Hackney Council destroyed my garden, here’s why

Yesturday morning a team of council maintenance workers moved into my community garden and destroyed it.

I’m still in shock.

Since drafting this post Hackney Council have just called to apologise, and have promised to help find another site, but this story says more about the failures of government to manage common land, than it does about what happened to me as an individual.

I live in a tiny one bedroom flat in Hackney. It has no outdoor space – not unusual in London – where less than 50% of homes in have a garden.

I’m not complaining. I chose to live in Hackney because I love the area, but last year year, like most people, our rent went up. As did the price of food, and pretty much everything else.

Several years of austerity have taken their toll on my life, and on the lives of everyone else in the capital.

When I was growing up, supermarkets collected tins to send to developing nations, now, those tins get sent to food banks in the UK.

A combination of these factors, and a hope that I could alleviate some of this problem not just for myself but also the local community lead me to think about starting a community garden.

Our cities are full of small, unutilised pieces of land – around the base of buildings, on the side of roads and between houses. These pieces of land are too small for development, but too large if you add them all up for most local authorities to do anything with within their current budgets.

One of those patches sat outside our flat for over a year. A 4 x 3m area of bare earth between some long-dead rose bushes. After an extensive search revealed no clear ownership, I set about improving the soil and planting vegetables. Nothing I was doing was permanent, and would only have improved the site for whoever owned it.

The garden literally blossomed, and by summer was producing enough vegetables to keep us and our neighbours fed. Wildlife moved into the once desert-like space – even common blue butterfly which has seen a 60% decline in numbers since the 1990s – and I met more neighbours in 4 months than I have done in my entire 15 years of living in London.

Together we started to hatch a plan to expand the garden and turn it into an official community space.

And then someone complained.

I received an email from our estate agent with a snippet of text they had received from the holding company of our building, informing me that the plants I’d grown there constituted “trespassing” and that would be prosecuted in 10 days unless I removed them.

I was shocked, but more shocking still, was the revelation that this notice had been sent by Hackney Council. An organisation who have publicly proclaimed support for urban green space.

Still optimistic, I thought as long as I could explain the situation to someone at the council they would see reason and grant permission to keep the garden. Since they were so supportive of using under-utilised space for urban greening elsewhere.

I emailed all of my local councillors – none replied.

I phoned the number of of the person who was supposed to deal with urban greening projects – they had since left and their number had been reassigned.

I even messaged the Mayor on Facebook (sorry Phill)

All in all I sent over 27 emails, made over 100 phone calls and got 2 replies. Both messages were the same – although I am a Hackney resident, I wasn’t a resident of a council estate, and therefore had no right to use the land. I had to find someone from the estate to run the garden or it would be destroyed.

I documented every one of my failed attempts to get help. It’s a long list.

One reply was from a housing officer who is part of the Debdale estate. I finally managed to get in contact over the phone and we agreed to halt this process so I could collect signatures to make the garden official, but to be honest there was a lack of any clear process and the authority of them to take forward a trespassing claim. I have to make it explicitly clear here that she had my name, contact email and phone number and followed me up a couple of months later to which I replied to her let’s catch up and update you on the interest I’d built from the estate. At no point did I cease to engage with her but she stopped replying to me despite me following up twice to engage in conversation.

I tried to work with the process. But 4 months later, after a long winter when only the most trepidatious gardeners are thinking about gardening, I was struggling to find anyone in the estate to put their name to the project.

Many were keen to be involved, but it’s one thing to be involved in a community garden, and another to run one. Particularly with the possibility that if anything went wrong with a project like this, their tenancy could be in jeopardy.

I couldn’t blame them, so I contacted the housing manager on the estate to let them know that I’d try again in spring. Since no reply came, I assumed everything was ok.

Then, yesturday without a single phone call or email from the the housing officer I’d been speaking to for months, or anyone else at Hackney, I looked out of my window to see the garden being destroyed. With the housing officer I’d worked with in attendance.

It’s important to reiterate here Hackney had my name, email and phone number and I had engaged with them throughout the process. To have no contact from them and to wake up to this is astonishing. What makes it more heart wrenching is that the housing officer I’d been working with was standing watching over the process.

