One Planet Development arrested: my attempts to build a home on a smallholding in Wales

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Posted Oct 8 2015 by Paul Jennings of Criafolen
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We moved to Wales because of an extraordinary Welsh Government policy. I shan’t lie, despite all experience and political conviction to the contrary, we were optimistic. One Planet Development seemed to be the kind of advance for low impact living and sustainable land use that we had been hoping for for years. In part it had been the apparent impossibility of living as we wanted to, on the land in the UK, that had led us to go to live in the French Pyrenees, and it was OPD that convinced us that we could come back.

There has been just criticism of the OPD policy by, amongst others, Simon Fairlie. It has been pointed out that really OPD offers no more than temporary planning permission; it recycles the old financial test, albeit at a less demanding level; there are certainly problems reconciling OPD-type housing with building regulations created for mainstream construction. Most seriously of all perhaps, OPD fails to offer people who do not want to, or cannot, establish land-based businesses, a way to apply for greenfield planning permission.

We are left with a policy which may offer a chance to smallholders and small farmers to build ecological housing and to have a foothold in the countryside, but which does not really allow for the recreation of a rounded rural economy, or for the wide range of people who are in desperate need of affordable housing and who would love to live sustainably, to take action to house themselves, and to create lifestyles reflecting the undeniable fact that we have only one planet to live on.

If you’re into Permaculture and organic growing, and you’ve thought that selling salad bags might be a nice way to earn your living, then OPD sounds like it might be for you, but where will the craftspeople come from? Where are the blacksmiths, the country mechanics and the carpenters? When will a nurse be able to say that they would like to self-build on cheap land, grow their own food, generate their own electricity, fulfill the obligation to increase biodiversity on their plot, but not run a land-based business as well as working in a hospital full-time?

We came to Wales to look for land for an OPD project, and very soon had the chance to meet a group of folks with whom we bought a few acres of Carmarthenshire, a bit of ground called Rhiw Las.

OPD is a very demanding policy and still in its infancy; it was great to have other people to share the work of putting an application together. Frankly, it was fantastic to find ourselves in a group with people prepared to do the heavy lifting for the rest of us. Our planning application runs to nearly 80 pages and was developed to reflect in every way the demands of the policy.

Fortunately the policy asks us to live pretty much as we’ve always wanted to, although I can’t say that being audited every year by local government officers who wouldn’t necessarily know a turnip from the back end of a duck, let alone how a grey water system works doesn’t fill me with joy, and neither does the fact that we have to create land based businesses that have financial targets to hit, in just about the poorest region in Western Europe. This is not a region where bespoke salad bags are going to make my fortune.

Having crossed swords with the UK planning system before, one of the most attractive aspects of the policy was that it was clearly created with a collaborative approach in mind, something quite different to the confrontational policing style of planning that we normally expect.

We reached out from the start. Why would anyone be opposed to such a demanding policy which at the same time had such laudable ends, pointed the way perhaps to a renewed rural society, and offered a model for living with the Earth and not just on it? I spoke to the Community Council, introduced myself to neighbours; we had pre-planning meetings. At times I even felt that things were going well.

Still, I can’t say that at any stage, at least until the time of the Planning Committee meeting, I felt that we were being encouraged officially. In fact we waited more than 9 months beyond the normal decision time with no idea of what was happening or why we were facing delays. OPD is a Welsh Government policy which has been abandoned, orphaned. Virtually no-one in Wales knows anything about it. That in itself is a huge failure.

Nonetheless, we felt great when at last the Planning Officer, the third involved in our application, recommended us for approval. It is rare for Planning Committees to go against such recommendations.

There had been three objections, two from neighbours and one from the local Community Council which went so far as to spend more than £600 on a report from a planning consultant, one of the worst researched and poorly argued documents I have ever read. On the strength of that objection alone we should have been given planning permission. If you read the history of well-known low impact living projects, Tinker’s Bubble for example, you’ll see that three objections is a tiny amount, and it was already clear that the objectors had no interest in either reading the policy or the application.

We thought we had reason to be confident that the Planning Committee would go with the Planning Officer’s recommendation. But we should have been more aware of what we are up against here.

Only a handful of younger councillors on the Committee spoke up and voted with the Chair in favour of the project. At the end, after the votes had been cast, the Chair asked the members if any of them could explain why they’d voted the application down; he reminded them that this decision would be tested at appeal. There was, to start with, silence, and then a rehearsal of irrelevant arguments. Nothing that they’d come up with was even remotely relevant in the face of a policy which includes annual auditing and targets. All they had had to do was compare the application to the policy, and grant permission on the basis that we would then have time to prove our ideas, or enough rope to hang ourselves, depending upon one’s perspective.

Why then did they vote against? Why did they force us to go to appeal, an appeal which, if the policy is anything more than a joke, we should surely win? Well, Carmarthenshire is a Plaid Cymru run authority, and many of the Councillors who voted against us were from Plaid. You might have heard that Plaid Cymru is an environmentally and socially progressive party, here in Carmarthenshire I’m not so sure.

There are local issues at play here as well. There are people who haven’t got planning permission for bungalows outside of the village and wonder angrily why we should get permission for our ecological houses. The fact that they could put in OPD applications if they wanted is neither here nor there; most of them don’t want to work the land, use composting loos, or to have to grow most of their own food. There are also people who wanted to buy the land, perhaps still want to buy the land. The market in land stands as a massive obstacle everywhere to resettlement of rural areas.

And that’s really it isn’t it? The countryside is empty of poor people for a reason. It wasn’t an accident. One of the Councillors in the Planning Committee actually said that Carmarthenshire doesn’t want these kind of developments, and were one to be established it would open the doors to any “Tom, Dick or Harry”. The marvellous work of the Carmarthenshire County Council Planning Committee has been immortalised in a webcast; the last few minutes are most instructive.

I think we’ll win at appeal. I don’t intend to take our victory graciously or to be nice to the people who have made us live with uncertainty and stress. The local County Councillor who stood up and said that the soil here is poor and that we can’t grow veg here, and who responded to an email from me with pictures of me bringing in the onion harvest by suggesting that I’d bought them and faked the photo, will never be my friend or a respected neighbour. I wouldn’t piss on these people if they were on fire. I’ll leave others to do the forgiving.

In the meantime, we are on the land, growing our food and selling vegetables. We can’t build our house without taking a huge risk, and we can’t really spend any money on the business either. That is the same for the other three families involved in the project.

Compared to what the pioneers of low impact development in this country went through, and what we went through years ago in England, this doesn’t sound like much, but here’s the thing: the resistance and the opposition is all about putting people off, making it quite clear that some of us aren’t welcome in the countryside, under dark star-filled skies, or with space to live and breathe.

It’s an old struggle, the struggle for access to the land and to livings which we might make for ourselves, but whilst it is old, it is not a marginal concern. In OPD, for all its faults, there lies the seed of transformation of the countryside, of resettlement of the land, of affordable housing for all, and of good local food in every community. Of course the wealthy and the landed don’t want it to succeed, don’t want the policy to be widened and diversified, and only thousands or tens of thousands of people taking to the land will ensure that the cause advances, that we have the chance to take back the green deserts and repopulate the open spaces.