Julie Sumner

Julie Sumner

Put yourself at the centre of an issue

About ten years ago Julie Sumner decided to embark upon a personal experiment. “I wanted to see what it was like to put myself at the centre of an issue rather than to sit on the periphery.” Inspired by the birth of her own daughter and several years as a prenatal teacher, she took up the position of chair of the local Maternity Services Liaison Committee and started work to improve care during childbirth at her local hospital in East London. Julie, who brands herself as “working-class and from the North”, says she finds middle-class constructs like committees irritating and exclusive. The MSLC was no exception but nevertheless Julie stuck with it until last year. Progress was slow: “Without a major outside impetus, like a change in legislation, not much happens.” she tells me.

Little did she expect that ten years of dealing with committee politics and bureaucracy would prove so helpful for her next campaign. Having got used to being deeply involved in a debate she threw herself into another, when a community extremely close to her heart became threatened. This time there was a major external event that lead to an unwelcome change. The success of the London Olympic bid.

As Julie tells me her story, we’re sitting in her lush back garden, overlooked by her private yoga studio, sipping tea and eating chocolate biscuits. Looking around it’s obvious that Julie is a keen gardener. It was that hobby which lead her to become a plot holder at the Manor Garden Allotments. A community of largely working class, east-end gardeners, which she has fought to save for the past three years.

I didn’t visit the nearly 100-year-old allotment site but from the descriptions and pictures I’ve seen, it was a treasured oasis, hidden away in the midst of an intensely urban part of East London. The lovingly tendered plots have now been bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympic Park: specifically for a concourse that will only be used for the four week Olympic event. But the Manor Garden Allotments Society didn’t go down without a fight.

Julie is the driving force behind their three year old campaign and will continue to work to ensure that the allotment holders get to return to the Legacy Park in 2014. Why is it worth fighting for a few tomato plants and cabbages? “Some of the plot holders had been coming since they were children and some are well into their 80s and 90s. Lots of us have moved house but stayed at the allotments. For many, Manor Gardens was their community.”

As soon as London won the Olympic bid, the plot holders realised their future was in jeopardy. For many of the tenants their instinct was to give way to the authorities and accept whatever compensation they were offered. “People just went into self-preservation mode and were happy to get whatever they could. We’re talking about people who have had lots of upheaval in their lives. One couple had been evicted from their home five times already and for them, this was just another eviction.”

Julie is clearly passionate about the cause. “I just cannot tolerate people who are powerless being abused. It’s the same with mothers in childbirth. I feel very strongly about this. So I decided I had to do something.” Julie got together with a few friends: media savvy professionals, an architect and someone who knew about web design. They got some legal advice, and set up the Life Island Group. At first the group were hopeful they might convince the designers to incorporate the allotments into the Olympic Park. “Manor Gardens ticked all the right boxes: positive long-tem impact for the local community, food security, health and well-being and sustainability. But the LDA had a blanket policy that everything had to be removed from the site. They were given powers that were almost impossible to challenge.”

The campaigners were soon invited to the LDA offices in St Catherine’s Docks to discuss a compromise deal. “There was a ridiculous imbalance of power. Some of the members were even practising the journey to St Catherine’s Docks the week before. When we got there, we met in a smart board-room. Everyone from the LDA was wearing suits. It was very intimidating.” There was little doubt from the start that the Manor Garden plot holders would have to give in, but Julie was fighting to get them relocated as painlessly as possible.

The next time they met, the LDA came to Hackney Wick and hired a room there. While the Life Island Group worked hard and retained media interest, the LDA continued with regular meetings. “At first they were going to scatter us around Hackney. We wanted to stay together and that’s what we fought for.” It wasn’t easy. “Many of the plot holders didn’t know how to behave in meetings. I had to work hard to keep them on message.” With Julie’s support and encouragement the Manor Garden Allotments Society managed to organise relocation to a site in Leyton. The move hasn’t been smooth. There have been major problems with the type of soil that was put on the site and the promise to move plot holders sheds was reneged upon. But Julie is looking forward; “My focus now is on what is built in 2014 when we return to the Legacy Park.”

The plot holders recently had a meeting with the designers of the Legacy Park. They put into practise what they had learnt in this process to date. They invited the designers to have their meeting at the allotment. “We have no electricity, so we knew there could be no powerpoint!” Their guests were greeted with a spread of local and own grown food, an agenda and a presentation pack. This wasn’t what the designers were expecting and they asked if they could present first. “We refused because we wanted them to respond to our ideas rather than vice-versa.”

The meeting was a success but there’s still a long way to go and more frustrations to come. Julie tells me how she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she read a recent Guardian article where David Higgins, the chief of the Olympic Delivery Authority, said that the London Olympics Park was going to have “lots of vegetation and food”.  But hopefully in six years time the Manor Garden Allotments Society will have a new site which was well worth the waiting. I should put myself on the waiting list!