Throughout the Farm Terrace fight people kept asking me how I did it all. I had two very small children and a baby when I started campaigning. I wasn’t getting much sleep, I was multi tasking and I was completely inexperienced. But I just did it. Apart from a couple of periods of ‘campaigning fatigue’ I kept going until way after the bitter end. Even finding the energy to do probing interviews about how horrible it is to lose.
But then in January I crashed.
I woke up one morning crying. I didn’t know why. I felt numb. I wasn’t angry any more nor was I bitter. It was much worse – I felt numb. I had a physical response. I was lethargic, exhausted and unable to explain why. For one who is capable of passionate tears accompanied by loud cries this was the opposite. Silent but constant.
If I am honest I knew this was coming. I was finding it harder and harder to cope with campaigning issues and the multitude of commitments I had taken on to replace campaigning for Farm Terrace.
Thankfully I didn’t feel that I couldn’t cope with my family or my job. This was purely connected to being ‘SARA JANE TREBAR’. I wanted her to disappear. I needed to be anonymous. To not have to talk to anyone about losing the case. I had to be ‘just’ a mum, ‘just’ a wife ‘just’ a friend for a while. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. If I am honest I was grieving not just for the allotments but for the person I had been while campaigning.
For one who has never suffered depression it was a shock. Luckily withdrawing from other campaigns and commitments helped. I put all my energy into planning a month long summer holiday which was not just cathartic but also rejuvenating as I visited old friends, reflected on my past and began to think about my future.
Like many people at the age of 45 I find myself facing the dreaded mid life questions; “what next?” “Who am I now?” and “what do I want to do?” The truth is that I don’t know.
Hopefully this period in my life will make me a stronger and better person. It has been a very long year and I still feel weak and unsure . I think this is payback from being strong and determined for so long.
At an event last month I saw this picture saying “Be you, be brave” and I knew I had to buy it. The words struck a chord with me. I may not feel it at the moment but like all of us I am stronger than I think. I just need to remind myself of that.
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.
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?
Question by members of the public under Council Procedure Rule 11.0
1) Sara Jane Trebar asked the following question –
“Now Watford Council is more politically balanced after the recent local elections
should councillors consider debating the retention of an elected mayor past 2018 and
to give Watford residents a yes/no vote alongside the full local council elections in
The following answer was provided by Councillor Watkin – “We think it is better for the council to focus on how best to provide services to the public and keep Watford as a successful town rather than looking inwards to our own constitutional arrangements. In our experience the issues that the public wish the council to debate are the services it provides that affect their daily lives, such as refuse collection or parks and playgrounds, and how it can work to ensure our town retains a thriving local economy and is a good place to live in. The mayoral system is designed to cope with all potential compositions of the council chamber. There are examples in other authorities of the mayor’s party having an overwhelming majority of councillors, of an independent mayor who is not backed by any political group, and almost all situations in between. Therefore I don’t believe the make-up of the council has any direct bearing on the mayoral system. There are provisions in the 2007 Local Government Act for instigating a referendum. Whether or not one is held and whatever its outcome, constitutionally the mayoral system would remain at least until the end of the current Mayor’s term of office. If the mayoral system continues, the people of Watford will in 2018 be able to choose who they consider the best person for the job, which may be a representative of any political party or none – that is the great thing about democracy.”
I am interested to know your thoughts!
“It was interesting to see at last Watford Council are attempting to rectify a five year decline in allotment applications by launching a new bus stop poster stating “join our growing community of allotment holders”. Official figures provided by the council show that the allotment community isn’t growing but that applications have dropped from 340 in 2009 to 128 in 2014. We had asked the council why there had been a decline in numbers over this period whilst asking for them to produce the numbers. Because there had been a very small increase from 136 applications to 155 between 2011 and 2013 they said because the question hadn’t been phrased correctly they hadn’t provided the information. It will come as no surprise to anyone throughout the battle to save our allotments that the Council did not admit to the Government when asking for Farm terrace to be closed down that it had failed in its advertising but instead provide website hits to its allotment page instead!
We will of course be going back to the council with a rephrased question so the numbers of applications can be quoted to the general public. Unfortunately, we have a council in Watford who will never hold their hands up and admit when they have done something wrong nor admit that they could have done better”.
Have you noticed what is happening to allotments around the country?
We are allotment holders at Farm Terrace Allotments in Watford and you may have seen us in the media recently having won a High Court decision that overturned the council’s attempt to de-regulate the land for development purposes.
