Has Leeds council lost the plot over ongoing row with gardeners?

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A GROUP of battling gardeners are accusing council bosses of “threatening” behaviour amid claims they are being pressured into signing new leases - or risk losing their allotment plots entirely - while a wider debate about future arrangements is still ongoing.

As reported in the YEP last month, members of the Leeds and District Gardeners’ Federation were celebrating after a High Court judge overturned Leeds City Council’s plans to increase rent on the city’s allotments from £37 to £58 per year.

However the David and Goliath row shows no signs of abating.

The council is due to appeal the court’s decision and, next week, allotment holders are to present a deputation to the Full Council chamber laying out their additional concerns.

Among those concerns is a recent letter sent to members.

Federation vice-chairman Phil Gomersall said he had interpreted the letter as having a “very threatening” undertone because it was from the council’s legal department.

“It’s stating that if we don’t sign, everyone will lose their plots and everyone will have to reapply. We feel it’s not right,” Mr Gomersall told the YEP,

The allotment holders are now seeking further legal advice.

Mr Gomersall explained that more than the rent rise, allotment holders object to the fact they have been excluded, for the first time, from discussions about ground rents and the proportion they get to retain to maintain the council-owned land. He said the Federation historically held 75 per cent of total ground rents, but under the new plans it will be just 25 per cent.

“Our volunteers put in around 30,000 hours a year which the council is getting for free to maintain its land,” he said. “We estimate that’s about £350,000 or 14 full time employees.

“We used to do things democratically but this year they have decided to exclude us completely from the discussions.”

A Leeds City Council spokesperson said that as part of recommendations agreed by Leeds City Council’s executive board in September 2013, a notice period of 12 months was given to allotment associations in order to terminate their existing leases.

“This is to allow new agreements to be introduced which will help us build a secure future for the service,” he said.

“These lease arrangements were unaffected by the recent Judicial Review so a letter has been sent to allotment associations outlining the steps that we will need to take to bring about these changes. Trustees of the allotment associations are asked to sign and return the new lease on or before October 14.”

Meanwhile opposition councillor Stewart Golton (Lib Dem, Rothwell), today slammed the council’s “arrogant” response to its High Court defeat.

He said the authority was ignoring calls to resume talks with the Leeds and District Allotment Gardeners Federation, and instead, “shocked plot-holders were sent terse letters demanding that the new site leases be signed or face direct council control”.

Coun Golton said: “We hoped their defeat in the court case would make the council stop and reflect.

“It looks like they are set on continuing their strategy of confrontation, rather than cooperation, with the allotment growers.

“I find it incredible and disheartening that they would rather spend taxpayers money to chase the very council taxpayers who do their best to save them money rather than sitting around a table with them.

“We are supposed to be encouraging civic enterprise and getting more people to work together to deliver council services at better value.

“How can any potential partners take the current council administration seriously when it ultimately acts in such an arrogant way?”

The council’s decision-making Executive Board will be presented with a further report about the city’s allotments strategy at its September 17 meeting.

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