Lambeth Poly – community cropping

Lambeth Poly was a prototype project to explore what we can grow and sell in Lambeth, and how we can train and employ local people to do it. The project ran from April 2012 to October 2013. This informal report states the outcomes, reviews the project and indicates learning/evaluation. Scroll down too for a roll of thank yous.

The polytunnel is continuing its life as part of Lambeth Living’s programme of community food growing on estates ‘Edible Living’, contact: Ivor Picardo, ipicardo@lambethliving, 020 7926 3604


The vision. Lambeth Poly originated from a food security question: how can citizens in the city feed themselves year-round? The polytunnel model would be replicated all over the borough on unused land, car parks and roofs to supply greens locally, a co-operative of community farms. Trained volunteers would run operations and build a cohort of Lambeth farmers, creating jobs. Financial sustainability would come from social enterprise, including the creation/delivery of an urban farming qualification. All this would contribute to the long term goal to grow capacity in the borough for a local food economy.

Rationale. The demand for locally grown food is rising. Food miles push up prices and are bad for the environment.   Crops grow more quickly and for longer in the year in the protected environment of a polytunnel, increasing productivity. There is an enormous range of cabbage and lettuce varieties for every season, easily grown in the UK. Greens of all sorts provide folate, iron and other essential nutrients that can’t be sourced elsewhere. These crops are relatively quick and easy to grow and so good for teams of community novice volunteers (scroll down for Transition footnote).

The set up. Initial funding was received from London Borough of Lambeth’s (LBL) Innovation fund as part of a project on Tulse Hill, Brixton. I worked with the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association (TRA) on Tulse Hill Estate (click for googlemap), and Housing Association Lambeth Living. We chose a site on a green between blocks. Contractor Veolia sponsored the poly tunnel and start up materials. Click here for a story on construction, and here for an early report. Apprentices from a polytunnel project in Brentford, west London were employed to erect the tunnel.

Design of the growing model. Ranks of seed trays using organic compost on benches allow a clear visual understanding of the weekly turnaround. Using a specially made ‘multi-dibber’, 1 – 4 seeds (depending on the crop) are sown in each station, filled and tamped. The even consolidation of the compost ensures a uniform crop. Even irrigation to roots is facilitated by capillary matting. The wide space between benches allows for training sessions and wheelchair access. The under bench storage space allows the unit to be self contained. The polytunnel could be moved if necessary, and even (in fact, preferably) sited on tarmac or concrete to make use of short term land use permissions.

Volunteer interaction with the growing model was a key factor in the design. Crops can easily and pleasingly be sown and harvested by amateur growers.  Once inducted, volunteers can induct others.  Daily watering and airing of the tunnel require a rota which can be managed by residents living right by the tunnel. Operations are done on a weekly basis; Thursday suited our restaurant customers. Quick turnaround avoids most pests and diseases which require higher level horticultural skills. Simple batch management ensures harvest dates, yields, notes on taste, buyers can be tracked. As a volunteer cohort emerges, decisions about crops, other management and future direction can be fed in (see Social Enterprise section, below).

The market.The unique selling point was multi-faceted: provenance, food metres (not miles) and developing niche premium produce. This was achieved by having:

  • local restaurants purchase produce grown by residents
  • produce grown on local housing estates
  • premium produce that is ultra fresh – harvested and delivered on the same day
  • unique produce that cannot be bought elsewhere
  • produce that can be paid for with the local currency, the brixton pound
  • produce delivered by bike or on foot, reducing carbon footprint

 The aim was to ride the wave of the local provenance fashion initially, and build the business, then focus on citizens as direct consumers.

See the slide show below for the Lambeth Poly story, or click this link to see it in a new window that you can embiggen on your screen. Read on for outcomes, learning/evaluation and thanks.


