Housing or root vegetables? (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

September 13, 2023   5 mins

Trouble is afoot in south-west London. Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland, wants to build six blocks of flats on his land in Isleworth. The project would supply 80 homes, 40% of them affordable, with 30 units reserved for key workers at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Rents from the properties are earmarked for the maintenance of Syon House, a grand 16th-century residence owned by the duke, which sits a brief stroll from the proposed flats. So far, so sensible. Our capital city does not have enough homes, and the duke wants to build some. Profits will be used to preserve a beautiful piece of Britain’s historical inheritance. It’s enough to make any Yimby’s heart sing.

Yet London’s density of people has led to a density of competing interests. Northumberland Estates, the duke’s development company, were refused planning permission for the flats in October 2021. A subsequent appeal is ongoing and has attracted media interest. All this because the proposed location is currently the site of Park Road Allotments.

Park Road Allotments have existed since 1917, when the 7th Duke leased a parcel of land to the local authority. The plots were primarily used by soldiers returning from the battlefields of the First World War. However, Hounslow Council did not refuse planning permission because of this evocative history. Their reasoning was far less romantic. The council’s main objection to the flats was due to the loss of what is known, in the comatose lingo of government, as “Local Open Space”, not the loss of the allotments. But there is no doubt that the attention lavished on the case by various media outlets is precisely because plots are at risk. They make for emotive copy, especially when a wealthy duke is involved.

When I first got wind of the story, my sympathies automatically aligned with the plotholders. My grandfather spent summers nurturing marrows on his plot. In early September, he would deliver a colossal green shell casing, which had the heft of a wet sandbag and tasted faintly of methane. Grandad would suggest stuffing it with mince (people who grow marrows always suggest stuffing them with mince). I used to wonder why such a practical and thoughtful man would raise a Herculean fruit only to put 90% of its mass straight on the compost heap. Now I understand that consumption was never his chief concern. The growing was all.

I briefly tended an allotment as a teenager, though I never bothered with marrows. Most of my time was spent digging up couch grass and then squatting to remove each fleshy white root from the heavy clay. “I’d spray that off if I were you,” the old gent on the neighbouring plot advised. “Never get on top of it otherwise.” He was right, I never did get on top of it. But I cleared enough earth to cultivate rows of garlic, broad beans and leeks. I ridged up the soil and planted potato sets (Pink Fir Apple, Charlotte). Best of all, I erected a tiny plastic greenhouse to shelter my tomatoes. The brawny, pubescent stink of leaping growth stays with me.

Odours aside, my lasting impression of allotment life was the work required to bring even the smallest piece of neglected land into cultivation. Digging up weeds, digging in manure, removing stones and potsherds. And that’s before you plant anything. A plot must be visited every day in the growing season. There are always vegetables to be watered, pests to control, and yet more weeds to pull up. You spend so much time with your face in the muck that it becomes a kind of acquaintance. I suppose this feeling is the dimmest echo of what it must be like to spend a whole life on the same patch of ground. Humans imprint on the land they work. To take that land away from its custodians means the loss of much more than outdoor space. For many, it is the severing of a relationship.

As well as imprinting on that land, we inhabit it. Every allotment has its old shed. Mine was a slouching grandee of impossible antiquity. It was filled with — and possibly supported by — 50 years of detritus. Sticky tins of bitumen lurked behind rolls of rotting carpet, broken tool handles were packed into every crevice. There was a genuine stratigraphy to all that crap. I discovered cigarette cartons belonging to brands long deceased, and I dated some sodden lumps of newspaper to the early Eighties. There was a history in that shed, the small leavings of other lives.

Although allotments are not unique to the United Kingdom, they do seem to exert a special tug in this country. These scruffy, exciting parcels of land are among the most familiar markers of our landscape, and particularly of the awkward spaces where city broadens into countryside. Allotments glimpsed from a train window are a sign that you are on your way, or nearly home.

Their significance is brilliantly described in The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture by David Crouch and Colin Ward. First published in 1988 and recently reissued by Little Toller Books, the book describes how the freedom that comes with working your own ground allows us to “make our own geography” and, like the Diggers of 1649, to dream our own little Utopias in suburban Sheffield or Belfast. They are also levelling places, boasting an unforced diversity of class, race and sexuality that would make any corporate recruitment consultant weep with envy. As J.C. Niala writes in her afterword to the new edition: “Allotment sites are a typical example of English material cultural heritage, yet at the same time they are more diverse in people and plants than the cities that surround them, and have been for over three-quarters of a century.”

My own attachment to allotments is personal as well as cultural. So I was surprised, and a little discomfited, to find myself beginning to side with the developers as I learned more about the Isleworth scheme. The Northumberland Estate’s proposal would retain 38 plots, though at a reduced size of 60 square metres. Those who lose their allotments would be offered alternative sites elsewhere. This is far from ideal, of course. Allotments are not parking spaces; you cannot simply move from one to another without a sense of loss. For many, they have all the weight of meaning that is traditionally attached to a home. And yet homes are at the heart of this whole mess. A city with a desperate shortage of them would gain 80 more. My heart says Nimby, but my head screams Yimby.

There are two possible outcomes to the Northumberland Estate’s appeal. One, planning permission is granted, and the flats are built. Two, planning permission is denied. The second outcome will not maintain the status quo. It is unlikely that Park Road Allotments will be allowed to remain on the site. A spokesperson for Northumberland Estates has said that they would explore other uses for the land, “like using it for biodiversity credits”. This is a deplorable display of petulance, but it does follow the logic of modern Britain, a country in which “No” seems to be the watchword. In the end, only the lawyers get what they want.

Dukes and allotments might feel like outposts of a vanishing Britain, as remote from our daily reality as the crenelated frontage of Syon House. But this small spat in Isleworth exemplifies a very contemporary problem: our density of competing interests leads to stalemate. No new flats, but no more allotments either. If the land is given over to the harvesting of biodiversity credits, an existing community of growers will not be replaced by a community of residents. There will simply be no community worthy of the name left on this little pocket of land.

It isn’t all doom and gloom in West London. A new allotment site has just opened in Ealing, providing 35 generous plots of 125 square metres. There are still 40,000 plots in the city, spread over more than 700 sites. Perhaps they will be chipped away over the coming decades. I hope not. We need houses, but we need other things too. Places where hard work is not measured in cash. Places that delight for the sake of delighting. Despite my treacherous inclinations toward the Park Road case, my money is still on the growers. After all, ingenuity has always been an essential quality for any plotholder — they go together like marrows and mince.