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Peasants revolt against the Duke of Northumberland amid England’s allotment revival

As demand surges for allotments during the pandemic, a battle over veg patches between west London residents and their aristocratic neighbour is coming to a head.

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On a three-acre patch of land in the picturesque riverside heart of Old Isleworth in west London, the peasants are, politely, revolting.

They are allotment holders, but their impressive gluts of courgettes and handsome cherry trees are about to be bulldozed by the 12th Duke of Northumberland.

Park Road Allotments are described by one plot holder as a “little piece of heaven”. It is like a secret garden – a wild hotchpotch a world away from the manicured private grounds of the neighbouring Syon Park estate, the Duke’s London residence.

Reflecting the diversity of its west London location, the land is cultivated by young families and pensioners, Portuguese, Swedes, Italians and Jamaicans, toddlers and pet dogs.

Among its 37 plots, bat boxes are lodged into the nooks of tree branches, hidden ponds host newts among the vegetables, birds pinch ripening strawberries, blackberry-laden brambles overlook bamboo ladders of runner beans, and residents swap seedlings and tips – and grumbles about the aristocrats next door.

“It’s a little piece of heaven”

The estate of Ralph Percy, a close friend of Prince Charles whose family fortune is an estimated £445m, has filed for planning permission to build an 80-home housing development on the site, which is adjacent to Syon Park, where the recent Netflix period drama Bridgerton was filmed.

His son and heir, the earl George Percy – a former housemate of Pippa Middleton and friend of William and Kate – runs the Syon estate.

Amid the final throes of the First World War in 1917, as food shortages led to compulsory rationing, their ancestor Henry Percy – the 7th Duke of Northumberland – leased this green space to the then local authority, Heston and Isleworth Urban District Council, to provide a rare haven for the local populace and wounded soldiers to grow food.

It was given over to allotments, and has hosted the marrows, tomatoes and raspberry bushes of residents ever since. Today, the cost to rent an allotment is £12.50 for six months.

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Over a century since the allotment land was first leased, the 7th Duke’s descendants are attempting to wrest it back.

A spokesperson for the Northumberland Estates says “a replacement allotment for all existing allotment holders and new allotments which will be awarded to nearby residents” are part of the plans. Yet these will be squeezed into a third of the current space – making each allotment half or a quarter size of the existing plots.

[see also: Britain is losing its parks – when and where it needs them most]

The spokesperson adds that “the application will provide affordable housing and key worker housing”. Indeed, the development would be right beside West Middlesex hospital. In the plans for the new flats, 16 per cent are classed as London affordable rent, and 16 per cent London living rent (the actual affordability of both such rates has been called into question).

Opponents argue these plans do not justify sacrificing the rich soil, ecological diversity and fertility of the current allotments, which are designated an asset of community value, for years of building work. It is a sanctuary for wildlife, with badgers, hedgehogs, hawk moths, stag beetles and dragonflies – yet no invertebrate survey has been carried out by the developers.

David Attenborough, an Isleworth boy himself, once noted: “If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.”

Over half the trees on the allotments will be uprooted (only ten of the 23 counted by the Northumberland Estates’ survey will be left, according to planning documents).

“I’d be devastated if they took this away, it’s been part of my life for so long”

Grace Gray, 79, who has tended to her allotment for 30 years, leads me through a canopy of her apple, plum and cherry trees – already heavy with unripe fruit – which she planted two decades ago. Darcy, her Maltese-Chihuahua cross, weaves around the trunks.

“I’d be absolutely devastated if they took this away, it’s been part of my life for so long,” she says. Her mother, who she used to bring along to sit and chat while she worked, died at the age of 105 in 2019, and her partner, who she would picnic with here, died last September. Allotment work is helping her through her grief.

“It brings absolute sanity, it’s a marvellous place to come to rejuvenate, and it’s kept me healthy too,” she smiles.

[see also: Trouble in Starmerland: The local park dispute flooding the Labour leader’s inbox]

Carmela Staltari, 45, says that her allotment – which she inherited from a neighbour five years ago – provides a green space for her young family, who live in a small new-build flat nearby. Her daughters, now eight and six, are growing up playing with worms and learning about nature as she and her partner tend to their patch, and the family have barbecues and play dates on hot days.

“If the weather is good, we come every other day for a nice, relaxing evening, to get out of the flat,” she says. “My eldest daughter was really scared of bees, but now she sees them as friends.”

After the entire household caught Covid-19 in January and had to quarantine alone in their third-floor flat, the allotment helped Staltari – who lost her job in the tourism industry last November – to recover.

“I started coming here after I passed my isolation period because my lungs were in a really poor state,” she recalls. “I couldn’t breathe, I was struggling, I couldn’t even walk properly, I had to do really small steps. I started bending and digging. It helped a lot.”