A notice had apparently been posted ‘in plain view’ asking me to stop my “unauthorised gardening”. In fact, the notice was obscured by rose bushes, was a long way from the garden, and had been posted just 4 days earlier.

Why, when like any other resident I contribute towards hackney council managing publicly owned land on my behalf, would would it be the case that I had no right to use that land for the benefit of the community?

The answer is a broken business model where the residents of council estates pay for the upkeep of the land immediately around their buildings. Land which is almost all grass, and which local authorities have no resources to change.

In fact this land isn’t even seen as public land and, as the the Mayor pointed out on Twitter – “it features in individual leases and subject to different laws and regulations”

This means that estate residents pay for land that is often poorly managed, and other local residents have no rights to use it.

But who owned this particular piece of land is a minor point.

Even if there were equal rights to use that land, it would be almost impossible for either group to navigate the required bureaucracy to do so – the department that dealt with urban greening at hackney has since been shut down it seems, the form you need to use to get your space officially recognised is an inaccessible PDF, and the email address to send it to bounces. And that’s nothing compared to the social capital required to get more than 5 of your neighbours to sign a form before you’ve even started growing, on top of the worry that if anything did go wrong with the space, their tenancy might be in jeopardy as a result.

In short, the odds are stacked against even the most enthusiastic, privileged person setting something up an urban garden.

Right now I fit into that category, but for me, living rented accommodation that I don’t know if I’ll be able to afford from one year to the next, a process like this would mean missing the growing season, even if I was eligible to take part.

I don’t blame the person who complained.

They were a resident of the estate that pays for the land, and they saw someone using something ‘they hadn’t paid for’. No matter how much that land was improved in the process you can understand how someone in the right frame of mind might take offence.

But I do blame Hackney Council and every other local authority that works in this way.

Not just for providing a broken service full of dead ends, I’ve seen enough of these, but for supporting a broken business model that has lead to what amounts to social segregation of communities, and precious land not being used productively.

The notice to remove my “unauthorised growing space” so that it could be “returned to grass” was left the day before hackney council – along with 27 other London boroughs – declared a climate emergency.

Aside from Hackney Council’s contradictory policies, the bigger problem lies in how land is managed by local authorities and who gets to use it.

The biggest problem is a lack of open data.

It is almost impossible to tell who owns a piece of land as small as my garden was in the UK, especially if it is unoccupied by a building. All my searches revealed were the ownership of the buildings in the area, not the spaces between them. And I’m a civil servant, if I can’t find this out, there’s very little chance that anyone else would be able to.

Our second biggest problem is a lack of open rules and regulations

Even if you did find out who owned this land, your route to understand who had the right to use it, and for what would almost certainly involve a lawyer.

This is now a country that is literally starving, yet there are growing spaces in our towns and cities that are not being used because no one knows what the rules are for using them. Worse still the people who really need to use them, can’t afford to take the risk of using them without knowing the rules, as I did, for fear of falling foul of a system that’s already stacked against them.

What I went through wasn’t just a traumatic mistreatment of a citizen as a result of a bureaucratic gaff, but one example of an endemic negligence of the root causes of social segregation and food shortages.

If local authorities and other public bodies are reading this and wondering what they can do to improve this;

  1. Stop talking about digital transformation and fix real problems;
  2. Open up the data you have on land ownership in your area
  3. Make it clear where land can be used, and what it can be used for
  4. Provide a fast, clear way for people to get permission to use that land
  5. Treat your residents like human beings. Appreciate when they want to do something good and don’t threaten them with legal action or destruction of their property if they try.

As I said at the start of this post Hackney have now apologised for destroying the garden without any warning, and offered to find a new site for it. For which I and the other users of the garden will be grateful if it happens.

That’s some solace, but it doesn’t make up for the fact they destroyed a legitimate communities hard work and plants without notice or an inch of consideration for allowing those things to be harvested before they were destroyed. To add insult to injury though, some of the workmen did this themselves and took some of the veg home with them.

No new garden will change the damage this has done to me, the community or the root of the problem at hand – a culture that is built to avoid risks over and above supporting its citizens to live better lives.