When the allotment holders were first informed of the potential redevelopment we were told that the neighbouring hospital wanted to expand and there was quick agreement that this was a worthy reason. People started to drift away and the council stopped maintaining the site. Then it was discovered that most of the site was to be turned into apartments and the hospital could not expand. Further investigation revealed that the bulk of the plan was 700 new apartments in the most densely populated part of the town. The allotments are one of the few urban green spaces in the area.
To the surprise of the Watford Council the decision was challenged by the remaining allotment holders. Despite numerous attempts there has been little effort from the council to negotiate with allotment holders whose holdings only take up 15% of the land under discussion. It became clear that the only reason the allotments were required was to increase profitability and it has been conceded that the redevelopment plans would still be profitable without the allotment land.
The Council has now submitted plans to deregulate twice and the most recent decision of the Secretary of State was quashed by the High Court. Despite this the Council immediately announced plans to resubmit a de-regulation request but instead of the Health Campus expansion they now cite that there may be a primary school built on the site. Under current laws it is legal for the council to submit such requests as often as they like until they achieve the desired result.
Will You Be Next – #SignForVictory
One of the things we discovered while going through this process is the current legal situation allows councils across Britain to provide weak or incomplete information when claiming exceptional circumstances for deregulating allotment land supposedly protected under law. Exceptional Circumstances is the reason councils must provide to override the Allotments Act of 1950 that you thought was protecting your precious plot.
Using our experience in campaigning for Farm Terrace, we have decided to launch a larger campaign to Save All Allotments across Britain. Our goal is not to stop councils having access to land when it is genuinely needed but to have the exceptional circumstances section of the law tightened to reflect the protected status of allotments.
One of the things we discovered while going through this process is the current legal situation allows councils across Britain to provide weak or incomplete information when claiming exceptional circumstances for deregulating allotment land supposedly protected under law. Our decision to pursue the argument in this manner follows the disturbing information we found in our freedom of information request that showed that between 2007 and 2014, a total of 194 out of 198 applications to close allotments were granted by the Secretary of State (SOS).
In view of this we realised that this process of taking protected land to meet property developer’s appetites is occurring across the UK and we decided that a large, national petition was needed to help protect the UK’s historic allotment sites. We set this up and despite been told we could expect a few hundred signatures we achieved 6000 votes in three days and have now passed 13 000 votes, showing us that this was a national issue
With an election looming we realise we need to increase the public and political awareness of the need to protect allotments and have a new campaign to push the issue further up the political agenda. We are running a ‘Sign for Victory’ campaign and are simply asking people to place a poster on their shed or allotment and take a selfie and pass it on while sharing with us. We want to let the political parties know that the people of UK respect and want to protect their allotments that have provided protection for the country in times of need.
or you can send a self-addressed stamped envelope to C/O Evolve, 77 Vicarage Road, Watford, Hertfordshire WD18 0EJ and we will send you a poster.
Allotments have been vital to UK communities and have been key in feeding the population in historical times of crisis. They provide physical and emotional care of the citizens and the national removal of this resource would be an act of vandalism that future generations will judge the present on. Green spaces and allotments are the lungs of a community and nestled in between residential areas ensure that young people have the chance to experience food growth and natural development in a world becoming more distant from the natural process.
The government group responsible for allotments is the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). Around the time of our successful and public court challenge the DCLG claimed to change the guidelines affecting allotment decisions to add greater protection and transparency to the process. Unfortunately that has not been the case and in fact the new guidelines make it easier for councils and land owners to close allotment sites.
Please have a look for yourself at the new guide lines here –
This week the Department for Communities and Local Government confirmed that they would not be issuing a decision before the National Election, on the third application by Watford Borough Council to ask for the deregulation of Farm Terrace Allotments.
This is a very significant announcement for us as the fight to save the allotments becomes an election issue as a new government may reach a different decision. As we know, Watford is a closely observed marginal seat in the national elections, so it will be a great time to raise the profile on not only our case but the whole issue of development on allotment land whilst bring public and media scrutiny on Watford Borough Council.
This proves that Dorothy Thornhill and Watford Council were somewhat over confident when stating in October 2014 that despite being disappointed with the outcome of the judicial review in favour of the allotment holders were confident that the Secretary of State would arrive at the same conclusion in re-taking the decision. Despite lodging a new application with the Government at the beginning of 2015, the defence and counter arguments made by the Farm Terrace has still left what seemed a straight forward decision to the council open to much debate in central government.
We will soon be announcing a new and exciting part of our Save Our Allotments campaign which will hopefully help spread our message far and wide across the country, informing people not necessarily on Social media sites, about our fight and petition as although we are now at 13,000 we still need many more signatures!
From now on I will be writing blogs more regularly to keep you informed on all the issues.