Derek Rankine is Policy Manager at SURF. His role helps SURF utilise its stakeholders’ knowledge to support improved policy and practice in place-based regeneration. This involves facilitating engagement in the sharing of information, experience, ideas and opinions across the SURF network, developing appropriate policy positions for SURF, and representing SURF in policy forums, evidence sessions, and consultations.

My colleague Euan Leitch notes that, despite being top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, food – and community growing – is a subject outside SURF’s typical thematic interests. This, and our fondness for daft puns, explains the event tag line: “entering un-charded terrority”. In his blog, Euan explains why we decided to step outside our comfort zone and bring community growing right into the front and centre of our thinking as the focus of our 2023 Annual Conference, which took place in Kilmarnock at the end of August.

The topic resonated strongly with our network and partners. Our busy programme featured presentations and panel sessions with practitioners and project managers from across the country, complemented by perspectives from academia, umbrella bodies, housing associations, health organisations, and local and national government – plus a memorable folk tale from storyteller Daniel Serridge. We quickly received the maximum 128 bookings, and operated a waiting list for additional places in the superb setting of CentreStage, a thriving multi-arts venue and community led project highlighted in the 2022 SURF Awards.

I suspect some of those attending may have been mulling over the same question I confess holding earlier in my career: “so what?” To put it more respectably: what meaningful difference can community growing spaces really make for our multiply-deprived places, given the scale and array of challenges they presently face?

I further suspect that, given the range and quality of evidence provided at the event, some talking emotionally about the difference participation in community growing can make, many of those people will have the same journey I made. In doing so, they will have arrived at the conclusion that community growing spaces provide exceptional value for public money, delivering a myriad of positive benefits for people and communities, supporting improvements in health and wellbeing, pride of place, social capital, community development, climate change, and much, much more.

As SURF’s Policy Manager, my question still starts “so what?” – but now runs to, “so what should our partners in government and other sectors be doing differently to sustain, embed and expand community growing in poorer places?”

Here are several answers provided on the day:

Funding – It will come as no surprise to see funding at the top of the list. Almost all contributors said without more resources, we can’t expect to see more action. Several speakers and panellists pointed out that, while it was possible for a core group of volunteers to maintain a growing space and provide some activities, a core staff member or team would always be required to coordinate volunteers, manage the land and facilities, and liaise with project partners, funders and local partners, often including schools, other community groups and charities.

Oversubscription of modest funding programmes such as the £100k Growing Food Together Fund was highlighted. As speaker Greig Robertson of Edible Estates pointed out, this is a tiny resource when spread across all of Scotland. He felt one or two extra zeros would be a must for future iterations for any kind of scaling up to happen.

There was, however, much in the way of realism on the scope for enhanced funding at the Conference. Several contributors and participants highlighted the restricted nature of public finances. The breadth of policy objectives community growing can support, was repeatedly highlighted as key to the case for scarce public investment. Kate Treharne of Dundee City Council and Campy Growers said community growing should be placed much more centrally to the Scottish response to the global climate crisis – and a linked food emergency, which is on the horizon.

The morning Q&A panel also exchanged views on the underplayed potential offered by philanthropic and private resources. Another positive view was presented: low-tech solutions are becoming more commonplace, leading to more affordable projects.

Access and Rent – With so much derelict and vacant land in Scotland’s towns and cities, more should be done to pass these on to communities that wish to use them as growing spaces – even temporarily. Socially minded bodies with unused, available land, such as local governments and Churches, should do everything they can to make it available to communities at no cost. Contamination shouldn’t be used as a reason to deny access to former industrial land – raised beds can simply be added on top for a safe and healthy solution. In a similar vein, rent increases for growing spaces, such as the widely reported 400% rise set by Glasgow City Council for allotment rent rates earlier this year, damage prospects for growth.

