ANGRY allotment holders are digging in for victory, in a bid to stop councillors imposing an 85 per cent rent rise.

More than 500 plot holders at nine sites across Blackburn will see their rents rise from £27 to £50 a year from April 2002. Concessionary rents for pensioners and the disabled will rise 87.5 per cent from £20 to £37.50.

Allotment holders have to sign an agreement by the end of this month to quit their tenancies by March 31 2002, so they can be issued with new tenancies, including the rent increase.

Blackburn with Darwen Council, which sets the rents, said the move was a legal formality and the rise was aimed at bringing prices in line with other local councils. Holders have to be given 12 months' notice of tenancy changes.

Prices charged by nearby councils for allotments range from £38 in Hyndburn and £40 in Pendle to £54.40 in Bolton, £70.54 in Burnley and £78 in Bury.

Allotment holders held an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the rents and are taking legal advice. Roland Wild, secretary of Blackburn and District Allotments and Leisure Gardens Federation, which represents the sites, said: "There was a feeling of shock and anger.

"We feel we've been let down by the council. It has to realise this is an obscene rise. If you did this to any other business they would throw it back in your face.

"They (the council) think we've no bottle for a fight. We have bottle, but we will do things the right way."

A campaign to reverse, or at least drastically cut the rent rise, has been launched. Protest letters will be sent to every Blackburn councillor this week and Mr Wild has taken legal and technical advice from the National Society of Allotments and Leisure Gardens.

A management meeting on March 27 will decide the next move in the campaign.

"We're very unhappy about the situation," said Mr Wild, of Tynwald Road, Blackburn, who has a plot in Ewood.

"People have been on these plots for more than 20 years. I think some will leave because of this.

"They never consulted us about this; we've just had it thrown at us. What's peeved me most is the lack of communication.

"We knew nothing about this until a letter arrived on my doorstep on Saturday. To put rents up by this much and in this way is scandalous.

"They expect each site secretary to go round serving these council notices on the tenants for the council."

The sites affected are Feniscowles, Witton Park, Leyburn Road, Ewood, Broadfold, Little Harwood, Teak Street, Burnley Road, Queen's Park and Sunny Bank Road. A Blackburn with Darwen Council spokesman said: "The council has carried out a comparative study of rents in local authorities in other areas and the new figure is in line with the average rent.

"The full figure still amounts to less than £1 a week and for this rent, allotment holders have the benefit of a water supply and a site secretary, whom they can consult if they have any problems.

"In addition, there is a concessionary rent of £37.50 for senior citizens and disabled allotment holders."