Updated survey of Cambridge allotments

This is an update of my survey of Cambridge’s allotments, last completed in 2009. There is a snapshot of current provision, usage, demand and vacancies, followed by a comparison with 2009 and my commentary on the changes.

The bar chart below shows the number of Tenants (people with plots, green) plus others Waiting (red), added to represent total demand for each site. Note that waiting lists for non-council run sites inevitably include some double-counting.

Demand per allotment site: number of tenants plus length of waiting list
Waiting lists for non-council run sites include some double-counting

The spreadsheet below shows the data for each site.

Data collected during the 2021 survey

All plots are counted in terms of 10 pole equivalent (about 250m2) because this is the traditional size of an allotment plot.
Plots means those tenanted or available for letting – does not include Wildlife, Community Garden/Orchard or Other Use.
Untenanted is those plots available for letting.
Tenants means people with tenancy agreements, regardless of how many separate plots they have.
Waiting is non-tenants only.
T Wait is current tenants wanting larger/additional plots.

Plot size & tenant density

Plot size is highly variable so I do not attempt to enumerate plots of various areas; instead, we can consider tenant density which is the number of individual plotholders per hectare of land. The nine allotment societies which manage 79% of provision (34 ha. across fourteen sites) have on average 44 tenants/ha. The council manages 15% of provision (6 ha. across twelve sites) directly and has on average 89 tenants/ha.

Tenant density (plotholders per hectare) across Cambridge’s allotment sites

The society managed sites generally have more tracks, communal buildings and other shared areas which partially accounts for their lower tenant density. Also, they are on the outskirts of the city where demand tends to be lower, with less pressure to subdivide plots.

Interestingly, the two sites with the highest tenant densities are privately owned and managed.

Waiting lists

At first sight, the 2021 survey suggests that 1118 people are waiting for a plot, but this is too high, for various reasons including double-counting (see below for discussion). It’s pretty much impossible to produce an accurate figure.

There are definitely at least 651 names on the list because there is no double-counting amongst the council managed sites.

Tenants wanting more land

39 existing plotholders have applied for a larger or additional plot at their site. This is additional demand, not included in my waiting list figures. Amongst the society managed sites, the two with the highest tenant density also have the greatest numbers of plotholders wanting more land, which is what you might expect.

Changes since 2009

Almost 800 more people have an allotment tenancy in Cambridge than in 2009, an increase of 56%. Meanwhile, the city’s population has grown by about 23% and the provision (overall area) of allotments has grown by only 8%.

Overall changes in population, allotment provision, usage and demand 2009-2021

The spreadsheet below shows the changes for each site. Some of the absolute numbers are small, so large percentage changes do not necessarily mean much.

Percentage changes in provision, usage, demand and tenant density, across Cambridge’s allotment sites

Changes in tenant density

With many more plotholders (=tenants) on slightly more land, clearly they have smaller plots on average.

On the 34 ha. managed by allotment societies, tenant density has increased by 30%. On the 6 ha. managed directly by the council, tenant density has increased by 114%.

The council began its ‘Starter Plots’ policy around 2011(?) and has since allocated plots as small as 10m2 (which is very small by historical standards). The large increase in tenant density on council-managed sites reflects this policy.

Changes in waiting lists

Although the absolute number of people waiting for a Cambridge allotment is unknown, I have attempted to calculate it in the same way as in 2009. I asked the same questions of the same site managers, and so by comparing the 2009 and 2021 totals I think it is reasonable to estimate an overall increase of 129% in Cambridge’s allotment waiting list.

Percentage change in waiting lists across Cambridge’s allotment sites 2009-2021

Commentary & conclusions

Waiting list uncertainties

Double counting

One reason for the uncertainty is that we have fourteen allotment site managers who (no criticism intended) do not share data. With demand high, some people inevitably apply to more than one allotment site, and therefore there is double counting in the numbers reported by the site managers. The extent of this is unknowable (due to the GDPR, and the different management systems with no common unique identifier).

Weedy waiting lists

Each site’s waiting list might itself be too long because it is “weedy”, containing names of people who have lost interest or moved away since they applied. Sometimes people do not even respond when they are offered a plot. Plots managers should ideally “weed out” their waiting lists periodically, for a more accurate measure of local demand and also to reduce delays when re-allocating a plot. We know that the council “weeds out” its list every 2 years. I know that Foster Road, Trumpington (the site I help to manage) is currently doing this after the long-awaited opening of the Clay Farm site.

The council have said that 25-30% of plot offers at Clay Farm were rejected from applicants, which might mean that the demand increase due to Covid (see below) will not be sustained. This suggests an upper limit for the “weediness” in a well-maintained waiting list.

Pandemic effects

The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions may have led to extra applications which will not result in tenancies. Having said that, lockdown suddenly caused many people to have more time and less money, and those lucky enough to have an allotment used it well. Perhaps the pandemic means that we now value allotments more highly: for the opportunity to exercise, to have a garden for the educational value, to get cheaper food, and to actually produce food when shop shelves are emptying. That could lead to a permanent increase in demand.

