Thursday, 21 October 2010

Notes on a visit to Diggle Lane - David Jackson


We arrived at Diggle Lane around 9.30 a.m. Most members of the Harpers Lane party (plus Tony Radlett from Rawlyn Rd.) toured the site. We noticed that their class D allotments are considerably larger than the standard Harpers Lane “full” allotment (perhaps in excess of 50% more). We noticed that the allotments are individually fenced off, with their own gates (many having individual padlocks), this would run counter to Bolton MBC policy which prohibits such fencing. We also noted that they have a number of well-placed, weatherproof and well-built notice boards.

We then assembled in Diggle Lane’s communal hut where we were greeted by Derek and Ian from the Diggle Lane Society. The following are my (personal) notes on the conversations which we then had, and don’t represent any official Committee view.

The current Diggle Lane Society began as a collective group which purchased muck for delivery to the site. Unlike Harpers Lane, Diggle Lane did not (at that time) have an organised society (with a Constitution, Bank Account, Committee, and Officers). It does now! From these beginnings there developed a group pressuring the Council to improve the site (which then had about 40 active plots and 13 derelict plots, and which was unfenced / unsecured) and resisting the moves by a local landowner to acquire parts of the site for development.

Early steps included charging a £10 subscription (which also covered muck supplies), joining the National Society and having members attend National Society events to build up contacts and knowledge.

Diggle Lane is now a self-managing site. It has a Main / Executive Committee and a Social Group Committee, it has a Constitution, and elected officers. They have responsibility for all matters relating to the site (except the Boundary Fence, which remains a responsibility of the Council). (We later established that this includes responsibility for all infrastructure items such as water pipes, field drains etc.) The site is on a 15 year lease from the Council – with a 2-year extension.

The site now has around 67 plots (of varying sizes) with a waiting list of around 60 names. About 4 plots per year become available for re-letting.

The first imperative is to get a clear, unambiguous and enabling Lease with the Council. This lease will determine the matters for which the site association is responsible and the freedom it has to act. We need to allow around 12 months for the processes of drawing up this lease (as Council procedures tend to be slow and cumbersome). It would be useful to have legal advice during this process.

This lease would specify any rent payable to the Council (Diggle Lane pay none, but we note other sites in other areas do), and who has legal responsibility for matters such as access roads, drainage and water pipes, toilets, water, sewage and electricity charges, boundary fences etc. (In Nottingham some sites pay 25% of rents collected to the Council, but the Council then retain liability for major work on e.g. drainage and water supply). One important aspect to cover is “who pays the discount that some plot-holders will receive” (e.g. pensioner discounts, unwaged discounts etc.) and at what level such discounts are to be set, and by whom. (At Diggle Lane the discounts are effectively deducted from the society’s income, in Nottinghamshire they are deducted from that portion of the rents paid to the Council). On a site with a large proportion of pensioners and benefits-recipients this could be a major factor when setting rents to recover the costs of running the site.

We then need to draw up a set of Site Rules.
These will set out the expected behaviour of both the Society (as “landlords”) and the plot-holders. These rules will cover such issues as payment of rents and fees, cultivation of plots, etc. It is important that these rules are clear and unambiguous and that they are regularly reviewed and changed to meet changing circumstances.

We then need to draw up Tenancy Agreements between the Society (as “landlords”) and the individual plot-holders. Agreement to abide by the Site Rules should be a part of this agreement. Again this agreement should be regularly reviewed and amended as appropriate and as allowed within the terms of the agreement and the lease with the Council.

The setting of rents is based on two principles –
(a) To keep rents and charges at roughly 50% of what Bury MBC are charging for similar plots on Council managed sites (usually there is a one-year “lag”, i.e. Diggle Lane use current council rents to set next year’s Diggle Lane figures)
(b) To ensure that the funds raised by rents cover all expenses of the site (currently around £3,500 per annum)

Rents include subscription to the Society – and by implication access to communal manure supplies etc. There are no additional “admin”, “water” or “toilets” charges as were proposed by BMBC this year.

Currently rents are as follows:-

Size A (0-125 sq mtrs) £38 p.a.
Size B (126-170 sq mtrs) £54 p.a.
Size C (171 - 250 sq mtrs) £77 p.a.
Size C (more than 250 sq mtrs) £108 p.a.

As previously mentioned size D’s can be considerably larger than 250 sq metres. It was pointed out that many plot-holders don’t pay the full rent as they receive discounts (in Bury these can be up to 50%) and these discounts must be borne by the Society (i.e. they reduce total income considerably).

