I am writing this blog firstly to thank all the people who have been involved in this story thus far. But also for those people out there who have their own cause. Those people who feel powerless to fight their councils or government. Please give it a go. You don’t have to lead a massive campaign, take the government to court or tie yourself to trees. You just have to stand up and be counted. Do what you can and what you feel is the right thing to do. I am sure you will be as amazed as I have been by the support and help you will receive.
Thinking about the 5th of November normally reminds me of bonfires and fireworks. But not this year. This time it takes me back to last year in East Dulwich and the morning after the festivities. We were staying at my cousin’s house and I was up early with all the kids. They were very happy playing games while Cbeebies was on in the background. Looking through her book shelves my eyes homed in on a book she had previously told me about ‘Our Plot’ by Cleve West. We have been given or have bought, lots of books on gardening and allotments and I usually dip in and out of them as necessary. But this one I could not put down and in the space of about 3 hours I had read it all and it really got me thinking. It talks a lot about the importance of community and what Cleve’s site means to all the individual plot holders and tells their story. It was a pivotal moment.
Back in Watford we were about 6 months into a battle to keep our allotments from basically being sold off to developers for housing. My husband had been the one involved. I, if I’m honest, really honest… couldn’t be bothered. What’s the point? It’s the council, they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t really necessary (see how naive I was!). I also honestly thought that if it wasn’t legal or right someone else would take up the fight. Someone more qualified and more knowledgeable. But after reading ‘My Plot’ it hit me that if we wanted to save our site we all had to get involved. At this point let me clarify that many, many plot holders were massively active in trying to fight for our site. Passionate does not even touch on it. People who had before just nodded at each other or had brief discussions about their various growing methods had come together as a team in our local community centre ready to fight this.
Now I wanted to get involved. How could this happen and us be COMPLETELY powerless to stop it? I began by putting a personal rant on face book aimed at our elected mayor Dorothy Thornhill. The buck stopped with her and surely she would listen to reason. I was of course completely wrong and her response when I posted it on her page was shockingly despondent and worryingly attacking! My friends on face book backed me up and came up with more and more arguments in our favour. It was clear to me that local residents and others felt very passionately about it.
It is hard to write this blog without going in to all the politics of our case, please if you are interested and don’t know, read my other blogs on word press. I want to keep this blog about just how far and how much can be achieved in one year. But in a nut shell there were lies, spin and in my personal opinion underhand tactics involved.
I had been so moved by Cleve west’s book that I contacted him, hoping he could point me in the right direction as to how and where to go next. To my amazement and gratitude Cleve answered my email and was very helpful. He suggested that setting up a group face book and twitter account would be a good idea. The face book page was fairly easy for me to set up as I was quite confident of how to use face book but I was scared, very scared of Twitter. It was like entering a strange world where you had to behave in a different way and speak in a different language. My first tweet was along the lines of ‘Help! Our mayor wants to sell our beautiful allotment site to developers.’ I tweeted everyone I could think of. It all very very quickly kicked off. But I hadn’t realised!! I couldn’t check my feeds properly, I kept retweeting my own tweets and I was, well, let’s be honest in need of a LOT of help
But I received SO much support and so many people offered help and advice. It was not just extremely useful but also reassuring that the community spirit we want to preserve on the allotments is also very much prevalent even on places like Twitter. I know about the recent debates by gardeners about the use of twitter and I can see both sides. But I can honestly say as far as ‘campaigning’ goes it has been priceless!
Now, as a mum of three small children 6, 4 and 2 at the time. I spend a lot of time sat on the sofa administering much needed cuddles and doing boring household chores so I don’t and didn’t have time to sit at a computer and do all this. The minute our lap top is out (like now) world war kicks off between the kids, drinks are spilt and accidents happen. But in late November my phone was upgraded and suddenly the world of social media really opened up to me, I could do almost everything from this phone and with only 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there it was absolutely ideal.
