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Locked out: allotment owner told to quit amid claims of racism and legal threats in Canterbury

Think allotments and your mind conjures up images of The Good Life starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendal, middle-aged suburbanites ankle-deep in mud hunched over vegetable patches or tending to their tomatoes in a greenhouse.

For these amateur horticulturists the allotment ought to be a world away from the everyday strains of life, where the greatest stress is whether those marrows will grow properly. But for plot holders at a site in Canterbury, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Victoria Park allotments off the Rheims Way are at the centre of an extraordinary row, a cauldron of claim and counter-claim, of allegations of “totalitarianism”, cries of racism, solicitors’ letters and the publication of “defamatory” leaflets, all of which has put the ruling committee on a collision course with its members.

Kathleen Parkin at her allotment
Kathleen Parkin at her allotment

And then there is Canterbury City Council, which owns the site and which originally wanted to keep its distance, but it will examine the situation.

At the centre of the dispute is allotment holder Kathleen Parkin, a well-spoken Seychelles-born retired teacher who lives just across the dual carriageway in Mead Way and has been tending a plot for seven years.

The committee which runs the site has decided the 64-year-old is a nuisance and wants rid of her.

In a letter to Mrs Parkin in January it told her it would be terminating her lease and evicting her.

Among the allegations are that she has made “racially divisive comments” to other plot-holders, taken photos of other plots, failed to smile or respond to greetings from other members and even sped round the site in her car.

The Victoria Park allotments are in the centre of a row between owners
The Victoria Park allotments are in the centre of a row between owners

Mel Glazer, of The St Dunstan’s Horticultural Society (SDHS), which manages the site, wrote to Mrs Parkin in January to tell her that her membership of the society had been withdrawn and that she would have to vacate her plot.

The letter read: “Unneighbourliness has led to a great deal of unhappiness and substantial stress for committee members and other allotment holders.

“This unpleasantness has included the core hard-working committee members, which you unkindly and unjustifiably named in one of your defamatory leaflets.

“It has been decided that for everyone’s emotional and physical wellbeing...your tenancy has been terminated with immediate effect.”

Mrs Parkin admits she passed leaflets to other plot holders, but insists they merely questioned the activities of other members she suspected might be breaching allotment rules.

She denies all the other allegations the committee has made against her.

Mrs Parkin has been praised by some other allotment owners for generously giving away some of her produce
Mrs Parkin has been praised by some other allotment owners for generously giving away some of her produce

“All these problems started about two years ago when I questioned why allotment rules were being allowed to be broken by a recent arrival and then I complained about poor management,” Mrs Parkin said.

“This culminated this year in me being served an eviction notice on trumped-up charges based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. As I see it, I’ve not breached any clause of my tenancy agreement.

“I am a victim of totalitarianism on council property. It’s scandalous. I have complained to the council endlessly. They must become more involved, but they haven’t.”

Fellow plot holders have rallied to Mrs Parkin’s defence. Christine Eisenhuth said: “She is my nearest neighbour at the allotment and I have always found her pleasant, cheerful and generous. Her plot is one of the best-maintained, which isn’t a surprise with all the effort and work she is putting in it.

“She is always ready to give a hand, exchange tips, advice and seeds or plants. To me, she has exactly the spirit you would expect of someone you have on an allotment. She produces more than she needs, so after sharing with her family and friends, she brings fruits and vegetables to a charity for homeless people in town. Why is the committee so prejudiced against her?”

Terry Ware, another plot holder, added: “We are horrified at this decision. This is a great injustice to Kathleen. She is a great asset to Victoria Park. Her knowledge and helpfulness is second to none. Her plot is a joy which she tends with TLC.”

And in a letter to Peter Whitcombe, the chairman of the St Dunstan’s Horticultural Society, Sam and Jess Sytsma added: “We believe that no substantial evidence has been given to justify eviction. She has a well-maintained and productive plot and has been a good neighbour to us and many others on the allotments.”

The committee has also received a letter from Gardner and Croft, the St Margaret’s Street solicitors, which is acting for Mrs Parkin. The firm says following a review of the documents sent to her that the committee has no legal right to demand she vacates her plot, adding that the committee’s activities risk exposing its members to potential legal action.

"As it stands, the attempt to evict me is not legal and I shall be continuing to use my allotment" - Kathleen Parkin

The SDHS is responsible for three allotments – Victoria Park, Mandeville Road and Whitehall Road. Its members pay yearly rents and membership fees to the committee, which in turn pays rent to the city council.

It had been due to have hold its annual meeting on February 1, but this was suddenly cancelled.

SDHS chairman Peter Whitcombe told the Gazette that the society is instructing it own solicitors and declined to comment further until their letter to Mrs Parkin’s solicitors was completed.

Mrs Parkin added: “As it stands, the attempt to evict me is not legal and I shall be continuing to use my allotment.”

A national body for allotment holders is urging Canterbury City Council to take a greater role in the way the Victoria Park site is managed.

The council owns the allotments, but claims it is powerless to step into the dispute as it has devolved management to the St Dunstan’s Horticultural Society.
But the South West Counties Allotments Association (SWCAA), which represents allotment holders nationally, insists the council has a duty of care to those who rent plots.

In a letter to the city council, SWCAA director Ayesha Hooper said: “Self-management only really works if the help and support of the council is still there, especially in cases like this.
“To read what has been happening to Mrs Parkin on this site is none other than shocking and should not under any circumstances be allowed to continue.

"You can not simply evict someone from their allotment because they are not liked or deemed a troublemaker or because they question how things are being run. The types of things that Mrs Parkin has been accused of are simply petty and ridiculous and no substantial evidence for any of the claims has been put forward.”
The council admits it is aware of the issues between the management committee and Mrs Parkin.

Spokesman Rob Davies said: “The St Dunstan’s Horticultural Society leases three allotment sites from the council – Mandeville Road, Whitehall Road and Victoria. We are aware of an ongoing dispute between a plot holder and the society at Victoria and will be looking into the concerns that have been raised.”

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