Why does the planning system make it so difficult for people who want to live on the land sustainably?
Being able to go through the process of making a planning application for a low impact development may be a sign that there has been some progress for those of us who have hitherto lived, to paraphrase, as outlaws on the planning frontier. However, there is a profound tension between what we are asked to do when we submit plans, and what we should do when we live and work on a piece of land.
For a One Planet Development application in Wales, and no doubt for similar low impact projects in England, the applicants need to describe their plans in very great detail. There must be a business plan as well as building and landscape management plans, in other words a thorough description of the future of the site pressed into a few dozen pages, and supported like a scientific paper with references and results from other work in the same field.
This all seems reasonable perhaps, or at least it might if we can put aside for a moment the nonsensical idea that a catastrophically unsustainable planning system should be considered even remotely capable of producing reliably ecological outcomes.
We are asked to prove that we will hit targets for production and income, even that we will be able to demonstrate increasing site biodiversity, and we are asked to do all of this before we even start work.
We have to make ourselves over in the image of a way of thinking which is inherently destructive. The methodology at play is one which demands a pre-formed plan, brought along and implemented in its entirety, in order to fulfil the conditions of the planning process.
The justification for this is control. In a landscape created with little or no attention to matters ecological, those of us who desire to live a low impact lifestyle are asked to justify our every idea, and bind ourselves to long term plans; a Soviet-style covenant, as all around us business as usual grinds on unhindered.
But living and working on a piece of land demands something completely different. Every graduate of a Permaculture Design Course knows that observation comes before design, indeed that a year at least should be spent with a plot before designing. So listening to the land is a long term undertaking in itself, it’s not a question of looking at the maps and having a walk around.
Even once you’ve spent time out in the wind and the rain, in the heat of the day, and all over your plot, times change; needs and desires change. Design is a dynamic process which brings together land, people and other lifeforms, both those to be introduced and those already there, in a changing pattern. Or at least, it’s that, or it’s a blueprint heedless of the way in which life unfolds, is discovered anew with each step we take.
Some experience and ideas can be imported onto a site, models from other projects, and of course some preliminary studies can be undertaken, but the point of observation is that it is long work, and that it never comes to an end because it is a necessary part of directing the development of your ideas as they are realised, and thus come into contact with real life.
Low impact development is a relationship with a place. Targets are not nearly as important as ethics, or if you like, an ethical direction. This is a cultural problem, and a legal one.
Politicians opposed to low impact development make sweeping statements about what is possible and what isn’t; the planning system is predicated on the idea that anything that happens on the land is about money, not about ethics or a different way of living.
Under these circumstances it feels as if our ethics mean very little, or at least as if we are assumed to be being dishonest about our true intentions, and that what we’re after is a free lunch, or at the very least a “luxury house” in the country which we might sell later on when everyone has forgotten about us. Perhaps the truth is that it is our ethics which are dangerous, suggesting as they do another way of living, undermining finally the justifications for the way the countryside is treated, battered season after to season into a green desert of ever-growing agricultural units and houses for the well off.
There is another side-effect of targets. Targets must be audited and reported; the process is adversarial and it encourages dishonesty. This is well documented. It’s hard to see how stretched planning services might keep up with the work anyway; it’s hard to see how those who might for some reason want to fib about how many carrots they’ve grown, or about how much electricity their solar roof has generated will be stopped. And even if they are, what then?
What is needed is an ethical sea change in the way we all live in the countryside, and the recreation of a balanced rural economy in which smallholders and small farmers play a vital community-building and food producing role. A Permacultural approach would ask for projects with the right ethics, and a proper observation-based and flexible approach to sustainable land-use and low impact living.
By all means there might be restrictions on what low impact development projects can do: they might all have to conform to organic standards; they might all need to generate their own electricity, deal with their own sewage, construct houses from natural materials and so on, but to encourage the idea that a plan should be created and targets reached or else, is short-sighted and contrary to the interests of both the land and the people eager to live lightly on it.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Steve Gwynne November 2nd, 2015
This theme has emerged in my inbox in a number of ways today with the growth-steady state – degrowth continuum being – in my opinion – at the heart of these different discources.
It would seem that the main motivation behind the current planning system is growth economics which in itself is mainly motivated by the greedy often western elites who still feel the need to amass huge fortunes in order to manipulate global markets in their favour.
Therefore, in effect the main obstacle to creating harmonised economic/planning policy is these warmongering insecure elites that have partly displaced their warmongering tactics away from the purely military arena into the economic sphere as well and as usual everyone including nature is forced to pay the price.
In this respect what should be an easily solved problem utilising common sense becomes another consequence of a system of control that is geared up to sharing resources in order to facilitate war and conflict between a very small percentage of the overall population but by extension affects everyone and everything on this planet.
Therefore with regards low impact developments that profuce very little ptofit that can then be appropriated for war mongering then in order to satisfy the socalled requirements of sustainable development as well as the need to direct resources towards war and conflict then it is hardly surprising that they come up with a policy that in reality makes it very difficult to realise low impact living but in theory supports sustainable development.
