The struggle for land, food self-sufficiency and the right to green spaces might sound like a rural issue, but on one urban farm it’s playing out in a very different environment.
After losing 80 per cent of its income overnight when the UK went into lockdown, Vauxhall City Farm in south London is raising money to help feed the animals in its care.
But its appeal is being threatened by an online petition started by locals unhappy with the farm’s recent plans to turn its allotments into a free community garden.
“It will be a huge shame if their petition blights the farm’s appeal. We’re under a huge threat already,” says Monica Tyler, the farm’s chief executive.
The battle goes back to the mid-1970s, when Clive Jones, housing officer for the Architectural Association, was looking for affordable homes for students, and came across four boarded-up terraced houses in St Oswald’s Place, Vauxhall.
“It became one big house, and there was a sense freedom that younger generations don’t have now,” says Julia Tremain, who lived in the house when she was a student.
One of the earliest residents was Chris Spicer, who came to London from South Africa, and who decided to build a city farm, which were popping up around London at the time, on wasteland just behind St Oswald’s.
In the spring of 1977, locals came together to clear the site and by the end of the year, the Jubilee Farm was born, complete with a pond and garden, and its first residents: a turkey named Adolf, and Basil the fox.
Spicer created the farm’s allotments, invited local elderly neighbours to grow vegetables and plants, and gave children in the neighbourhood the opportunity to learn about animals and growing food. “I remember talking to a young boy who thought eggs came from factories,” Tremain says.
Jane Wilson, another resident at St Oswald’s at the same time as Spicer, remembers how important it was to Spicer, who died in his early 30s from cancer in 1985, to involve local people in every decision.
“Spicer wanted the farm to be a community. That was his complete raison d’etre,” she says.
50 years on, the compact, two-acre patch of green, buried in a tangle of roads in one of London’s busiest areas, has come a long way from its humble beginnings.
Now called Vauxhall City Farm and registered as a limited company with a chief executive and management committee, it has expanded its remit to five neighbouring boroughs. It has a horse-riding school, youth employment programmes, many more animals, and around 25 employed staff. Chris Spicer’s original allotments had survived – until now, that is.
Not everyone is happy about the farm’s expansion. When Clare Douglas, chair of Vauxhall Gardens Estate Tenants and Resident Association, moved to Vauxhall in 1986, volunteering at the farm, which she can see from her window, helped her recover from depression. But she says she was pushed off the management committee in 2002 because she didn’t agree with its ambitions. She remembers a simpler time when the farm served the local community.
“Now, you can’t do or have anything on the farm unless you’re contributing money. It’s not a service to the local community,” she says.
Paola Piglia, chair of Friends of Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, also lives above the farm and has seen the same thing from her window.
“I’ve seen the farm change from being a very modest and community-oriented operation to a much larger and business-like venture,” she says. “Its ties to the local community have all but disappeared.”
Tyler denies these accusations and says the farm doesn’t exist to make profit. “The farm turned over a small profit this year for the first time, and we were planning on investing that back into the animals and using it to start an after-school club, before Covid-19 happened,” she says.
According to Tyler, the farm wants to use the garden to educate young people and families about nutrition, a responsibility many city farms have taken on.
“Community farms have developed into vital features of the natural infrastructure,” says Jules Pretty, professor of environment and society at the University of Essex.
“They provide locations for sensitive and local food production, for biodiversity in urban settings, for the social capital that emerges from people working together, and above all, improve the mental and physical health of participants”.
At Vauxhall, the dispute ultimately comes down to who can access the land and has the right to grow food there.
Douglas believes the allotments are the last link between the farm and local people, whereas the new garden will be used by members of the public and schoolchildren in the six boroughs the farm now serves. Plans suggest there will be space to grow fruit and veg, but it will done by the farm and visitors, rather than by allotment holders.
Her petition asks Lambeth Council to stop the farm revoking allotment holders’ licences, a struggle reflected across the country as a recent study found allotment land has declined by 65 per cent in the last 60 years due to developments and other land use changes, despite demand surging.
Vauxhall City Farm is undoubtedly loved; its fundraiser has raised over £100,000 since the lockdown began.
But it has left behind a trail of unhappy volunteers and locals, allotment holders and former squatters who don’t believe its actions are those of a charity trying to survive – and ultimately, this could be its downfall.