This is the first part of an interview with Paul Jennings, who lives on a smallholding in Pembrokeshire with his family, and built his own straw-bale home under the One Planet Development policy that exists in Wales (but not in England), which allows people to build a home on their land, even if it is outside the development zone, if they can show that they will live with an ecological footprint of one planet or less.
Here are the main points raised in the conversation.
The One Planet Development policy
The OPD policy came into existence in 2012, under the devolved Welsh government. It gives people the chance to live in the open countryside where normally they wouldn’t get planning permission, as long as they can conform to quite a strict list of rules, about the nature of the development and how they live.
Anyone familiar with the permaculture or low-impact development worlds would be very familiar with the inspiration, the driving force behind elements of this policy. For example, the dwellings need to be carbon-neutral in their construction and use. You need to grow a high proportion of your own food, generate your own power, deal with your own waste, and not create extra demands on the local infrastructure. Plus you have to have a land-based business that meets the minimum of your financial needs.
The policy is intended to strengthen local, rural economies in Wales – it’s not about self-sufficiency.
They have to report annually on their progress towards meeting the policy requirements. That continues for 5 years. If those requirements are not met, they could potentially lose their planning permission. It’s like an old-fashioned agricultural tie.
Paul would absolutely not have been able to build his home and be a smallholder without the OPD.
The policy was inspired by a desire to bring back the kind of rural life and economy that is disappearing across Wales, and also to help people live more sustainably.
Many potential smallholders faced a problem – smallholdings with a farmhouse were too expensive, and it was not possible to get planning permission to build a house if there wasn’t one there already. Potentially, OPD is a way for people to be able to get into small-scale farming.
The number of working smallholdings in the UK has fallen dramatically over the last couple of generations. It’s very difficult to become a small farmer unless you have lots of money – for example if you sell a property in a major city (but people who have been living and working in a city are less likely to have the skills required).
The skills can be gained, but it’s a steep learning curve. Paul had worked in organic farming for several years before moving on to their smallholding, so he had relevant skills.
For a lot of people, OPD is an avenue for them to be able to do something they’ve wanted to do for a long time, but which seemed out of reach. In that sense, OPD could be seen as moving in the same direction as the Ecological Land Co-op, which operates across the UK.
The OPD process was relatively easy for Paul and his family because they did it as part of a group. They were lucky to have some very knowledgeable and well-organised neighbours on the project who helped them through the process.
They’d been involved in a couple of planning applications – one in the UK and one in France, and they wouldn’t have done it again if not for the OPD policy and the collaboration with others.
Designing the project and the planning application itself were not difficult for Paul as he has a background in permaculture design. But it does put some people off – it’s quite daunting if you’re not used to putting together land-based or ecological building projects.
Apart from that, all the obstacles were political – dealings with the local council, with local opponents, with people who don’t understand the policy and who don’t want to engage with the policy – although he’s not saying that some of those objections weren’t valid.
Theirs was the first successful OPD application in Carmarthenshire. The planning committee turned them down at first, even though it was clear that their application fulfilled all the requirements under the policy. This was stressful and caused division and discomfort – living in a mobile home through two winters.
It was a drawn-out process. Although it’s a national Welsh policy, it still has to go through the lens of whichever local authority you want to live under – which is enormously variable.
There’s now quite a community of people who have been through the process. There’s a voluntary organisation called the One Planet Council (OPC), who are very helpful and have lists of resources. Virtually everyone who’s been through OPD is happy to reach out and help other people. There are open days, gatherings etc.
The OPC have also reached out to planning officers, who are not necessarily the biggest problem. They understand the policy better than local politicians or local residents. For planners, if you’re following the policy / rules, they tend to be fine.
Land is expensive. Although building your own home is cheaper than buying an existing home, you still have to find a lot of money. If the intention was ever to persuade working-class people to come out of Swansea and start smallholdings, it’s failed. Many people are in debt, and it’s very difficult to get a project off the ground when you’re trying to pay down debt.
Actually, the more people who try to get into smallholding, the more expensive land will become, so price is a major sticking point. Paul paid £8k per acre for their land in West Wales. They paid £40k for their 5-acre plot in a 20-acre development – plus legal fees. Then you have to build something to live in. It’s problematic – and much easier if you’re selling a property in the south of England, or have spent 20 years in a well-paid job. Then West Wales will seem cheap.
