When Avon and Somerset police officers attended an early morning callout near Bristol on 17 October 2023, they found themselves at the scene of a good old fashioned stand-off.
Residents of Abbots Leigh, a usually sleepy village with a sub-800 population, were using their vehicles to block access to a stretch of agricultural land. The subjects of their protest were a gaggle of workers, accompanied by security guards, who’d arrived to install a boundary fence around the plot. The matter, police decided, was not a criminal one; it was private land. The fence was a permitted development. They departed. The fence was erected, and the battle was over.
But not the war. To Abbots Leigh residents, the fence was a further incursion by a pernicious invading force: a company called Roots Allotments, which has selected the North Somerset location as the latest stepping stone in its quest to create “allotments of the future”. What this means in practice is privatised allotments that turn would-be users from tenants into customers.
Roots is a subscription service: sign-ups pay a yearly fee, plus a £39.99 deposit to secure their space. The bang is notably weaker for the buck someone could get for a council plot; Roots’ starter offer of £9.99 a month only bags you a ‘mini’ 12 sqm space. Its biggest plot is 108 sqm, priced at £49.99 a month, or £549.89 a year. By comparison, council-run plots in England average £45 annually for 125 sqm of space. Roots charges customers 12 times more for 17 sqm less land.
But Roots’ plots are available, whereas in some parts of the country, people can wait up to 15 years for an allotment. Names on allotment waiting lists in England currently number over 150,000. Roots say its solution is one of very few being proposed, and there’s little disagreement on that point. The quibble is in the why and how.
Roots v Abbots Leigh.
Roots has three sites up and running in the south east, and has eyes on expanding northwards. A Stourbridge location is set to open in April, and the company claims it will come to Cardiff later this year (albeit without evidence of securing the necessary land). But it’s the 700-plot Abbots Leigh site that has attracted the most scrutiny – and exposed the issues that have created a market for such a business in the first place.
For over a year, Roots has been locking horns with North Somerset council’s planning committee and Abbots Leigh residents. Two previous planning committee applications were rejected in 2023 due to the threat to wildlife and that a planned car park would increase traffic to the area.
But Roots remained undeterred. In November 2023, it resubmitted plans to the committee, sans car park. The council reluctantly agreed it had “no choice but to grant it”. Development of the site began in earnest.
The company is feeling the heat, however – and taking it personally. After the second application refusal by North Somerset council in August, Roots published an (apparently unproofed) open letter on its website addressed to the “Abbots Leigh Objectors”. In a few hundred words, it accused the villagers of NIMBYism in overdrive:
“The world and society has changed massively since allotments were first invented,” it read. “One of the only options is to use [the] agricultural green belt for what it has always been intended for, which is agriculture.”
“It is with deep dismay that we witness so much fake news and fact-spinning about our organisation […] We cannot fathom the callousness of your cheers of success when the council rejected our application.”
In November’s planning committee meeting, Roots made its point more fervently, with co-founder Christian Samuel unrolling a list of the 7,630 people currently waiting to be assigned an allotment in Bristol. Samuel said he and his two Roots co-founders had been “hounded online, doxxed, harassed, assaulted and chased to each new location we open” by “some of the people in this room”, before calling the Abbots Leigh objectors a “wild gang intent on destroying people’s right to food”.
Roots isn’t entirely wrong, of course: there is a desperate shortage of allotment provision in England. In recent years, allotment land has been chipped away by developers wooing cash-strapped councils, who grant projects in exchange for short-term funds and without the capital to replace lost plots. In fact, since their peak in the 1950s, there’s been a 65% decrease in allotment land across Britain, with deprived communities facing an eight times greater loss of access.
But as supply has dwindled, demand has risen. The pandemic fostered awareness of reduced green access and the mental health benefits of getting outside. Meanwhile, the concurrent environmental and cost of living crises have boosted the ‘grow your own’ movement. To tackle allotment waiting times, some councils have resorted to extreme measures, with one Suffolk local authority even serving eviction notices to tenants who had held plots for more than five years (the plan was later overturned).
But what’s fascinating is that after aiding the disappearance of such green space, private companies now want to sell it back to us. Developers have started including allotments in planning applications in efforts to appeal to councils and uncertain locals, positioning themselves as doers of social good.
Roots is no different. Its founders are three millennials, who came up with the idea after bemoaning long allotment waiting lists in London. While accusations of NIMBYism in North Somerset aren’t entirely unfounded, its solution is to further privatise and commodify a provision that is a statutory right – just one that’s become harder to claim as local authorities fight for financial survival. Roots is neoliberalism at its peak: move into a gulf left by a weakened state, then argue – with technical accuracy – that only it possesses the resources to tackle the issue, so everyone should shut up and get on board.
Some councils have flatly refused to entertain Roots. The company’s recent attempt to lease land owned by Brighton and Hove council was rejected by the local authority. At the time, Mark Carroll, chair of Brighton and Hove Allotments Federation, summed up Roots’ pitch to a local newspaper:
“The proposal is to rent this land to a venture capital-backed private company to rent back to us at between 16 and 20 times the price of the equivalent land on a council-run allotment,” Carroll said.
“Sadly, this follows a pattern of public services with huge waiting lists becoming run down and the private sector stepping in to offer an alternative to those who can afford it.”
But many councils can’t outrun the likes of Roots – the company is often acquiring privately-owned land, with only planning committees to overcome. And where councils can’t beat Roots, they might well join them; at the end of December 2023, Bristol council began consulting on plans to increase allotment tenancy fees by up to 50%, including new additional charges for the likes of installing a shed. Rather than open up the accessibility of allotments, as Roots claim to, high prices further freeze people out.
“It’s going to be gardening for the elite, I think,” one local Bristol allotment representative told an ITV reporter. “It will be such a shame, because we need these allotments to be used.”
Eroding the common good.
The men behind Roots aren’t the vulturous capitalists of imagination. They really believe they’re providing a “progressive way forward to create more spaces for food growing”. They point proudly to the social enterprise initiatives run at Roots sites: plots for local charity organisations, free patches for primary schools. And existing members seem happy with their Roots experience.
But profit-driven models can never replace well-funded state provisions, and they’ll always end up serving those who can pay first. What companies like Roots do is reinforce the message that we should accept the bare minimum for the highest price because those are the rules of the free market. And for all Roots’ talk of social responsibility, the framework it operates in leaves the claim moot – privatisation erodes common good.
As one Roots customer shrugged in a Facebook comment, when asked their view on the company’s strategy in North Somerset: “That is out of my control, most people don’t know what goes on behind businesses.
“I’m just a customer that has taken advantage of a service that satisfies my requirements.”