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Digging for Our Lives: The Fight to Keep The Green Backyard

Sophie Antonelli, co-founder of The Green Backyard
This piece was written forRe:development,a book brought together by artist Jessie Brennan following her year-long residency at The Green Backyard.Published before the land was finally safeguarded, ittraces the journey of transforming a former derelict allotment site into the thriving community growing project that is now The Green Backyard. It is presented here as part of acollaborative, networked exhibitionwhich celebrates the success of The Green Backyard’s campaign to secure the land – as public, open, urban green space.

3_Jessie Brennan_If This Were to Be Lost_2016_painted birch plywood on scaffold_1-9 x 19 m_situated at The Green Backyard_Peterb

Jessie Brennan If This Were to Be Lost (2016), painted birch plywood on scaffold, 1.9 x 19m, situated at The Green Backyard, Peterborough. Photograph by Jessie Brennan.

In early 2009 we first opened the gates to a site in Peterborough that had been closed and unused for 17 years. A 2.3-acre site in the city centre, next to two main roads and the East Coast main line to London should not be hard to miss, but after almost two decades of disuse many people had simply forgotten it existed. I’d like to say that we knew what we were doing at that time, but as is often the case in voluntary groups, the creation of what would become The Green Backyard was motivated by the seizing of an opportunity, in this case offered land, together with a tacit sense of need: to preserve years of learning created by my father on his allotments; to create a space for people to learn and change; and to challenge the momentum of the city, which in my life-time had seemed stagnant and apathetic.
At the time I could not have articulated these motivations, and I am now very aware that my own impetus is likely to have differed from others’ around me. I find this to be the case with many community spaces: everyone comes to them with their own very personal set of hopes and needs which are often complimentary, and occasionally divisive.
The lessons that grew out of those undefined early experiences of creating a shared space made visible the participatory qualities inherent to the project and fired up the desire for imperfect spaces – rather than meticulously planned ones, with defined budgets and personnel. The threat then imposed by the land owners, our City Council, in response to the slashing of local authority budgets following the 2008 financial crisis, actually served to crystallise this value and catalyse a movement of enthusiasm for radical change in a city long-complacent and passive.
The battle to stop the land being sold off for development, which at the time of writing in 2016 is still ongoing, I think, surprised everyone. First came the obvious shock when council officers arrived just a few days before Christmas in 2011 and told us of their intention to sell the land. Everything we had built: buildings, gardens, animals, people, was expected to move. It was made clear at that time that the decision had already been made and resistance was futile. We were not to stand in the way of ‘development’; our kind of development was clearly the wrong kind. The greater surprise however has been how we, along with the wider community, have responded to that threat in the following years, resulting in a rewriting of the narrative that more-or-less everyone expected us to follow, that of the well-meaning underdog, a tragic but necessary victim of the relentless march of progress.
The process of safeguarding the land, and our work, was as slow and evolutionary in nature as the project itself. Our needs had radically shifted, from the creation of space to the preservation of it, and in order to achieve this we had to undertake a steep and daunting education in the legislature of land – a field not easily accessible from a community level, by a group of unpaid volunteers.
Initially, buoyed by a healthy dose of outrage and bloody-minded determination we informed the land owners that if the land were to be sold, we would be the ones to buy it. Aware of recent huge successes in community shares and fundraising, such as the Isle of Eigg community buy-out1, we felt sure that given enough work and time we could raise the £750,000 we were told it would cost to buy the site, once the planning permission for residential development they intended to grant was in place. This initial declaration kept us ‘in the loop’ and allowed us to always present positive assertions about our future. Even when many felt we had no chance, ensuring we only ever talked about ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, helped to subtly shift perceptions of us over time and ultimately rally support and optimism around a cause once thought hopeless.
Further reading and research brought us the Quirk Review2, the Localism Act (2011)3, allotment legislation4 and the Town and Country Planning Act5, along with a realisation that the fight to save the small piece of land that we were developing for everyone was part of a far wider movement of localism and community ownership, inspired by centuries of struggle by the land rights movement.
In order to make good on our intentions to begin fundraising, our informal group had to undergo significant change. An interim board was formed and in January 2013 our legal structure was changed to a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, and the land was registered as the city’s first Asset of Community Value (ACV) in June of the same year. These changes were hard won, involving a great deal of research, learning and discussion, whilst all the while continuing to develop and expand the physical site we were fighting for. Plants needed watering, animals needed feeding, open days needed to be staffed. This was the beginning of a phase of personal sacrifice for many, and I found myself spending less and less time physically on site in order to keep up with the administrative burden.
When, in July 2014, our board of trustees invited senior council officers to a meeting to discuss the site’s future, it was with a feeling that we were in a phase of growth, and that all our work in preparing the organisation to be one that could take on ownership was beginning to pay off. At this meeting however, we were informed that the land had been placed on the council’s disposal register, and since they considered it to be such an easy sale, they were planning on selling it before the end of that financial year (2014/15). These plans had been in place for several months, but we had not been informed due to an apparent oversight.
A few months later the moratorium period, designed to protect ACVs under the Localism Act’s Right to Bid, was triggered, and in November 2014 a ‘for sale’ sign was placed on the fence describing the site as ‘prime development land’. The sales pack revealed that the land was to be sold by sealed bid, with tenders required by mid-January, although a decision would not be made until mid-March, thereby technically still adhering to the mandatory six-month period designed to allow communities sufficient time to ready their bids.
The time required to raise such significant sums was clearly not available to us, but nonetheless an urgent fundraising campaign was undertaken, launched in December by Sir Tim Smit and attracting support from other well-known figures such as Sir Jonathan Porrit and Natalie Bennett, Green Party Leader. In the first 10 days the campaign raised £11,000, almost entirely from small donations of £10, the amount we suggested would be required to save one square foot of the site at a time.
In January 2015 we submitted a formal tender for the site. Evidence of our available finances was provided with the public’s donations, combined with offers of substantial loans we received from several members of the public and volunteers (although to date these have not been taken up). Such an incredible demonstration of support and strength of feeling kept us going, both personally and professionally, and made the idea of admitting defeat and vacating the land entirely unacceptable.
Through January and February we lobbied hard for additional time, supported by the public, several local councillors and sympathetic organisations such as the Community Land Advisory Service (CLAS) and the Federation of City Farm and Community Gardens (FCFCG). Taking advantage of the facility for members of the public to lodge questions at Full Council meetings, we questioned the validity of an asset disposal system that counted financial value but discounted longer-term social and environmental benefits. We also reiterated the government commitments we had found through the 2003 General Disposal Consent6 relating to sections 123 and 127 of the Local Government Act 19727, which permits local authorities to sell capital assets at below market value if there is clear social value to be gained. This entire process of negotiation was documented through our online presence, always maintaining the positive assertion that this was part of the route to security, rather than a losing battle.