So it’s not meeting the social need for less well-off people to come back into the countryside to revive it. Paul perceives that the majority of people involved in OPD are English incomers. He thinks that’s problematic – culturally, in terms of language, and in terms of the intention of the policy, which wasn’t supposed to be for better-off incomers.
Paul went to university in Wales, and is learning Welsh, as are most incomers. But working-class Welsh young people are not coming forward. So as far as some are concerned, OPD is helping to erode traditional Welsh society. The policy is coming from a good place, but it’s operating in a capitalist market in land that makes it difficult to get traction in less well-off communities.
Getting people back onto the land
Paul’s not sure how many OPD projects / applications there are in Wales now, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were more than 100, with probably dozens of projects under way. It’s only scratching the surface of the Welsh economy / sustainability / developing rural areas. It’s not impossible that OPD might become a historical curiosity like the land settlement projects after WW2. Eventually, unless things change, the relatively small pool of people who are interested in this kind of life, and who also have the money to be able to do it, will become exhausted.
Paul read Simon Fairlie’s book, Low-impact Development, in the 1990s, and his argument was that there should be another category of planning development that you might call permaculture – somewhere between business and residential. An ecological smallholding category. According to the Permaculture Association’s research a few years ago, there were hundreds of thousands of people who would like to move back into the countryside in this way.
But the problem is with the market in land. From a design point of view, OPDs would be best situated around towns where their produce would be consumed. There could be peri-urban permacultural zones around towns, or even penetrating into cities, so that there’s less of a divide between rural and urban areas. But the problem is that land becomes more expensive the closer you get to urban areas, because of speculation in the land market.
So there’s a fundamental lack of ‘joined-up thinking’.
Lots of people would like to give smallholding a go, if they thought there was the possibility of doing it. There was a 19th century principle that a combination of working with hands and with head leads to a happy life. With more smallholders, the countryside would change too. Having smaller landholdings would mean more interesting and resilient rural communities.
OPD is a beginning of a move in the right direction. But the most impressive OPDs have been developed by people with more money than most of us in the UK have access to.
Only farms over 8 hectares can get government subsidies or grants, which also makes things more difficult for smallholders. It’s also a problem for community-supported agriculture, as almost all of their produce comes from holdings under 8 hectares.
One criticism of OPDs is that ‘they’re not making a living’ – but virtually no rural enterprises make a living without subsidies.
- The One Planet Development policy allows people to build a home on their smallholding in the open countryside as long as they can show that they will live with a one-planet footprint or less.
- The policy has worked better for people with money. The problem is the market in land, especially speculation on land prices near to towns – the best place for smallholdings to be located, so that they can provide produce to urban areas.
- Most smallholdings are smaller than 8 hectares, but government subsidies and grants only kick in for holdings over 8 hectares. This needs to change if we’re going to encourage more smallholdings.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Anthony Hay April 5th, 2020
“Farmers with at least 5 hectares of agricultural land and 5 ‘entitlements’ can apply.” https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/basic-payment-scheme
2Malcolm Purvis April 5th, 2020
A very good article Paul, thank you very much. It is good to get information from someone who has actually done it.
My only difficulty is the talk of ‘English incomers’. As a ‘English incomer’ on a Scottish croft this is something that I have come across myself (rarely I hasten to add). This outlook is not at all helpful. There are many rich Welsh people who do not want to become smallholders as well as English, Dutch, German, Irish etc who do, whatever their economic status. The main thing is that there is an opportunity for people who want to live a low impact life. They certainly would not be rich living a low impact life and this is surely the main point?
We are all connected and to make separations on race and creed is not only unhelpful but possibly illegal these days? Yes, it would be better if there were more opportunities for lower income people to have their own Smallholding if they wanted to, maybe a renting system (as there is in Scotland). But it should not be done on a race basis, in my opinion.
More allotments and Smallholding’s is undoubtedly the way to go, especially in the current situation where our food security is a larger threat than politicians will admit. OPD is a very good idea and could no doubt be refined if authorities would identify land that could be rented at low cost, with security and house building opportunities. I’m not sure how cultural identities could be linked to this system and maybe they couldn’t but that maybe is something that smallholders could let someone else sort out, as long as they have input to it?
