It’s always good to see the late Nobel laureate Elinor (Lin) Ostrom mentioned in the press, and quite surprising to see a reference to her in The Economist. Lin was a great scholar of the commons and founder of the International Association for the Study of the Commons.
The Economist ran an article on 5 October, ‘Allotments: garden state’. It starts by observing rightly that allotments began as relief for the poor. Under the Small Holdings and Allotments Act 1980 a local authority must seek a plot of land for an allotment if six or more people request one. Now there are only about 300,000 allotments left with a waiting list equivalent to half of them, and supply of new plots is inflexible. Only 1,950 new strips of land have been set up by councils in the last two years, and a typical one costs the council £2,000.
The Economist, predictably, suggests that the solution is to create a market by increasing the rents to reflect the scarcity, deterring the uncommitted gardeners and encouraging councils to protect the allotments from developers. The Economist seems to think that by creating a market it creates democracy, but only those who can afford it can take part—which is a long way from the ethos of allotments.
However, at this point The Economist changes tack. It acknowledges that ‘allowing wealthy gardeners to queue-barge would run against the spirit and history of the allotment movement’. And then it introduces Lin Ostrom, pointing out how ‘her work shows how common resources can be sensibly managed without using prices’.
In 1990, in her book Governing the Commons, Lin challenged the popular theory in Garret Hardin’s 1968 article ‘The tragedy of the commons’ (Science, 13 December 1968) that depletion of shared resources is inevitable because each user competes to win a greater share for himself. Lin argued, empirically, that communities will sustainably manage common-property resources through locally-devised institutions regulating use.
This is all pithily related in Tim Harford’s article, ‘Do you believe in sharing?’ in FT Magazine, 30 August 2013. As I said when I received the Elinor Ostrom Award on behalf of the Open Spaces Society last June, Lin was an optimist, she saw the best in people. She firmly believed that the norm is for people get along together and share a limited resource equitably—and she had plenty of evidence to prove it.
Back to The Economist, the article concludes that Ostrom’s solution is happening already in some places, such as the Conservative-run Barnet Council, which signs leases with societies rather than tenants and lets the gardeners run their sites.
All this is fine as far as it goes, but I still don’t see how we can ensure that the allotments are matched to those who genuinely need them. Would that Lin Ostrom was still with us to help us solve this conundrum.