Allotment rents increase unlawful

The Administrative Court has recently held that Leeds City Council’s decision to increase allotment rents was unlawful.

The Administrative Court has recently held that Leeds City Council’s decision to increase allotment rents was unlawful. Nevertheless, the Court held that the Council were not required to subsidise the provision of allotments. 

The Allotments Act 1950 provides that councils shall let allotments at a rent that a tenant can reasonably be expected to pay.  

Wood and Turley were holders of allotments and members of an allotment gardeners’ federation. Leeds City Council were responsible for 97 allotment sites, 37 of which they managed; the remainder were managed by allotment associations holding leases of each site and granting sub-leases to allotment-holders. Under the leases, the association retained two-thirds of the rents for the individual plots, paying the remaining third to the Council.  

The Council’s budget was reduced for 2012/13 and 2013/14. The Council therefore sought to reduce allotment running costs through future rental increases. The Council took legal advice and considered (a) allotment rents charged by other authorities and (b) charges for recreational activities in the Council’s area, neither of which were considered comparable.  

In the report prepared for the Council’s Executive Board no reference was made to The Allotments Act or to the consideration of possible comparables. The Executive Board approved the proposed increases, as well as the termination of the leases to the associations in order to re-negotiate the proportion of the allotment rents retained by the associations to one-third.  

The decision was considered by the Council’s Scrutiny Board who received advice about The Allotments Act and heard that the increases were “proportionate and not unreasonable”. The Scrutiny Board released the decision for implementation. The Council served notices terminating the associations’ leases with effect from October 2014 and invited them to agree the proposed new leases.  

Wood and Turley’s complaints to the Council were rejected. Rather than making a complaint to the Ombudsman, they issued a claim challenging the decision to increase the rents. The Court allowed the claim in part holding that: 

  1. Although it is for a Local Authority alone to determine rent; the Local Authority should listen to other interested parties in order to fairly determine the rent a hypothetical tenant might reasonably be expected to pay.
  2. There was no obligation on the Council to subsidise allotments.
  3. Although there was no prescribed method to determine a reasonable rent; it would be difficult to achieve without some valuation exercise, usually by comparing rents charged by other local authorities.
  4. The decision of the Executive Board was flawed in that they did not consider the general approach to the law under The Allotments Act.
  5. The court was satisfied with the conduct of Wood and Turley, and held that a complaint to the Ombudsmen would not provide an adequate remedy.
  6. No relief was granted in respect of the termination of the associations’ leases; but relief was granted in respect of the rent increase.
      

Although increasing allotment rents is an option to compensate for cuts in local authority budgets, it will be important to follow the procedure laid down by the court so as to avoid being challenged. 

Sian Evans, Commercial Dispute Resolution Partner

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