3Daniel Scharf April 5th, 2020
As a ‘professional’ planner my reaction to Paul’s article is a deep sense of shame. People who want to become smallholders face a world where the few opportunities that did exist have been reduced/removed; council holdings and agricultural workers dwellings sold off, and land/housing prices not reflecting agricultural/horticultural returns. The process of plan-making is meant to reduce the unpredictability of the system but, as Paul describes, even with adopted planning policy, applicants are put ‘through the mill’ as planning authorities use their discretion at the decision-taking stage. This is exhausting and frustrating and intimidating for most of those who could be contributing to the growth of both agroecology and rural economies.
I believe that Malcolm is right that, “OPD is a very good idea and could no doubt be refined if authorities would identify land that could be rented at low cost, with security and house building opportunities.” This could be done through s106 agreements requiring developers of sites on the edge of towns and villages to contribute land and an affordable house (or two or three) to a growing zone (possibly managed along ELC lines). The provision of ‘affordable housing’ was addressed by the planning system (LPAs supported by the Courts) when the affordability of housing was accepted as being within the power and responsibility of the planning system, and in the public interest. Were the access to affordable land for residential smallholding to also be regarded as a public interest, it should be within the powers of the planning system to deliver. This could be done through local plans and neighbourhood development plans (possibly supported by supplementary planning documents -SPDs) describing the principle, possibly suitable sites and identifying s106 as the means of delivery.
The use and development of land and buildings (ie building operations and material changes of use) were nationalised in 1947. If the growth of smallholding can be demonstrated to be in the public interest, planing authorities (both officer and their democratically elected employers) should be looking for ways to enable this to happen in ways that encourage those most able to regenerate rural areas, taking other public interests (known as “material planning considerations”), into account eg visual appearance, highway safety, proximity to markets and services, flooding, energy, employment opportunities. More of this over the years at http://www.dantheplan.blogspot.com
4homeminderuk April 23rd, 2020
Then OPD is a white elephant. Has this been a cynical strategic ploy (especially in light of the ‘bloody mindedness’ encountered) to tick some kind of box or am I reading too much into it?
5annbeirneanimalwhisperert June 7th, 2020
This has been quite an eye opener, I had the wrong end of the stick about OPD, I thought it was open to all levels of society and that they were better than England at being more open minded about green planning. What a shock and very well done to Paul for sticking a it, to me this sounds more like tide farming, the rules are too strict and there should be more land available to buy but since most of our land here in England is owned by rich foreigners, supermarkets and rich Russians oligarchs. We don’t stand a chance here of getting anything like OPD unless we have a change of attitude to living more responsibly on this planet from our government, who’s sole intent is to destroy anything to do with nature helping stop climate change and making money out of any nature that is left. We need a total change of mindset, myself and a few friends were hoping to build and eco community and find some land to live the life we want to lead which is to be self sufficient live off the land and run courses to help others live more simply and in a planet friendly way, fat chance;
6Sasha Longworth June 7th, 2020
Change and attitudes are long overdue. I still don’t understand why we are not building better low impact homes generally with clever thought out design. There are many people ( myself included ) who would like to live in a house with a compost toilet , area to grow food / chickens , minimal reliance on gas/ electricity , and stronger local connections to build resilience and combat loneliness ( supporting mental health ) etc unfortunately it’s impossible in England with the class structure/ wealthy landowners. We can’t all run to Wales either!
7annbeirneanimalwhisperert June 7th, 2020
I agree Sasha, we should have been having different thoughts many years ago, until we get a political party in power that understands we need to have a better way of living and spend money on green ways of work and living. I would be very happy to have a compost toilet, live in the country and have self reliance , we should be able to do it anywhere in the UK the Welsh OPD needs a great big rewrite to be brought up to reality and speed, less harsh and realistic rules.
8Andrea July 23rd, 2020
I too would like to join in something like this. I have recently moved to Scotland in the hopes that I can eventually escape the rat race and live a low impact sustainable life. It’s high time the land laws were altered to keep up with the growing awareness in people that we cannot sustain life on this planet if we continue to consume and abuse our beautiful earth.
9Susanne November 9th, 2020
Great article and comments from all. I find equally moving that so many people feel the same way I feel about values in land knowledge, living a more sustainable life and being mindful of others and the planet. And I find equally disheartening that we are up against this backward land ownership trap, laws and regulations that puts profit before people and planet. A culture of wastefulness that will consume us all eventually… It’s a great shame really!