Wednesday, 30 September 2009

AGM with fox and sparrows

Our allotments association AGM this weekend was attended by a tree-climbing fox, about 40 sparrows, and a dozen or so of the twenty odd human plotholders. The last counts as a good turn-out -- allotments are for gardening, getting away from the pressures of paperwork, leavened by a spot of gently desultory chat or gossip with whoever else is around. However, for a bunch of people who really aren't into meetings, we managed to string it out --2-5pm, a whole three hours. No wonder the two squirrels who dashed through the meeting area didn't stop and join in. The fox is a half-grown cub, doesn't look healthy -- we think the rest of his family may have succumbed to the mange that has been going around, leaving him (or her) to fend for themself at an early age, and before teaching him to be wary of humans. He came trotting along, took a look at the meeting and disappeared into the tangled vegetation of the boundary hedge; there was rustling and his head poked out through a mass of white-flowering Russian vine at about top of fence level. A score or so sparrows flew up from the cherry tree next door. The fox's head popped back -- then popped out again through the bridal veil up near the top of the cherry tree, and another score of sparrows flew up and away.

The tricky discussions were around who is entitled to plots -- what counts as 'not in active use'; were there mitigating factors or had the leeway been used up? The issue gets complicated when the official tenants, with their names on the council agreement, have brought in 'sharers' who in effect take over -- but aren't on, or near the top of the waiting list. We have two plots that are being neglected: one is a single mum who lives over the fence and has been active in organising social events etc, but is doing hardly any actual gardening on her small (5 pole) plot. The other is a chap who was one of the original plot-holders when this stretch of the old Palace Gates railway was saved from being built on and opened up as allotments; he used to have one of the best-kept and most productive plots on the site -- but then his mother died, he became depressed, he has a condition that requires him to avoid direct sunlight, and for many years now he's left most of his plot run to weeds and cluttered with rubbish that is potentially dangerous to toddlers and small kids. He's refused to split or share his plot, but simply can't look after or use what is now one of just a couple of large (10 pole) plots on the site. Then there was the chap who, a year or so after finally getting to the top of the waiting list and getting his plot, went and got married, and moved off to south London to his wife's place -- hoping to get here to move back here to his. 'Get a sharer in to keep it in active use,' I advised him -- but it stayed untouched, until the Council came to inspect and sent him a 'Notice to Quit' (unless within 1 month he'd brought the plot back into active use). At that point, he got someone in to share, who duly dug and planted... That was the tricky one: a woman who herself had got her plot in almost exactly the same circumstances -- brought in by an absent tenant about to be kicked off -- was, ironically, the most vociferous that this should not be permitted. But this was the line in the sand: with a waiting list of 60 (just recently weeded down from 140) for about 20 plots, plots have to be handed on fairly to those who've signed up to the waiting list, in waiting list order, not on to friends and neighbours and people we know.

It can be seen as an exercise in how a community manages its boundaries, negotiating informal shared norms alongside the blunt instrument of official bureaucratic rules. The first factor is that the association chair, who liaises with the Council, feels the need to secure agreement from other plot-holders about whether plots are 'not in good order' and their holders are generally felt to have used up reasonable leeway. The second factor is the balance between personalised discussion -- that plot, that person -- and seeking to agree criteria or principles that should be generally applied to justify the judgement on individual cases. Are we saying that at least 50% of a plot should be cultivated to qualify as reasonable use? Yes, we may allowances for people who've taken on a new plot and may need time to bring it into use; we make allowances for people who let the association know they have been ill, have a bereavement, a change of job or other circumstance, or have a new baby. But how long a period of grace? Cases differ, no simple formula is fair to all -- so it will come back again to the peer group gossip circle or community consensus. That is, the community can agree to offer up mitigation arguing that someone should not be kicked off their plot -- but hasn't the power to get someone kicked off if their plot satisfies the inspecting Council officer.

Then there was the discussion of principles for bringing a sharer in: the official plot-holder must remain involved -- at least being seen visiting from time to time, all sharers must go on the official waiting list if they aren't already, and all sharers must be told that the plot cannot just pass on to them if the official tenant drops out but will have to be passed on to the top of the waiting list.

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