Implement Existing Policies – The University of Edinburgh’s Mary Brennan stated that the Good Food Nation (Scotland) Act is a groundbreaking, internationally notable cross-cutting policy. While she acknowledged some issues and tensions around deliverability, she argued that there was much to be positive about, and a great deal of impact to come as it patiently breaks down siloes and builds depth. Jill Muirie of the Glasgow Centre for Population health also spoke enthusiastically about the 2021-2031 Glasgow City Food Plan, which brings multiple agencies including Glasgow City Council and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde together to provide more opportunities for communities to enjoy cooking and growing together.

Build a Compost Heap – a metaphorical one, as was agreed by those on the morning panel, including representatives of Get Growing Scotland, Inverclyde Shed, the Concrete Garden and Grow 73. With a patchy network of successful projects in different parts of Scotland, we should bring together the multiple layers of knowledge, activists and case studies into a rich fertiliser that can inspire new projects to spring up. The benefits to wider communities from a compost heap approach is clear too. Community gardens and growing spaces help define the narrative and character of an area, and lead to community development and action. Supporting more activity has a positive knock on effect for the quality of community led and place-based regeneration.

Restoring Status – Greig Robertson suggested that community growing has been separated out from the rest of the voluntary sector, and labour tends to be unpaid – whereas paid staff positions are common in other types of voluntary groups. Restoring its status within the voluntary sector could enhance opportunities for fair work in community growing, and improved access to funding in future. A linked point was made by Nancy Barr of Larkhall Community Growers: vegetable growing enjoyed a very high status in Scottish society in the past, with many household gardens featuring a vegetable patch, before the rise of cheap supermarkets and processed food. She convincingly argued that it is now time to make the return journey.

Understanding and Behaviour – A public education and access campaign could enhance participation levels in community growing, and stronger longer term support across the population. As one panellist said: “food growing isn’t sexy”, especially compared to other interests that capture young people’s attention such as football, social media and pop music, but once they take part, they often find they greatly enjoy it. Multiple Conference participants provided examples of people of all ages, whose lives change greatly for the better when they get involved, but getting people to make that first step into the community growing space, can be challenging.

Social Prescribing – The idea for General Practitioners to direct patients to local projects who have issues that community growing could address, such as social isolation, mental wellbeing and physical exercise, does not seem to be happening. Several representatives of growing projects said they had heard of the social prescribing process, but had no engagement with local GP practices. This could be a low-cost area for policy-makers to address.

The above is not to suggest positive changes are not underway. As Mary Brennan and Jill Muirie respectively argued, a lot is being achieved through the Good Food Nation and the Glasgow City Food Plan. The Scottish Government is also demonstrating its growing appreciation of the sector’s value and importance, which keynote speaker Joe Fitzpatrick, Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning, made clear at SURF’s Conference.

In the days following the event, the Minister made the following statement to the Scottish Government’s Local Government, Housing and Planning Committee (video timestamp – 10:20):

“The recognition of the value of community growing [has been] growing in the past number of years. We’re now seeing increasing numbers of community growing organisations across the country. Lots and lots of different models. That work is supported by the Scottish Government. Since 2012, we’ve awarded £1.8m to directly support and increase the land that’s available for community growing…”

Highlighting a recent SURF-facilitated visit to our Alliance for Action site of Dunoon, The Minister continued: “The benefits of these community growing organisations needs to be recognised. It isn’t just about food… also community cohesion, physical health, mental health, education – in Dunoon the community growing space is attached to the school and the kids come in. It’s so successful the school are saying, ‘thanks very much, we’ll do this now’ and the [Grow Food Grow Dunoon] group are now looking for a new space.”

This all points to a growing recognition of the importance of community growing to multiple public policy goals – and to the regeneration of places with social and economic challenges. SURF will continue to draw attention to the benefits of community growing spaces, and the needs of the local players that establish and maintain them, through our policy influencing activities.

Further information on SURF’s 2023 Annual Conference, including conference presentation slides, is available here.

This blog is the second in a series of follow on blogs from the SURF Annual Conference. Read the next blog from Mark Dowey of Architecture & Design Scotland, here.