Farm Terrace Allotments – One year after we lost the fight to keep our plots.  

20171102_0943501883903839.jpg The entrance today

One year ago todaywe lost our fight to save Farm Terrace. We fought a good fight but the odds were stacked against us. Farm Terrace allotments stand behind Vicarage Road stadium in West Watford and date back to the late 1890s. There were over 128 plots which accounted for just under 10% of all allotments in Watford. Farm Terrace was the largest allotment site in the centre of Watford, a densely populated town of 80,000 covering eight square miles.

It was May 2012 when the Farm Terrace Community received a letter from Watford Council stating that the land was needed for the so called Health Campus to rebuild the hospital situated next door. It soon became clear that the hospital was not the priority and housing seemed to be the real pursuit of the land grab, leading the remaining Farm Terrace allotment holders to challenge the eviction. The initial reaction was to tell us we were wrong and force a legal battle but in 2014 the Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, admitted at a Mayoral hustings there would be no new hospital for Watford and only a possibility of new facilities. The campaign that followed to save Farm Terrace was bitter, raw and passionate. The Mayor of Watford swayed the public with untruths and unfulfilled promises. Ultimately the truth came out that the land would be used for a football carpark, housing and possible hospital facilities if there was funding. In the end the dubious council campaign did its damage.

We finally lost our four year fight at the Royal Courts of Justice late last year and were given just 48 hours to leave our allotments despite requesting a short extension to remove our belongings. This was denied and the council arranged a fence to completely surround the fence already around the allotment to prevent re-entry. Almost one year on the allotments remain abandoned and derelict with a season of fruit and vegetable crops rotting in the ground.

The council had to offer us new allotments that were close to Farm Terrace. Their proposal to the UK government was to replace the lost 128 plots on a site two miles away on the outskirts of Watford at Oxhey Village. To date only 22 plots have been replaced with 11 used by new tenants. The site chosen by the council was not accessible for most Farm Terrace users and eight of us reluctantly optioned to relocate to an existing site relatively closer than the Oxhey Village option.

As any allotment holder knows starting a new plot is daunting. Luckily we had experience and knowledge but it was hard work and bittersweet preparing the new space. In the first week we found our plots had been rotavated for us by the council but contained bricks and other building rubble. We dug deep and through hard work and perseverance similar to our four year court battle we have moved forward and pursued our true goal of growing vegetables. We now have new sheds, worked-over land and fresh compost that has led to a productive first season. Despite the group success we still felt like misplaced refugees in a place we did not choose after decades developing our Farm Terrace community.

We have turned our anger and bitterness into digging, building and planting. The fact we could do this side by side was invaluable. To retain some identity we named our plots in the corner of Holywell allotment site ‘Farm Terrace Corner’ so our old site will never be forgotten. It is still difficult to walk past Farm Terrace but as I began to write this piece I felt that I had to. It stands like a decaying museum piece and I fear for inner city and town allotments as developers continue to eye up short term financial gains rather than long term social profit of community assets like Farm Terrace. The partnership between Kier and Watford Council to redevelop the area around Watford Hospital is a good example of this. Farm Terrace was not lost because people didn’t want it or that it wasn’t needed but because of short term greed.

Dorothy Thornhill and her Lib Dem council now wish to distance themselves from the sordid affair and have already relabelled the Health Campus as the Riverwell Development which currently has permission for 85 ‘housing units elsewhere on the development’. No planning permission for Farm Terrace has been submitted yet. While we wait to see exactly what will become of our beloved site I worry how little value the government places on green sites over quick profit.

It has been depressing, demoralising and destructful but these feelings are being recycled and reused as physical energy as I weed and plant spring bulbs on my new plot whilst other allotment site continue to be closed and developed throughout the UK.

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Is this the end? How do we feel?

It has been a few weeks since we received the Government’s decision on the third application to ‘deregulate’ (close) farm terrace. People keep offering their condolences and asking is this is the end of the line? Honestly I don’t know. How do we feel? We know the decision is morally wrong. We are thankful that our fantastic legal team have agreed to look through this latest document to see if it is legally wrong and we are comforted by the support of local residents and supporters far and wide.

And we have been here three times before.

The first time back in May 2013 was the worst. We were sure that the government would back us up. Andy our chairman and others spent weeks completing our submission, which still stands as a robust document, so when the Watford Observer called me for a quote about the fact ‘we had lost’ – it was the first I had heard and I was shaking with shock. I met my neighbours who also have a plot there and we cried in the street. Luckily in July 2013 we got legal support funded through crowd funding and challenged that the decision had been incorrectly made. In August 2013 the Secretary Of State acknowledged his error in the decision and through a Judicial review formally quashed the deregulation decision. But in September 2013 Watford Borough Council put in a 2nd submission to close the site.

In December 2013 the SOS agreed a second deregulation whilst stating exceptional circumstances for the first time as the statutory criteria to close had not been fully met. I heard about this when a friend called me. This time I was not so surprised but the exceptional circumstances threw me. It still does. On July 25th 2014 We took the government and the council to the Royal courts of justice for a second Judicial review and on October 31st 2014 we found out that we had won!