Season 1: July – Dec 2012

  • seven local volunteers trained and inducted in growing in the tunnel
  • three other active ‘ambassadors’ from the estate
  • over £250 of baby leaves and 9cm herb pots have been sold to local restaurants (using £B), local veg box scheme Local Greens and, to residents.
  • five outreach/workshop events have been held (3 on the estate, 2 at Lambeth Country Show)fFive outreach presentations/food supply: World Development, Lambeth College, Capital Growth networking (x2), Incredible Edible Lambeth Harvest Feast
  • two rounds of a cycle of three mini trainings have been held for local volunteers and other interested people
  • volunteers on the project had three  learning opportunities outside the project
  • residents were employed (to make a stop motion film of tunnel construction, to make benches and multi-dibbers)
  • project  generated much interest and countless ’friends’ on the estate and in wider Brixton and Lambeth (database includes 120 contacts)
  •  project won Capital Growth’s Enterprise award in its Olympic year Grow for Gold competition
  • five outreach presentations/food supply: World Development, Lambeth College, Capital Growth networking (x2), Incredible Edible Lambeth Harvest Feast




Season 2 April: – October 2013

  • Course ‘Growing in a Polytunnel’ written, validated and delivered to a cohort of 8 trainees
  • two food growing initiatives set up as a result by trainees (Lisa’s sprouts, Antonio’s mushrooms)
  • hosted Keeping Records training for Capital Growth’s ‘Grow to Sell’ and ‘Harvestometer’ campaign. 20 participants from the wider London growing community
  • four other public engagement activities
  • a further six local people involved in volunteering
  • c £300 of crops sold
  • two consultation meetings with residents
  • five meetings of the Lambeth Poly steering group meeting, including a visioning session


The major piece of work in 2013 was the creation and delivery of an accredited course to skill up Lambeth Farmers in the operations of the tunnel. The vision was they they could lead on other tunnels in the borough. This was a 45 hour course over 10 weeks made possible through commissioning by Lambeth Council through High Trees Community Trust, a community college on Tulse Hill.

The commissioning of this course meant that I could continue to mentor and develop the project, and pay for the basic materials to keep production going. This ensured continuity from a 2013 start up grant from Lambeth Living (Emma Couper, Mark Howarth) and allowed the steering group to try to start up a social enterprise.

Please click here to read a more detailed story on the Growing in a Polytunnel course, An Urban Farming qualification

Social Enterprise

A steering group was convened to guide the project to becoming a social enterprise. Among issues to resolve were:

  • corporate structure and governance – the best model
  • writing the articles of association in consultation with the community
  • proportion of charitable funding vs revenue
  • sponsorship/donation of tunnels, materials and construction
  • maximising profits
  • social return on investment (SROI) as profit
  • wages, employment rights, income support issues
  • land use permisions
  • insurance and indemnitites
  • security (food safety)
  • further horticultural research
  • full costings and best suppliers
  • fuller market research – engage with 8 potential customers who approached the project
  • sites – visit those that have come forward wanting the tunnels and more
  • the writing of agreements with community groups


There was a great deal of learning and I’ve restricted myself to five headings. I’d be interested to hear what other stakeholders see as their learning (contact).  Please register your feedback by April 10th 2014 and I’ll write a post-script summarising.

The Growing Model and volunteer interaction worked well. Maintaining the volunteer input needed requires co-ordination and it’s not sure how that works without a paid officer. It was extrapolated from figures of  the first season’s yield that the project could bring in ‘a respectable’ 9 tonnes per hectare (Lambeth Poly was a case study in Rethinking Lambeth’s Local Economy – see link below). The link between the food being produced by local residents, on local land, food metres, paid in local currency was felt to be an elegant ‘closed loop’ system that could benefit the local economy and citizen well-being.

Training. The course went very well and showed how much the topic could be a springboard for individuals to develop their career interests. It was clear that a modular urban farming qualification would have much interest and could be an area of development. The tunnel attracted a lot of interest from the wider population wanting workshops, shorter courses, courses at weekends and simply wanting to know how to garden.

Scaling up. Several areas of communal growing and other pieces of land put themselves forward over the course of the project. Lambeth Poly was involved in the early stages of Loughborough Farm, for instance, and Vauxhall Gardens in the north of the borough seemed likely. It seemed that other community groups understood the vision.

Innovation. The model and the possibility of Lambeth Poly came about due to the C0production by Design initiative at Lambeth Council. It’s unlikely that community would otherwise have come up with such a project, and it was adopted and adapted by residents. Only ever funded to be a prototype, the project grew into a second season and leaves open the possibility of developing further. The project created discussion around polytunnel growing, new training, community cropping vs community growing, local food economy, food security and volunteer interaction. The project acknowledges inspiration from Cultivate, though with a different model, and many other food projects.

Financial sustainability through creating a social enterprise was very daunting. It was not clear how the project could support a worker. The amount of possible income from training was too much of an imponderable, an area of work in itself. Land use, liabilities and insurances, indeed all the points listed under Social Enterprise would have required enormous voluntary effort.


