about clearing the large L shaped plot in January 2007, with my then teenage nephew to help. We recovered an abandoned shed to lock some tools up and spent every weekend working in all weathers to clear the land.

We started fencing the boundary off, put up a new shed and built a polytunnel.

Word was getting around about my determination, and before long people were turning up to start clearing a patch for themselves.

Within a year we had a fully occupied site all with very little help from the parish council.

We were featured in the local press several times and then in a national magazine read by someone all the way in Portugal. The reader was the owner of the land that had been rented to the village for a nominal fee since the 1930s and which he came to own through inheritance.

I was contacted by the owner who could not himself believe the transformation, and he then offered the 2.5 acre site for sale at £12,000.

I took this to the parish council who assured us the land was under lease for many more years and could not be sold for any kind of development.

Not absolutely convinced by the council’s response, I approached allotment holders with an aim to raise the funds and then buy the land ourselves, but this was met with a mixed response as there was a strong belief that the parish council should be securing the land, albeit with some funding from ourselves which we offered to them.

The council sat on this and eventually the land owner got fed up with waiting for a response and put the land for auction on the open market.

The land sold for £20,000 to an existing allotment holder and a business partner, and the council never even bid.

The new owners quickly posted eviction notices on everyone’s gates, giving them less than a month to vacate.

We voted as a majority to not budge and try and negotiate a new lease with the new owners, knowing it would be hard for them to get a change of use for the land.

They offered each a plot of 25ft x 10ft, making them the smallest allotments in the land no doubt, and talks quickly broke down.

We engaged a solicitor, a keen gardener himself, who has been a great help in fighting our cause to this day. We now remain in limbo as the council have now also issued us with an eviction notice.

Our main argument is that the council have more or less avoided the duty of care to us and state we are a small minority in a large village. We were hoping that they could maybe buy the land back under a compulsory purchase order, to which we told there was no money.

However, only a few weeks later the council offices were completely refurbished at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds; talk about having sand thrown in our faces.

We have a campaign now running which has resurrected the World War Two Dig for Victory campaign and we have posters up throughout the village and petitions to help save the land and force the council to rethink their decision to not help us either secure this land or find a new site for us.

We have also had fund-raising nights as we have now engaged a barrister to assess our legal stance.

We are standing strong, but are embarrassed by the lack of support from our parish, town and county councils who appear to just ignore the situation.

Our intention is to escalate this to a national level to show that our council have failed to support us in any way, and if everything fails then they themselves should be investigated for their actions throughout our short resurrected life.

BOB McCRACKEN

Secretary

Seaton Allotment Association

l Seaton Parish Council was unavailable to comment last night about Mr McCracken’s claims.

Have your say

Franks comment on the 11th Feb is a bit short sighted, I suspect the council supports many minority groups with funds, and I would suspect that more than 20 people would benefit from the efforts of Rob and the rest of the allotment holders as knowing that those sort of people willing to put the effort in to make use of the land as it was always intended would happily share their harvests with family and friends...good luck to the Seaton Allotment Brothers and Sisters...

Posted by Terry B on 12 March 2013 at 07:54

In repsonse to some of the comments to date. The allotment holders did get a opportunity to buy the land of the seller I was even accused of trying to buy it myself. This is purely fabricated. The truth is we did have the money but wanted to offer the council a chance to be involved, I had the meeting with a council member who assured me all was in hand and they would secure the land with the owners in Portugal. This never happened, the council failed to negotiate a fair price and so the land went on the open market. The council then failed to even attend the auction.

With respect to Franks comments, I am afraid they are very short sighted comments. There are more than 20 allotments and most are frequented by whole families and friends hence why it is a community all of its own. The support from petitions etc has shown that more than 20 people are involved and regardless of the amount of people using the allotments the council have a duty of care, thats what a village is all about. So should the council be repsonsible and pay this amount, absolutely!

Posted by Rob Mc on 20 February 2013 at 12:16

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