Comparing with current Harpers Lane rents – typical full plot is about 260 - 270 sq mtrs (Alan’s measurements), and the rent is about £45-£46.

Rents are payable in January each year.
The Committee maintain a database of members’ addresses, and invoices are sent out to all plot-holders demanding payment.
Payments are made to the site office/ shop at appointed times. If tenants have not paid by the end of January they are served with an Eviction Notice and the plot re-assigned.

The majority of developments at Diggle Lane have been funded by Grants. Ian pointed out however, that most grant funders will expect the recipients to provide a proportion of the funding themselves (either in cash or in kind e.g. labour).

Diggle Lane has received grants from a number of sources (e.g. LAPs – their equivalent of our Area Forum Awards, the Lottery etc.). They have received assistance from Bury 3rd Sector Development Agency (their equivalent of Bolton CVS) in identifying sources of funding and accessing them.

They have worked hard to get local councillors and the local community “on-side” – this provides input and advice on what to bid for and how to go about it, and also provides “political” support.
They put considerable effort into fund-raising (and have received about £50k in the last 3 years – their first grant was for equipment, others have included the communal hut and the successful communal polytunnel etc.).
They have developed through publicity (e.g. regular appearances in the Bury Times) and promotion (e.g. attending a foodie festival in Central Manchester) a strong local and regional profile (which is now helping in getting funds).
They have developed links to local community groups (e.g. they have “given” a plot to a disabled group based at Elton Community Centre). They pointed out that the involvement of “disadvantaged” groups is an important factor for many sponsors / funders when deciding to support initiatives and bids.

They have an “open house” every Sunday morning, (gates open, shop open etc.) They have an Open Day each year (similar to Harpers Lane’s) and are aiming to move to having two such events each year.
They are cautious about income-generation (as there are restrictions in their lease from the Council) and do not “sell” produce to visitors – although surplus produce is made available (e.g. herbs from the communal poly-tunnel) in return for a voluntary donation to society funds. Derek expressed an interest in extending this arrangement to the provision of tea, coffee, snacks etc. in the communal cafe area.

Ian stressed that it is essential to have toilet facilities if we intend to develop community links.

Insurance – Ian pointed out that once we are self-managing we become responsible for the buildings on the site etc. Allotments (due to vandalism, petty theft etc.) tend to attract high insurance premiums; buildings insurance at Diggle Lane costs between £700 and £800 per annum (of the total expenditure of £3,500). Allotment sites also need public liability insurance if they are to hold open events (HLAS already have this through the AGC(UK))

Mindful of the fact that they have responsibility for drainage and water supply pipes, Diggle Lane are trying to build up reserves to provide cover should anything happen.
At present there are no payments for water supply – no-one seems to know where the water comes from, who the supplier is, or whether it’s metered.

Waiting List
The waiting list for plots on Diggle Lane is for Diggle Lane only, it is not part of the Council’s Bury-wide waiting list, and allocation of plots is controlled by the Diggle Lane Committee. Anyone applying / registering for a plot at Diggle Lane is however required (as part of that registration process) to register separately with the Council. This ensures that the Council has a true record of demand for allotments in the Borough (provision being a statutory duty).

Each year, DL organises a meeting of those on the waiting list (failure to attend or to respond to the calling notice results in removal from the list).
Applicants can climb the waiting list by volunteering on the site (e.g. helping in the polytunnel, looking after plots when a member is sick etc.)
The Committee believe it is important to match applicants to plots, particularly on half-plots where working with established neighbours is important.

Eviction – other than for non-payment of rent

Eviction is a Committee matter, (there is some flexibility, experience suggests that this is taken advantage of)
The plot holder receives two warnings (one month apart).
If the matter is not resolved then the plot-holder is given 14 days to remove their items from the plot. (Any items left on the plot after 14 days are sold for society funds).
It was implied that if the plot-holder leaves as requested and the plot is left in good order, then the rent for the remaining period of the year may be re-funded.

Diggle Lane use combination locks rather than “keyed” padlocks on the main gates.
If problems arise (e.g. a disruptive tenant is evicted) then the combination can be changed to prevent them gaining access.
It was unclear whether ALL plot-holders have keys to their communal Brew Room, it was implied that only certain “officers” do.

Plots must be cultivated by the plot-holder it is not sufficient simply to send someone to clear the plot. Similarly there are no “inspection dates” – simply having a tidy plot on set occasions will not suffice, the plot must be “adequately” (in the opinion of the Committee) and “regularly” cultivated

Issues – Diggle Lane society believe it is vital that all issues (of any substance) are taken to the Executive Committee.

David Jackson 20/10/2010

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