I had one main objective. To raise our media profile – No council wants bad publicity. I have absolutely no media training whatsoever but I do have a big mouth and I’m not afraid to say what I think. I spent that Christmas tweeting people and asking to be retweeted. My mother despaired of me as I sat at the table with my phone but at that point I was addicted, perhaps tweeting up to 300 times a day. One day I reached the limit – 1000 tweets! But it worked. By January we had about 800 Twitter followers and the phone had started ringing. We did our first radio interview (live with Mayor Dorothy) at 8.00 in the morning down on the allotments with a crowd of cold hungry but passionate people and children. There then followed many journalists’ phone calls and telephone interviews, newspaper articles and You Tube videos.
My own personal favourite memory of this time was having a telephone interview with a newspaper journalist, whilst stood in my small bathroom with one foot holding the door firmly shut to stop my screaming kids from entering because they wanted my attention. This brings me on to the saddest memory. My kids did suffer. Not ridiculously but it became like a full time job and Mummy’s attention was not on them at all but neither was any extra money coming in. But I learnt the hard way that if journalists and the media need you then and there, they do not wait and it took a long time for me to be able to say no. I felt sometimes like the future of farm terrace Allotments and all allotments really did depend on me tweeting/emailing or speaking to someone at that exact time. Of course it didn’t and it doesn’t.
At the height of our campaign we received devastating news. The government, the secretary of state for communities, Eric Pickles, had accepted the council’s application to deregulate the site and to develop on it…. I cried. I honestly did. How?? While I had been busy on face book and twitter our chairman and many others had been working on an amazing submission of our own, in defence of our site and counter arguing all the spin the council had put out. How could the government possibly find in their favour? But they did. I felt deflated, let down and foolish even. Everyone had warned us that it was never going to be a fair fight and many had said all along that this was a David and Goliath fight which Goliath would surely win.
But out of the darkness cometh the light and we were soon contacted by law firms interested in our case. This was because of the media attention we had gained through social media sites. Finally the right person came forward. A brilliant lawyer with experience of taking the government to court and better still a fellow plot holder who REALLY understood us and the impact losing our plots would make.
We needed funding, the prestigious barrister who took us on worked pro bono but solicitors need paying and although we would hopefully win and costs be awarded, nothing is ever certain and we needed to prove we had the economic backing….but how?
The lawyers told us about crowd funding. We researched it and decided to give it a go. Originally and still quite naively I hoped one our many mysterious influential supporters would step in but yet again I was proved wrong and yet again I was over whelmed by the response.
Watching the money trickle slowly into the account at first and then like a waterfall was addictive to say the least, plot holders, allotment groups, friends, neighbours, family members and various interested parties all contributed and all we asked for was a tenner, although many gave more. Sympathetic (thank you!) journalists backed us up and we featured in most gardening magazines.
I think people realised that this was not just a fight to save our allotments. It was to strike a blow for the protection of all allotments. It WAS a David and Goliath case and people wanted and want to back the ‘little man’ and show the government that they cannot just take what they want.
The lawyers proceeded with their case and as the more money coming in, the more time they could dedicate to it. Then something amazing happened… the secretary of state backed down! I had to read the email twice, three times and even then I couldn’t believe it. We had won the battle! We had bloody well got the secretary of state to back down! Us! Me! You!! But we knew the war was far from over…
We took a full page advertisement in our local paper to inform residents of just how far we had come, to counteract council spin and to ask Mayor Dorothy not to put in a further submission. But of course she didn’t listen to us she didn’t listen to the many many residents who wrote to her in our defence. So, it has gone back to the Secretary of state Eric Pickles and we have resubmitted our defence. And we wait. We hope to have a decision by the end of this month. And although we are very optimistic that if he sticks to the criteria as laid down by the law he will have to find in our favour and turn down their application. We will not believe it until it happens. If he does once again grant the deregulation of the site, we are now in a very strong position to fight it once more, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
What a year it has been for me personally, for Farm Terrace and for the protection of Allotments and what a lot can be achieved in just 12 months!! So thank you everyone, let’s keep up the fight and continue to believe in People Power!