In March, just before the expiration of the moratorium period, a reprieve was finally granted and we were asked to produce a business plan that detailed our intentions for the land and how we planned to make it financially viable. This document was delivered, after a year of additional research and numerous drafts, to Peterborough City Council in April 2016. Contained within the document is a request that we be granted a long-term lease on the land at reduced rent in recognition of the social, environmental and economic value The Green Backyard provides the city, and could provide in the future. Having seen the effect of a fledgling garden with very little in the way of financial investment on a community, we are excited now to think about what more could be created given long-term security and commitment. The business plan puts structure around this ‘big picture’ and what has already been created in order to support it and help it grow, like stakes in the ground: like pea sticks.
The negotiations we are now engaged in with Peterborough City Council have seen a marked shift since our first conversations about the site’s sale, and a positive relationship with senior council officers has emerged. A transparent approach, a courteous manner and significant research on the relevant legislation have been critical in building this relationship. We hope that through this approach we have largely avoided being seen as purely obstructive, something our detractors would rush to call us, along with the usual accusations of being idealistic, feckless hippies.
In order to bring about this change in relationship it has been necessary to convey, in fairly robust terms, the precise value of a space that has evolved organically over a period of years without clearly defined objectives or parameters. Initially this was a daunting task, but quantifying the value of community growing has been done very successfully by other projects such as the Big Lottery’s Local Food programme using the Social Return On Investment (SROI) methodology8, who found an average return of £7 of value for every £1 invested in community growing. The benefits are also clearly described by FCFCG’s True Value report9 and Growing Health’s 2014 report10. The findings of these studies show clear social, environmental and economic benefits of community growing, and we were able to use these to demonstrate that the very real long-term benefits that the project could bring to the city (all with positive financial implications), far outweigh the one-off cash injection that a land sale would generate.
With the tangible benefits of community gardening now increasingly widely understood and comprehensively evidenced, I still feel that there are several less tangible effects that are unique to independent community green spaces. I’ve had the opportunity to observe these in the eight years since we first began work on The Green Backyard, due in part to the informal and imperfect nature of the space (on occasion our own worst enemy!).
I have come to realise that there is a great value to be found within ‘imperfect’ spaces, created by their ability to reflect our own humanity and fallibility. A deeper connection to place can be fostered by a space in which the user can see themselves, and can see a place for them to be. A perfectly manicured garden is a beautiful thing to behold, but it does not invite the user to get their hands dirty, or suggest that there is a need for them to be there. It may also present a daunting prospect to those of us who do not consider ourselves to be perfect beings, creating an underlying sense that our own imperfections might ‘spoil’ the pristine garden and cause it to be less beautiful because of our presence. A working garden – warts, weeds and all – reflects who we are; it creates a more comfortable environment, and I would argue a more beautiful space because of, not in spite of, the presence and acceptance of these imperfections, and those of its occupants.
There is a very clear distinction to be made between work that is doneto local communities, and work that is donewith them. With the best will in the world, any scheme that is initiated by anyone other than local people close to the project will run a very great risk of being perceived as an intervention. There is often a clearly observable shift in visitors’ perception to The Green Backyard when they realise that we are not part of a larger parent organisation, don’t have any kind of significant grant funding and don’t even have any paid staff. What could otherwise be judged as shortcomings – things like a weedy or overgrown pathway, an under-utilised area or a shed in need of painting – become opportunities to help and contribute. Time and time again we have been overwhelmed by people’s desire to donate, help and be part of something that they see is genuinely seeking to make the city they live in a better place in a very tangible, practical way.
This creation of a ‘human’ space, and the power embodied in that, rather took me by surprise. As we worked the muddy ground I could see that there was a special interaction that took place between people and the land there. People tend to experience the space in very different ways depending on their needs, so for some it becomes a place of work, for others relaxation; for some it is a place of friends and community, and for yet others a way to find sanctuary and solitude. In short the non-prescriptive nature of the community garden allows those who visit to find and take away what they need, rather than being instructed on how they must interact with it. This might sound facile but I have seen, on numerous occasions, very troubled people come to the garden, and with very little formal instruction find the things they need to find some peace. In fact, the garden seems to be a place that people gravitate towards when they are at points of change, crisis or conflict in their lives. It’s no surprise that many of our volunteers found us during these times and their deep emotional bond with the space comes not just from work and joy, but from healing and learning.
This very personal, human element means that a deeper connection is formed between people and the land – one that is often lost in cities and modern society, but that rooted our forebears to the places in which they lived and worked. It is this connection, more than anything else, which for me ultimately challenged the long-entrenched apathy of our city: the pride and sense of place found at The Green Backyard turned into, for many people, a determination to see it protected.
This newly discovered passion for the space, conveyed by so many people, kept those of us at the forefront of the campaign fighting for it for so long. There were many, many times over the years when I, and others with me, felt like for a change, I would like to work less than a 12 hour day; I would like to have some evenings not taken up by meetings; I would like to be paid for my work; and for it to be OK for me to sometimes get things wrong. But there was too much at stake. So many of us made sacrifices of our time, energy, health and money to ensure that what had been unearthed on some derelict land was not lost forever.
Despite this toil it is still a commonly held belief that people do this kind of work because it’s fun. It is: it can be amazing fun! But it is also hard: it can be isolating, exhausting, demoralising and everything else that a job can be, without the benefit of supporting structure or pay. Conflict arises and must be dealt with so as not to threaten the very thing you’re fighting for. The pay-off, of course, is the huge satisfaction to be found in seeing the effect of your work on the people around you: the laughs, the discoveries, the recoveries, and even the weddings. The satisfaction in knowing that you have changed a place for the better, and people’s lives with it.
The hardships we go through are ultimately part of what’s needed in creating something of true worth, something that is hard won and that should not be undervalued. Whilst I wouldn’t wish anyone else to go through the same long-running fight for survival as we have, it’s undeniable that we are a different – I would argue far better – organisation because of it. Value that otherwise went unnoticed was brought into sharp relief simply by being questioned and people, lots of people, found their voices as a result. This is probably the thing I am most proud of, because ultimately we, like so many other community groups and spaces, grow people first and plants second. Tomatoes and tulips are really just a pleasant addition to the more important main crop: the lives and personal stories which give a place its soul.
6_The Green Backyard_with artwork If This Were to Be Lost by Jessie Brennan_2016_Photograph by Matthew Booth

