Letter: Antrim Grove allotment solution is not an environmental one
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Phil Wilson, allotment tenant, Belsize Park, writes:
It may be a case of more turmoil than toil on the Antrim Grove and Branch Hill allotment sites this summer. Plots are already being neglected as tenants struggle to come to terms with growing restrictions and the idea of drastic changes to be made by Camden over the winter. I think many are finding the combination overwhelming and feel dispirited?
Work is needed because of negative soil tests done last July, but Camden’s plans for soil replacement and remediation are a cause for concern. Both sites failed the soil tests, with high levels of lead and arsenic and on one site traces of asbestos. The confusion stems from Camden’s imposed solution which is being strongly contested on both sites.
Something was required to deal with the situation, but Camden are forcing through an unsympathetic solution that will see all trees removed and will be a catastrophe for wildlife. There has been no meaningful consultation and plotholders have been left very much in the dark.
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Camden’s preferred system - indeed the only system they are now contemplating - is difficult to explain to general readers, but it will see the allotments turned initially into building sites as they are stripped of all vegetation. A perimeter wall of “gabions” (rocks in wire cages, normally used as retaining walls) will be made and a no-dig membrane placed across the entire site on which imported soil will be dumped. All existing trees will be taken out by the contractors plus other mature plants and bushes. Including roses and some wonderfully mature lavenders on Antrim Grove that buzz with bees all summer long. I don’t think it will be too much of an exaggeration to say it will be an environmental disaster. Both sites act as “green lungs” in high-density areas.
The loss of mature fruit trees with their spring blossom and the established flowering shrubs will have a massive effect on bees, bumblebees, insects generally and other pollinators. Several years ago, the Antrim Grove allotment was visited by scientists seeking to plot a path to encourage bees in to London, showing the site’s potential importance.
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The loss of ponds and informal wildlife refuges will devastate small animals such as frogs - both sites have many small ponds with frogs, toads (and newts on Branch Hill). The new frogs produced this year will not be able to return to their breeding ponds next year as normal. The ponds will have been filled in and the gabions around the perimeter will inhibit the return and movement of wildlife. Calls for an independent environmental assessment have fallen on deaf ears.
Camden have agreed that the sites will remain as allotments. For now. But both sites occupy increasingly valuable land so no-one is too sure about the long-term future. There was an earlier system proposed of creating raised beds, which many feel was preferable. It would have allowed us to keep our trees and would have been less harmful to wildlife. It would also have used less imported soil. Camden rejected that proposal on the basis of cost, but it looks like a case of false economies and priorities.
What Camden are now imposing is very much an “engineering” solution, not an environmental one. No-one can tell us what will happen to the sites in the future when the membrane needs to be replaced (so much easier under the “raised-bed” system). Nor can I see how this system will work in the sloping valley at Branch Hill. They are unable to show examples of this “gabion” system being used elsewhere or give us a final design; although we believe a contract has already been awarded. They are now rushing the project through but it appears to have been poorly conceived and planned. It is not a sustainable solution and looks increasingly short-sighted.