Gardeners who staged a “peasants’ revolt” against the multimillionaire Duke of Northumberland have scored a remarkable victory over planning proposals which would have paved over their allotments – and replaced them with flats.
Grade I listed Syon House in west London has been used by locals to grow their own food for over a century, but the estate company of Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, has been seeking to turn part of the lucrative estate into flats.
The 37 allotment plots would have been converted into 31 smaller ones – with the housing development taking up roughly two-thirds of the existing site. The estate insisted that all allotment holders had been offered another plot.
The gardeners claimed that the three-acre site – which served as a set for Downton Abbey – is a wildlife haven, and home to a host of rare bees and butterflies.
After a protracted battle, waged by a group of residents and local councillors, the duke’s application to build 80 flats on the estate was rejected last week – despite his pledge to fund repairs to Syon House with the proceeds from renting the new flats.
Labour councillor Salman Shaheen, who represents Isleworth on Hounslow Council, said the duke’s proposals “would have destroyed 74 per cent of the site” – and that the second rejection his plans, after campaigners fought off an initial effort to reduce the size of allotments in 2018, is “very rare”.
“I’ve been on the planning committee for two years and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before,” he told The London Economic. “It’s a testament to how strong the case was against this application, how many people had written in with genuine reasons for objection.
“It’s a fantastic testament to the people power of London. It’s an old Saxon town that existed long before London expanded around it to swallow it up, but its community exists, it’s a strong sense of community, a strong feeling of protecting the preservation of our history and our environment.
“These allotments are a homage to the past of these old market gardens that used to characterise Isleworth.”
Shaheen praised the press for exposing a letter sent by the estate, which criticised a “minority” of allotment holders for speaking to journalists about their concerns.
The letter, sent by the duke to allotment holders in May, warned: “It is unfortunate that a small minority have resorted to the press to raise issues regarding the development. It is not how we would prefer to conduct our business, but if this ultimately leads to the application being refused then the allotments will not reopen.”
It added: “It is not a tenable position to both oppose the scheme and expect a plot on the new development.”
“I thank the British press for standing up and for holding power to account and doing what the press at its best is best at,” Shaheen said. “I think we really ran what I would say was a campaign that I was very proud of; with the eyes of society, with the allotment holders, with residents from all walks of life, we collected 1,000 objection letters, a petition of 3,000 people.”
‘A hollow victory’
But Shaheen remains concerned that the estate’s claim that they would “move on” means they could appeal against the rejection.
He said: “I hope ‘we will move on’ means they won’t appeal, I hope that means they won’t kick allotment holders off their plots. But we don’t know if they are going to appeal yet.
“I want to see people continuing to use them; they’ve used them for the last century non-stop, and I want to see them use them for the next century and the next century after that.
“We live in a city where many people don’t have gardens. Especially during Covid under lockdown, this green space was so essential for people’s mental and physical health.”
Stephen Hurton, chair of the Park Road Allotments Association, a group of growers who rent the allotments, told TLE that it is “unfortunate” the landlord has the power to close allotments.
He said: “There was a lot of local opposition and I’m very pleased that the planning committee refused it because it demonstrates that there shouldn’t be building on greenfield sites.
“It’s great that the open land is protected. It’s a bit of a hollow victory because the estate has acted on their threat to close the allotments.”
TLE asked Northumberland Estates if they are planning to appeal against the decision and if they would allow allotment holders to keep using their plots.
A spokesperson for Northumberland Estates said they are unable to offer answers but that decisions will be made in due course.
Colin Barnes, director of Northumberland Estates, said: “The decision is extremely disappointing and a lost opportunity both to provide affordable homes and health workers with housing while retaining allotments. We will move on.”