Thanks and appreciation

Thank you to the following for their input (work, time, creativity, funding, goods in kind), good will, support, and to me personally, encouragement.  I learned an enormous amount during the project and have all these colleagues to thank. Thank you in particular to:

  • Bibi V, Pam W and Lisa C – key volunteers in operations
  • Yvonne Joseph, Emma Couper – Lambeth Living
  • Therese Stowell – Incredible Edible Lambeth/Local Greens
  • Vivienne Thompson – Sustainability, LBL
  • Salome Simoes – PEP, LBL
  • Ben Simpkins – Cultivate London
  • Carlos Mareiros – maker of multi-dibbers and tampers, Tulse Hill Estate
  • Anne Fairbrother and Ian Riley – Brixton Cornercopia
  • Alan Clisham – Education Manager, High Trees

Also, in no small measure to:

  • Laud, Michelle and Hazel – Tulse Hill Estate Tenants’ Residents Association
  • 2013 trainees Ruth Arnott, Carolyn Weniz, Antonio Ferreira, Alastair Baggely, Ruth Opam, Lisa Clayton, Marion Stone
  • Isabelle, Barney, Abubakr, Ahmed, Sonia, Helen, Selina, Di – Tulse Hill volunteers/ambassadors
  • Eduard Vijulie – resident and film-maker
  • Margaret Pierre-Jarrett and Michelle Gordon – High Trees Community College
  • Frances Farragher and Lesley Robinson – Adult Learning Services, Lambeth
  • Sean, Ben and the other apprentices – Cultivate
  • Paola Guzman, Sarah Williams – Capital Growth
  • Ciara Harris – Food Safety, LBL
  • Carmen Casarubbios
  • Joel Brooke – Calabaza Growers
  • Mark Howarth, Dan Jefferies, Ivor Picardo – Lambeth Living
  • Nick Balfe and Joe Cannon – Cannon and Cannon
  • Sue Sheehan, Rebecca Eligon – Policies, Equality and Performance, LBL
  • Ann Bodkin – Incredible Edible Lambeth
  • Anthea Masey, Maria Devereaux – steering group not mentioned elsewhere
  • Mehul Damani and Suzy Steer – the Brixton Pound
  • Rachel de Thample – Transition Town Crystal Palace
  • Helen Steer and Pete Boyce – City Farmers
  • Duncan Law – Transition Town Brixton
  • Jake Cingle and the team – REmakery
  • Ulrich Schmutz – EU Foodmetres and Garden Organic
  • Philip Turvil – Master Gardeners programme
  • Phil Nutley – Corridor design
  • Peter Keenan and Donald Campbell – Veolia
  • Brad Carroll – Brixton Green
  • Giles Gibson – local businessman
  • Neil Whitehead – The Seed Pantry

Web related articles and sites

Lambeth Poly featured as a case study in Transition Town Brixton’s September 13 report, Rethinking Lambeth’s Local Economy: Opportunities to grow our local food economy

See the twitter feed for micro blogs and lots of pictures

Ad for training course

Article in Brixton Blog 24.09.12

Article in Brixton Blog 29.04.13

Blog of Lambeth’s Cooperative Council initiative (ambit within which the project was first commissioned)

Click here to see the blogs posted on Lambeth Council’s Cooperative Council site

Co-production by Design Cooperative Council 

note on Transition thinking. Anyone in tune with Transition thinking will recognise the impetus here. We’re past peak oil and we need to gear up, as a community, to live without oil, so let’s get ready to avoid crash and burn, financially and socially. In addition, over-reliance on fossil fuels in the past 200 years has given us climate change and erratic weather which is severely impacting farming and causing food price rises. Not everyone wants to/is ready to look at matters this way, so the many other, more instant benefits of the project appeal to stakeholders/funders: employability, social cohesion, health and well-being, financial resilience for citizens under benefit cuts, use of ‘residual land’, healthy eating.

Leafy veg, specifically salads, promptly disappear from the supermarket shelves during a fuel strike, and bagged salads are carbon laden. Rising food costs go with rising fuel costs; food shortages are linked to fuel shortages Supermarket bagged salads carry a lot of food miles. They are often washed in chlorine and have carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) pumped into the bags to retard rotting and cushion the leaves. Similarly restaurants and caterers buy salads with many food miles. In addition, we were able to varieties that otherwise weren’t available, and baby and micro-leaf production was best.