The Green Backyard, Peterborough (with Jessie Brennan’s If This Were to Be Lost, 2016). Photograph by Matthew Booth.

1. For information about the Eigg community buy-out see: Patrick Kingsley, ‘Eigg: the answer to Britain’s housing crisis?’, The Guardian, accessed 2 June 2016. theguardian.com/society/2012/sep/17/eigg-housing-crisis-britain-answer; and ‘Eigg Heritage Trust’, accessed 2 June 2016. isleofeigg.net/eigg_heritage_trust.html.
2. ‘Making Assets Work: The Quirk Review (2007)’, The National Archives, accessed 2 June 2016. webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919132719/www.communities.gov.uk/publications/communities/makingassetswork
3.‘Localism Act (2011)’, The National Archives, accessed 2 June 2016. legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2011/20/contents
4. ‘Allotment Act (1922)’, The National Archives, accessed 2 June 2016. legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo5/12-13/51
5. ‘Town and Country Planning Act (1990)’, The National Archives, accessed 2 June 2016. legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/contents
6. ‘Disposal of land for less than the best consideration that can reasonably be obtained: circular 06/2003’, Department for Communities and Local Government, accessed 2 June 2016. gov.uk/government/publications/disposal-of-land-for-less-than-the-best-consideration-that-can-reasonably-be-obtained-circular-06-2003
7. ‘Local Government Act (1972)’, The National Archives, accessed 2 June 2016. legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1972/70
8. ‘The Local Food Programme: A Social Return on Investment Approach’ (Final Report, University of Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute, 2008)
9. ‘True Value’, Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, accessed 2 June 2016. farmgarden.org.uk/resources/true-value
10. ‘The benefits of gardening and food growing for health and wellbeing’, Garden Organic and Sustain, accessed 2 June 2016. sustainweb.org/publications/the_benefits_of_gardening_and_food_growing/