I always enjoy receiving readers' letters, never more so than when they challenge and surprise. I was therefore delighted when a resident of Edinburgh's New Town informed me that this column had been the subject of hot debate at the New Year meeting of his local residents' association.
My correspondent enquired whether allotments should not be kept for the "seriously poor", means tested to keep out the burgeoning army of middle class kitchen gardeners. If not, then allotments should surely be charged out at existing land rents, reflecting, particularly in Edinburgh and its environs, high land values. The city's annual allotment rental of £30 (£6 concessions) was, he felt, clearly absurd.
Given that historically, allotments were a pragmatic sop from the landed establishment to the starving, urban poor, dragging allotments into the market economy is certainly a revolutionary idea. Yet my reader has a point. Italian friends visiting from Le Marche recently, explained that similar plots there would cost around £35,000. This doubtless explains why Scotland's Italian community, even at this less than sunny time of year, value their ortaggi so highly.
I was mulling over this letter on my plot, snapping off the juicy heads of Brussels sprouts stalks for soup, when I realised that my radical correspondent had just seized the new zeitgeist. For if even allotments are up for debate about how much they could raise for council budgets - a sure sign of a re-rating - so increasing numbers of well-informed, highly taxed and debt-burdened people are asking just how much do landowners contribute to the common good? Not least the 350 families who own more than half of Scotland's private land, much of which is registered offshore. Unsurprisingly, the old political argument about land value taxation - originally promoted by the New Town big daddy of free market economics himself, Adam Smith - is now being discussed seriously in political circles north and south of the Border, not least among the Chancellor's officials. The idea being that, as in Denmark or Australia, the rental value of land should be taxed annually for local amenities, given that it is community economic activity, not land owners, which creates the value of land.
Pre First World War, the Lords defeated proposed legislation and years of war, depression and subsidy meant land has remained off-limits for fiscal discussion. Until now. Yet in our ever greener realpolitik, I suspect allotments will remain zero rated, on peppercorn rents. Though I'm open to Italian-style negotiation should my local parks department ever wish to be paid in pepperoni.
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