Why we need to give people the ‘Right to Grow’ on public land in Yorkshire - Pam Warhurst

Change is long overdue - more than even the Labour party realises. Currently policies are done ‘to’ the people or, at best, ‘for’ the people. But we need policies that are done ‘with’ the people, and brought to life ‘by’ the people. We need to listen to the voices of local people and give them a Right to Grow on public land.

When Incredible Edible was founded 17 years ago, with the vision of growing fruit and veg in urban spaces, it was blindingly obvious to us that community food growing is a powerful, practical tool for hope in a world where so much feels under threat.

Were we going to wait around for local authorities to untangle their red tape, and maybe, possibly, allow us to grow some cabbages? Absolutely not. Street corners, grassy verges, and even the front of the local police station in Todmorden burst to life and the town became a green beacon inspiring communities all over the world to take up their spades and grow food on public land. We knew that if we waited around for greener policies to be done ‘to’ us, we’d be waiting a long time. We decided we’d rather ask for forgiveness, than wait for permission.  If the next government has any chance of tackling the immense challenges facing our society in the coming years - climate change, food security, the health crisis - they simply cannot expect to do it alone.

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What politicians too often fail to realise is that the public are not just standing around waiting to cast a vote. They are powerhouses of change, and sometimes all the government - be that local or national - needs to do is get out of the way and make it easy for communities to do the work they do so well. 

Vegetables picked from an allotment. PIC: Alamy/PA.Vegetables picked from an allotment. PIC: Alamy/PA.
Vegetables picked from an allotment. PIC: Alamy/PA.

Community food growing has a huge impact on urban sustainability. Researchers at the University of Liverpool found that if towns and cities in the UK made maximum use of available urban land for food-growing projects, enough food could be grown in those towns to provide all the inhabitants with their five-a-day. Engaging with and living near to urban food growing has been found to help people make healthier dietary choices, as well as improving people’s wellbeing. And in a world where the cost of living crisis has forced many families to reduce how much fresh fruit and veg they buy, we’re not just talking about ecological sustainability, but the sustainability of our society and health system. 

Increasingly, local authorities are creating wildlife spaces in a bid to improve biodiversity, but why do it in isolation? Why just create wildlife spaces when you could - excuse the very poorly fitting phrase -  ‘kill two birds with one stone’? Community food growing projects provide an abundance of food, create opportunities for communities to connect, offer practical opportunities to build skills and experience all while still providing huge benefits for local biodiversity.

This week is Yorkshire Sustainability Week, and if we want to see meaningful improvements towards a sustainable future for Yorkshire, The North, and indeed the whole nation, it’s time for authorities to step aside and make way for community food growing projects to flourish.

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Too many potential projects are crushed at the very start by impenetrable bureaucracy and expensive leases. Community groups must be given a new Right to Grow which turns the system of land access from a complicated, unwieldy ‘no’ to a resounding, straightforward ‘yes’.

Pam Warhurst CBE is the founder of Incredible Edible.

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