Losing Land and Saving Sites: The Tale of Three Gardens

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2017 edition of The Plot

Gentrification, airport expansion, luxury flats crushing communities in their construction. Such are the issues that keep so many Londoners up at night, threatening our way of life and our ability to remain in the city and maintain a good quality of life.

Here, land is of a huge capital value and for those of us whose work and lives are built around the ability to access it in its natural state, to-be-constructed glassy high-rises are a looming threat to the existence of the farms, gardens and food growing projects which we have nurtured.

So how do we secure our land and resist the will of the powers-that-be? How do we know our rights on uncertain tenures? Where do good-will leases leave us in the eyes of the law? Having secure tenancy on the land is more crucial than ever, and sadly this is a lesson that a few of our projects have learned the hard way.

The Community Food Growers Network caught up with Royal Hill Gardens, Patchwork Farm: Kynaston and Grow Heathrow, three very different projects at different ends of the city; all who have faced the threat of closure in recent months. Some have fared better than others and for some, the battle continues. But each story reveals the inevitable hardships and labour that comes with defending land and trying to maintain green and community spaces in today’s London.

Growing Communities Patchwork Farm at Kynaston, Stoke Newington

Since 2012 a team of growers and apprentices from Growing Communities had worked on this overgrown, underused patch of land, converting the rubble and beer cans into a community hub. The site not only grew salad for the Growing Communities box scheme, it also welcomed locals and volunteers who went on to become apprentices at Growing Communities themselves.

Nestled away in the garden of a high street bank, the garden was given to Growing Communities on a five-year lease of a space around 80-100 square metres, free of charge. In hindsight, this was one of the lessons that has marked Hannah, from Kynaston, the most. “The problem with meanwhile spaces, where you’re allowed to go there by some kind of corporate tenant or landlord [is that] you have an agreement but it’s not really worth the paper it’s written on. You have no legal standing, you don’t own the land and you haven’t got any rights to it. When you’re gifted land, [it’s not by] people that are going to protect spaces for community benefit because their priority is making money.”

After three full seasons of growing, a letter from the bank arrived in Autumn 2016. As they were closing down high street branches their tenancy would come to an end and the garden would no longer be under their jurisdiction. “At that stage it was really unclear, we didn’t know who was going to take on the lease. It could have just transferred over and we thought flats or a café would want it. The head grower at Growing Communities was calling and calling to get info and try to find out who was in charge but it was a nightmare. It felt like the strategy was not to put a face to a name, they wouldn’t sit down for a meeting or anything.”

In January, they finally heard back from the landlords who decided they were using the opportunity to kick everyone out of the building as well and convert the whole building into expensive flats. They had two weeks to leave.

Looking back, Hannah reflects “we should have acted in autumn. We didn’t want to kick up a stink [but] that was when we could have tried to galvanise local people and get in the paper, because by the time it came round it was too late to campaign.”

As a grower, she had no direct contact and eventually no power to influence the decision at all, despite putting the work in to make the garden function and manage the upkeep of their five kinds of salad, apricot, apple, pear and fruit trees.

As the gentrification of Stoke Newington continues another block of luxury apartments will mean the end of a vibrant community space where local kids spent time after school, cutting out the light and space for other growers in the area and perpetuating the increase in local property prices. The plants, like the people, were decanted out of the area finding new homes in growing projects in Chingford, Kilburn and Stepney.

Royal Hill Community Garden, Greenwich

After three years of watching a decrepit former police station carpark sit idle in the heart of Greenwich, the members of Royal Hill Community Garden came together to convert it into an open green space. Acting as a garden for those who were getting nowhere on the allotment waiting list of over a hundred years and a quiet space for locals, especially families with young children and older people in the area who prefer it to the hugely touristy Greenwich Park.

Two and a half years before they’d started working on the council-owned land, a planning application to build on the area was unanimously rejected due to local resistance, leaving the gardeners secure in the belief that even without a lease, it was likely to remain untouched. But less than a month after a discrete visit from an Evaluations Officer who, at the time, didn’t make himself known, a new planning application appeared in the council which would mean the end of the garden.

Luckily, the garden’s members acted immediately after seeing the laminated planning application tacked around lampposts in the area. The plan was to put two houses and two apartments with a carpark in the middle with one car parking space for each unit.

The garden was incredibly lucky to have amongst its members and supporters a lawyer who was able to advise on their objection and a journalist who was able to get an Evening Standard journalist to come and report on the story. The editor of the local newspaper was also very supportive in covering the story and they were able to whip up a campaign at speed. They submitted an application in a thousand characters to the website (having learnt that objections by post had previously been ignored) and immediately went to councillor surgeries seeking support.

Initially, they were unable to get any councillors on side was a as all three were on the area planning committee. As resistance amped up however, the decision went to the borough planning committee and the councillors were freed of the conflict of interest to come out in support of the garden.

The absence of democracy in the process was clear, with no public consultation proposed and a farcical meeting with the members of the garden, which the council never followed up. They stuck to  their argument pointing to Greenwich park – a tourist attraction – and Gloucester circus – a privately owned properly, as alternatives. Accessing the council and trying to find the right person to speak to was wildly complicated as staff rotation is so high and the local councillors link to the planning committee made things even more difficult.

Nonetheless, on the day of the hearing the council amazingly voted against the planning application that they had submitted. A hard campaign and some thorough research meant that the garden was saved by some Sycamore trees(!) which would have been lost and a car park which meant that cars crossing a busy footpath would be a danger to the community.

Grow Heathrow, West Drayton, Uxbridge

Grow Heathrow, like Royal Hill, started working on the land with no lease in place and like Kynaston Garden, sits on privately owned land. Unlike either of them however, Grow Heathrow’s future still hangs in the balance as its occupiers sit on trial against Lewdown Holdings, the landowners.

Grow Heathrow was initially set up in 2010 by a collective of climate activists to resist the proposal to building a third runway at Heathrow. Intending to have a sustained presence in the area they took over what was then an illegal dump site and converted it into a community space and started growing fruit trees, bushes, potatoes, garlic, tomatoes and harvesting to minimise consumption.

The site occupies three and a half acres owned by a company who have repeatedly failed in securing planning permission due to community resistance on ecological grounds and the fact that the land sits on the green belt. Since their arrival the members of Grow Heathrow have focused on developing a space that welcomes workshops, sharing circles, harvest festivals and is a model of sustainable living from their compost toilets to biochar and grey water systems.

The court case has been a long time coming after Lewdown discovered the occupation in 2014. As well, plans for the third runway changed taking them out of the runway path and the airport has spent millions on lobbyists to secure support those in parliament. With the Conservative party in government in power plans to halt expansion simply disappeared. Heathrow now looks set to be the biggest point of emissions in the UK from its construction in 2030, bringing with it more hotels and infrastructure, increased noise and air pollution, which is already breaking limits.

For the site itself the struggle continues as Lewdown Holdings will likely turn it into luxury flats should they win the case.  The first day of the court case was met by a demo on April 3rd and Grow Heathrow continue to demonstrate the community benefit of their work both in food growing and in the use of the community space.

Resisting eviction and holding on to space is certainly one of the greatest threats to a community food growing movement up against the absurd levels of financial gain which incentivise property development in the capital. Knowing your rights and understanding your tenure is crucial but even in the midst of a broken system, fights can and will be won.