There’s a problem that’s been bugging me for as long as I’ve been involved in local politics, and I think I’ve finally found the answer.
The problem is the way that the estates in east London look so scruffy, due to the gardens on the ground floor of blocks being untended and often overgrown with weeds. When I first became involved with labour campaigning I thought this indicated that the demand model of social housing was a failure. People who buy their homes or pay private rent wouldn’t pay for a garden if they didn’t want it, but in social housing they just get given a garden when they have no interest in tending it. However, I was corrected by the fact that people with mobility issues are housed on the ground floor. It’s not the allocation that causes the problem, but the aging population.
Thinking about how to solve this, it occurred to me that there are many people in central London who have green fingers, but live in a flat with no garden. I’m one of those people, and although I’ve turned the landing outside my front door into a rather nice jungle, I’m still frustrated that I don’t have some direct light to grow my own vegetables under.
Looking at the untended gardens on the estates, I considered a system that could bring together gardeners and gardens, but it seemed an expensive and bureaucratic solution, so I never tried to push it forward. It was only recently when I was watching the TV show “Escape to River Cottage” that I came across a technological answer to the problem.
The TV show was promoting a website they had developed called Landshare. The website promised to bring together landowners with people who wished to cultivate the land. Although their intention was to help people come together in the country, I saw no reason why this shouldn’t work just as well on the estates of east London.
Landshare has since grown to 66k members in this country. If you look at their map of London you see that the red pins representing people who would like to find a plot, massively outnumber the green pins of people offering. The huge numbers of untended gardens in Tower Hamlets are held by the elderly and infirm, so it should be no surprise that these tenants are not logging on to Landshare. They need some help.
The way I approached the problem was to put a very brief motion to my Labour Party General Committee explaining the issue and suggesting that the council should appoint an officer to the task of bringing people together. Since we live in times where council officers are being shed rather than hired we’ll have to wait and see, but Tower Hamlets tend to have the knack of finding resources for the elderly, as demonstrated by the recent news story of Liz Kendal’s study into homecare, which found that we are the last council to continue to offer this service for free.
We’re still at a very early stage with this idea, but as we talk about it, the added benefits are coming to light. In Tower Hamlets we’ve already noticed that our success in getting Meals on Wheels down to £2 per meal has resulted in there being absolutely no personal contact with the elderly person, as the delivery staff dash in and out in their effort to stay on schedule. It may well be that Landshare is a good way of providing some personal contact between the elderly person and a member of the community. I’m sure the council would insist that each person applying to have a garden will need a CRB but that’s just £27. Besides, as a solicitor, I’ve never known a burglar to register for gardening opportunities in their search quarry, so I don’t see this as a potential problem.
As I said it’s still early days for this project, and I don’t know if other parts of the country have the same issues as high density Tower Hamlets, but I wanted to share the idea with like-minded Labour people from other parts, and Progress is where the ideas seem to be happening these days. If there is sufficient interest, maybe Progress can provide some kind of forum for us to swap experience and develop best practice? In the meantime, I’ll report back once the project has become a reality.