I wrote a piece for the Guardian about a conflict between social housing and green spaces, two of the most important issues facing London today. It concerns Northfields Allotments, a stunning sliver of green space in Ealing that is London’s oldest surviving allotment. I visited the allotments on a gorgeous June morning and was captivated by this secret garden hidden behind ancient hedgerows.
Rather than the rather staid lines of vegetables that I expected, the allotment was like 100 completely individual back gardens in one giant field – so some people had turned their spaces into meadows of wildflowers, others had grown small orchards, there were all manner of handmade sheds, somebody had flung a hammock across a makeshift porch, and there were several Wendy houses for the kids. It was an example of the best a city can offer – people of many nationalities and with very personal tastes thrown together and creating something truly magical.
Then I went across the road to meet Robin, who was living in an almshouse owned by Pathways, a local housing charity that also happen to own the allotment following various historical mergers. Robin’s flat was very small and a little rundown, but provided him with a home when he found himself homeless, jobless and unable to support himself. Thousands of Londoners face similar situations, and there isn’t enough housing being built to provide for all of them. It’s London’s greatest failing.
Pathways now want to correct this by knocking down Robin’s block and rebuild it to modern specifications. While that takes place, they will build a new block of social housing on a small strip of the allotment site. This is so they can keep all the residents of Robin’s block together during the rebuilding work. They will fund this – contentiously – by building a small element of private housing, either to rent or sell depending on what they are allowed to do (technically, they cannot sell the allotment land).
Robin argued very persuasively that the needs of vulnerable Londoners are paramount and the loss of a tiny amount of green space was no big deal. Christina and Ian at the allotments argued equally persuasively that green space was essential for London’s mental and physical wellbeing and that once it is gone, we never get it back (60% of the original allotment site was already under concrete following development in the 1970s). They also felt that Pathways would keep coming back for more land, so eventually there would be nothing left. A spokesperson for Pathways assured me they had no intention of doing so, but who is to say how his successors will feel in 20 years time? This is a deceptively large section of land and housing will continue to be a concern for decades. The temptation to repeat this process, taking another 5 per cent here and there, will surely be too great.
As I wrote this story, I found it very difficult to decide where I stood. Ultimately, I come down on the side of the allotment holders because I think there is going to be increasing pressure on inner London green spaces in the next few decades so it’s important to protect what we have – and it won’t just be charities hoping to build on it.
If I had ever been homeless myself, I’d probably feel very differently, though.
We need social housing, but we surely can do better than this.