In January 2015 Watford Borough Council put in their third submission to close the allotments. They believed that it was simply a matter of updating the information that was referred to by the judge and that the decision would be made quickly. The update from the Council that ran to 44 pages and 43 appendices.

We were made to wait 15 months.

On the 26th May 2016, this year, I was sat on the park having a picnic after school with my family when the same friend called to tell me the news that the government had agreed a third time to deregulate. My phone didn’t stop ringing that afternoon. It was mainly the press but also supporters trying to make sense of the legal jargon.

I felt numb. I still do. As I have explained we have been here before but each time you hope that this time ‘they’ will see sense. That this time David will beat Goliath.

We know that there will be no hospital buildings built on the Farm Terrace land. We know that all the plots will be bulldozed over to build flats and car parks. We know that this unique green lung that has been with us since the 1890’s and surrounded by buildings and traffic, once lost will be gone forever. We are not unique, many allotments are being ‘sold’ to developers but we are the most high profile case.

One day I am convinced that school children will study our case. The question I ask myself is whether they will study it because finally we won or will they study it because we lost and it marked the end of allotment gardens?

Don’t worry. We will fight on!

The Farm Terrace Story

Artichokes with flats behind!

The Farm Terrace Story

Farm Terrace lies behind Watford Football Club’s football ground in the densely populated area of west Watford made up of mainly terrace housing with small gardens. The allotments date back to 1896 and were formally an old sewage farm, the soil is amazing.

It currently covers 2.63 hectares or 128 plots. Originally it was at least 3 times this size.

In May 2012 we received a letter from Watford Borough Council stating that the allotments could be needed as part of the Health Campus development, which was to include possible hospital buildings, houses, flats (now 750 in total) and ironically green space.

At the same time, the Council also closed our waiting list and have since 2012 not allowed new tenants on Farm Terrace.

In December 2012 – Watford Council decided they wanted the entire allotment site to develop on as part of the ‘Health Campus’ scheme.

It was at this time that I started a social media campaign, using Face book and twitter.  My first ever tweet said “Help the council wants to build flats on our beloved allotments’

The response was phenomenal with so much support from so many people.

We were not against the hospital re-development but we soon realised that the hospital had no funding or firm plans for any expansion.

The allotment site only takes up roughly 20% of the total area of the Health Campus scheme but we were happy to compromise and thought that we would make a wonderful integral part of the garden-less estate and an opportunity for use by the hospital which stands to the side of us.

But the council would not listen to us and the consultation process was basically just a box ticking exercise.

In January 2013 – We formed a Community Association whilst Watford Borough Council wrote to the Government formally requesting the closure of the site.

Legally the council had to relocate us they offered us a horse grazing pasture over 2 miles away!

In February 2013 – We lodged a Community asset request with Watford Council

Unsurprisingly in April 2013 Watford Council denied the Community asset request. Significantly the council conceded that in all respects the application was sound, and that the only reason to deny the application was because the council had resolved to build on the site.

In May 2013 the then secretary of state Eric pickles agreed the deregulation, we were as you can imagine heartbroken.

We put in a FOI request and found out that this had indeed happened to many others, and in fact as I said before that between 2007-2013 there had been 199 applications to deregulate sites, 128 were approved  only  4 were declined (67 were withdrawn/undecided or invalid)

Basically that the government had agreed 80% of deregulations!

But in July 2013 – We got legal support with the prestigious ‘Deighton Pierce and Glynn’ legal practice, and we raised money through crowd funding so we challenged that the decision had been incorrectly made.

In August 2013 – The SOS acknowledges an error in its decision and a Judicial Review was lodged to formally quash the deregulation decision

But in September 2013 – Council put in 2nd submission to close site

December 2013 – SOS agrees second deregulation whilst stating exceptional circumstances for the first time as the statutory criteria to close had not been fully met

Coincidentally, in January 2014   – The SOS releases new allotment guidance “clarifying” the criteria that needed to be met for applications to close allotments whilst allowing an “exceptional circumstances” clause to be considered if the criteria to close have not been fully met.

In July 2014 we took our case to the Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster and over 100 allotment holders and supporters  put on what was called ‘The most colourful and ‘peasful’ protest the Royal courts of Justice had ever seen!’

While we were waiting for the decision the council wrote to plot holders offering a generous compensation of up to £1,000, way above the statutory minimum required, to vacate our plots

On October 31st 2014 we found out that we had won the judicial review! You can imagine the party!

But again In January 2015 Watford Borough Council put in their third submission to take the land stating that all that was needed this time was a minor update to previous submissions. However this ‘update’ ran to 45 pages and 43 appendices.

In April of this year the Department of Communities and Local Government informed us that the decision would not be made until after the General election when the new Government was in place.

We are still awaiting a decision from the new secretary of state Greg Clark.

I honestly don’t know what will happen to Farm Terrace. But I can tell you that we won’t stop fighting!