Closed waiting lists

The council has closed its waiting lists for 3 sites (Auckland Road, New Street and Empty Common) …

“…because the waiting time for example on Auckland Road was estimated to be 13 years.  This approach encourages applicants to consider other sites.”

(written answer from Cllr. Collis 15th November to my public question).

My view is that closed lists prevent people from registering their interest, so it hides or displaces demand. This is bad practice: allotment managers should allow applications for each of their sites at any time while warning applicants that long waits are expected for some sites.

“Internal” demand

The number of current plotholders asking their site managers for an additional or larger plot (T Wait above) has risen. This is to be expected since the average plot size has been reduced.

I am concerned that the council and some other managers appear to have no way for plotholders to request more land. Given that average plot size has reduced (by half or more on five central sites), it is reasonable that keen tenants who use their small plot fully should be considered for additional land, especially those with ‘Starter Plots’ – originally the council intended that these “Starter” plotholders could move onto larger plots. This should be balanced against the demand from applicants to get a plot in the first place, but there should at least be a way to properly record plotholder requests, for a better assessment of demand.

Distribution of demand

It would be useful to map usage and demand, to see where new allotments should be provided. Maybe I will get around to this using this survey data, but if you would like to help, please contact me.

Demand is greatest for the more central sites.

Conclusions

It’s great that more people are using and applying for allotment plots in Cambridge.

The new provision (in the southern fringe, also Kendal Way) is all fully tenanted with long waiting lists, yet the city’s provision is still not enough to accommodate overall demand which has risen by 75%.

Planning policy should account for the rising demand from existing residents and new infill housing development, and not merely that in the new fringe estates. Current policy provides for 1 hectare of allotments per 2500 new residents, but this only applies to urban extensions such as the southern fringe. This has led to a 12% pro rata reduction in provision since 2009.

To better inform planning, we really need an official public record of allotment provision, usage and demand. The council could do this, by periodically publishing its own data together with data collected from the societies, much as I have done here. It could require the societies to provide the data for most of Cambridge’s provision, via the site leases.

We cannot rely on squeezing applicants onto ever smaller plots. We need more land to grow on – not only for allotments but also for community gardens and hopefully another CoFarm. This requires planned provision in new developments at a higher rate than current policy, and also re-purposing existing open space – there is a lot of privately owned land in Cambridge!

Notes

  • This survey is about allotments in Cambridge only. We treat the Histon Road site as being within the city, since it is owned and managed by the council primarily for city residents, although is physically outside the administrative area.
  • Tenant density is based on the area of the site, not merely the cultivatable plots. This area includes paths, community orchards, buildings and other uses mentioned below.
  • Burnside full plots have in some cases been split into half.
  • Histon Road and Grantchester Meadows sites are just outside the city boundary, but serve the city so included.
  • Pakenham Close figures are provisional as one of the plot secretaries is away at time of survey.
  • Cambridge City Council maintain per-site lists, with no double counting between these.
  • Cambridge City Council have recently closed waiting lists for some sites.
  • The Elmfield Close site (listed in previous surveys) was lost to housing development after October 2008.
  • The Kendal Way site has been extended after the 2009 petition. Was 0.1 acre, now 0.24 acre.
  • The four southern fringe sites (Clay Farm, Glebe Farm, Nine Wells & Trumpington Meadows) are new since the 2009 survey.
  • ECAS report that Empty Common plots are numbered up to 47 but 36-41 are missing, so 2009 Plots figure (47) is wrong – should be 41.
  • Victoria Homes site area was listed as 0.4 acres in 2009 survey, but now data says 0.23 acres.
  • Vinery Road site has hazel coppice for beanpoles, communal composting area and picnic area. Full plots have in some cases been split into half and quarter.
  • Elfleda Road site reported as 4.13ha, a change from 4 in 2009.
  • Fulbrooke Road site is owned by Grantchester Village Trust (was Grantchester Town Lands Charity).
  • Peverel Road site has 3 dip tanks, and a communal composting and bonfire area.
  • Wenvoe Close, Cherry Hinton have 46 plots in all, of varying sizes.
  • The council does not record size of ‘Starter Plots’ which vary between 10-75sqm and so cannot consistently provide a Plots figure to match my schema. I calculate average Starter Plot Size in terms of a 10 pole equivalent and use this to calculate Plots for some sites. For six of the older council sites I use the Plots figure stated at https://www.cambridge.gov.uk/allotment-sites. For Empty Common I use the Plots figure from ECAS. For Kendal Way, in 2009 area was 0.1ha and Plots=3. A second area was added. I assume Starter Plot Size is the minimum 10m2 and then Plots = 9.8. I feel something is wrong with the data because this is the absolute maximum that could be provided in the expanded site area (total 0.24ha), however this does not affect summaries of usage, demand, site area etc. Anyway, Starter Plot Sizes: Average for 7 sites: 0.27 10 pole equivalent; Clay Farm & Trumpington Meadows: 0.29; Kendal Way: 0.04; Glebe Farm & Nine Wells: 0.29.

Next survey

In the absence of a formal public record, someone should repeat this volunteer exercise, and hopefully sooner than twelve years next time! I would need help or someone to take on the project entirely because I am ill. If you would like to join the effort please get in touch.

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