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A defiant battalion of 28 or so amateur gardeners and growers, along with three Isleworth councillors, and shadow planning minister and Brentford and Isleworth MP Ruth Cadbury are urging Hounslow Council to refuse planning permission. According to one council source, there are around 800 official objections and ten letters in support of the development. The council did not tell the New Statesman when a decision is expected (it is rumoured to be August).

The Duke has tried once before to oust these pesky green-fingered locals.

When filing plans to build 127 flats and houses on the land in 2016, his justification was that he needed the development to fund the renovation of Syon House. And yet his family rose from 321 to 300 in the Sunday Times Rich List in 2020. The New Statesman has asked why they need these extra funds, given their extreme wealth, but they did not give a clarification.

The original scheme was rejected at a tribunal in 2018 – the Northumberlands “had failed to demonstrate that there were no other funding sources for the restoration”, the inspector found. The removal of the allotments would also have resulted in a “loss of protected open space”.

The Duke was also warned not to enact his plan to simply close the allotments overnight if he was refused planning permission. This would “not remove [the allotments’] local open space designation”, warned the government planning inspector. “I cannot understand why the Estate would choose to do so if this appeal fails since that would be in nobody’s interest and would hardly add to the record of good custodianship of its land in the area.”

“There’ll be a lot of angry peasants with pitchforks at his gate!”

In the end, the allotment holders were allowed to stay – but they are on precarious six-month leases (“not much grows on a six-month cycle”) and vacant plots are not rented to newcomers, despite an allotment waiting list of 800 in the local authority. The New Statesman has asked Northumberland Estates to explain this, but it declined to respond.

Allotment holders are again being threatened with eviction for opposing the Duke’s plans. In a recent letter sent to the plot holders, seen by the New Statesman, the director of Northumberland Estates Colin Barnes warns that resorting “to the press to raise issues regarding the development… is not how we would prefer to conduct our business” and threatens to oust them: “… if this ultimately leads to the planning application being refused, then the allotments will not reopen”.

“I think the Duke’s going to find himself with a lot of opposition if he goes through with this threat,” says Isleworth councillor Salman Shaheen. “A lot of angry peasants with pitchforks at his gate!”

The Duke’s threat to pull the land out of use jars with the eco-friendly image his family projects. George Percy promotes the green credentials of his energy business, Hotspur Geothermal – a firm registered at Syon House – claiming that the environment is at its “heart”.

The Duke’s wife, Jane, is a committed gardener, best-known for her work on the ornamental garden at the family’s seat of Alnwick Castle.

The Syon Park website boasts of “the huge diversity of habitat” on its grounds, celebrating its species of rare fungi, and lichen on its trees – whose branches almost touch those of the neighbouring trees on the allotment.

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Isleworth has a rich heritage of growing produce. Much of its land hosted orchards in the 18th century, and during the Industrial Revolution it provided food to London’s booming population from its market gardens.

There are an estimated 330,000 allotment plots in England today, a huge decline from their peak of 1,400,000 in the mid-1940s – the wartime era of “Dig for Victory”.

Yet while space has shrunk, demand has recently shot up. The National Allotment Society reported last August that 40 per cent of English councils had received a spike in allotment applications since the pandemic hit. Hyndburn in Lancashire recorded a 300 per cent rise.

[see also: Why green spaces are vital for the UK’s levelling up agenda]

Fears over food shortages and stockpiling ahead of the Brexit deal also led to concerns about the decline of allotments. In March 2019, a communities minister was asked in the House of Lords whether the Department for Exiting the EU had allotments “on its agenda”: “Once we have left the European Union we are going to probably have to grow a lot more of our own food and therefore we are going to need many, many more allotments,” posited one peer.

“They want to walk all over us”

Only 12 per cent of local authorities can guarantee a plot within six months, and half say their average waiting time is 18 months.

In the dying days of New Labour, a local government think tank attempted in 2009 to drum up political interest in a “Dig for Victory” revival. It pointed out the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in green spaces, gardening and growing – a prescient message over a decade later, in an age of social prescribing and greater focus on well-being.

In a report titled “Can You Dig It?”, it pointed out the large swathes of land across the country carved up between aristocratic families (the “1 per cent of landholders [who] own 70 per cent of land”) which could provide space for more growing.

The Duke of Northumberland’s 130,200 acres received an honourable mention.

Back on his three-acre battleground in Isleworth, residents out in the drizzle quietly pick mangetouts, and some verbena and camomile leaves for herbal tea. “They want to walk all over us,” says Grace Gray. “They just want rid of us. I’m sure that was the plan right from the beginning – they’ve got their eye on this plot.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.