One of the other hats I wear is that of the local councillor. I represent my village (Sunniside) and part of the neighbouring small town of Whickham on Gateshead Council. Whenever an allotment issue crops up anywhere in Gateshead, the local media, knowing of my interest, turns to me for comments, advice and the occasional interview. Today I had the BBC North East Sunday Politics programe on my allotment to film me feeding the hens and question me about allotment rent rises in Gateshead. The Council is proposing to put up the rents by as much as 230%. There will be a range of rents depending on size, with the larger ones going for £140 a year. My allotment is privately rented so it doesn't affect me directly. However, when the proposed rents first became public a few weeks ago, I had a steady stream of messages from allotment holders from across Gateshead, not just from my own ward, expressing concern about the rate of increase.
I contacted the director of finance and following this, it was announced that the rent rise would not form part of the council budget agreed at the end of February but instead, consultation would take place on the rises. Any rise would be delayed until June. I have suggested that the council consults on the management of the sites as well. My view is that each site is capable of running itself. Allotment associations already exist on the sites and collect the rents for the council. Allotment holders tell me that other than the right to use the land, their rents get them little in the form of services from the council. If allotment sites ran themselves, they could set their own priorities, decide what work needs to be done and set the rents accordingly. It would mean allotment rents pay directly for improvements or services on the sites themselves, rather than relying on the council to do it or, in many cases, not do it.
The council keeps saying that the allotment service is subsidised but at this point I can't see what that subsidy pays for. My concern is that the subsidy is used for central administration in the Civic Cemtre of the allotments. Frankly, that can be done by the allotment associations themselves. Under my system, there would be no subsidy, the administration is done by the associations who manage the sites (and as they are hands-on on the sites, they know what needs to be done, therefore leading to better management), rent money is used on the sites from which the rents are collected and the rent levels will probably be less than those set by the Council.
The allotment holders I have spoken to like what I have suggested. At this time of severe financial restraint, cuts have to be made and we need to be more imaginative about how we do things. So I am hopeful that my ideas will at least be considered by the Council.
I put all these points over in my BBC interview this morning. I don't know how much of it they will use but the broadcast will be on Sunday. My hens and ducks however seemed to be the real stars during filming. The camera spent more time with them than with me!