2robertalcock November 2nd, 2015
Yep, it’s about control all right. The philosophy of control that runs through our culture like a nasty strand of barbed wire. Really that’s it.
3Dave Darby November 2nd, 2015
I think the growth imperative is right at the heart of it, I agree.
4Dave Darby November 2nd, 2015
Absolutely. We need a redefinition of what ‘democracy’ actually means.
5Steve Gwynne November 2nd, 2015
I still dont really understand why and how they have got away with it for so damn long.
6Dave Darby November 2nd, 2015
They own the media and the biggest guns? (and the political system and almost everything else?)
7John Harrison November 3rd, 2015
I love this bit about targets and income – which is rooted in the idea we must earn enough to live on from the enterprise. What’s wrong with a small income from the enterprise and another income from a job or other business? For that matter, how much is an income?
If you live simply and frugally, without a crippling mortgage or rent and provide a fair amount of your food yourself you can live well on a remarkably small income. That’s not some theory, by the way, that’s based on the way we live now.
Incidentally, totally agree with taking a year to know the land. My big mistake was in not doing that and then discovering I had things in the wrong place, like when the sweetcorn blew away in the wind!
If I was younger I’d get out of the UK altogether – the French systems and culture are a lot better for small scale farmers and land is a lot cheaper. Friends over there produce food and sell it on local markets. They get a ‘farmer certificate’ which means the local markets must give them a space in preference to others and at a low rate. That’s why you find people just selling their surplus veg or home made cheese. Oh, nearly forgot – EU rules on production, yes they’ve heard about those ?
A lot of Brits are going to Bulgaria for the ‘good life’ as well, but I don’t know much about Bulgaria.
8Steve Gwynne November 3rd, 2015
Say aye to that. It always seems to come down to might is right with the balance tipped by the individuals who are willing to pick up arms and kill their brethren. It that just income security or a convenient outlet for psychopathic behaviour or both.
9Steve Gwynne November 3rd, 2015
I went to Bulgaria to suss it out. I really enjoyed the idyllic rural lifestyle out there, at least in a few villages I went to. It was totally how a transition model might look like with bartering and mutual cooperation, local markets, low impact farming, multiple smallholdings clusted together, community owned forests managed by locals for locals, no slugs but their equivalent being the colorado beetle and a little kmown fact that I still find hard to believe – there is never any wind! It does get very cold with snow in November which often lasts till Feb/Mar. Their houses are typically multistory as a result with a cellar which is half underground and half above ground for storing produce and preserves as well as somewhere for the animals to go when the cold sets in. Then the next storey which is above ground level. Properties out there can suffer with bad rising damp which they just accept as normal. Pretty much their existance is localised with villages providing the basics and local towns everything else.
Not sure why I didnt go.
10Steve Gwynne November 3rd, 2015
Posting this since the Chinese authorities have effectively come up with a model (land circulation trust – user rights) that can either shift land use from smallholders to largeholders and visa versa!
One central plank of the Chinese state’s new agricultural policy is support for the transfer of lands from peasant farms to larger farms, which the government ironically calls “family farms”. China’s ‘family farms’ have on average 27 times more farmland than a typical peasant household, and by the end of 2012, there were already around 877,000 such “family farms” covering 11.7 million hectares of land.9
Chinese law, however, still prevents peasants from selling their lands, so instead the transfers are of “use rights” organised through various schemes, of which perhaps the most important is the land circulation trust. Under this scheme, a company establishes a trust to acquire multiple land-use rights from farmers in a particular area, identify entities interested in the lands, and then arrange for the lands to be leased to these entities. The trust is like a bank where farmers deposit their land rights for the trust to then rent out to much larger farming operations.10
11John Harrison November 3rd, 2015
Thanks for the information – had to laugh at the comment regarding damp. Sounds like Wales! No wind sounds attractive – compared to the 80mph we get at times.
12Steve Gwynne November 3rd, 2015
???? I couldnt and still cant get my head around it.
13Dani Austin November 9th, 2015
Mostly shocked by how you have to prove an income from the house/land. Would retired people not be allowed to purchase? Or single parents who are at home with children? What a shame to exclude people from wanting to live in a low impact home.
When on the strawbale course run by lowimpact.org everyone who wanted to build a strawbale house was heading overseas to France, Portugal, and Australia. Which is a shame as it drives these sorts of people away from the UK. Maybe that’s what the government wants?
14Dave Darby November 9th, 2015
There needs to be provision for retirees or key workers – but they don’t need land. This policy is to ensure that people use the land to produce food / fuel etc. People like Simon Fairlie of the Land magazine have argued that for self-builders, areas around towns, or even in towns, should be allocated for super-eco self-builds, but without land (apart from gardens). This could also apply in the countryside for tradespeople who don’t need land, but whose work supports food producers – blacksmiths, mechanics, green woodworkers etc.
15manda brookman November 10th, 2015
Well, trying to do this in this country. We have our appeal hearing on 24th – two weeks today. Watch this space. If you want to know more, have a look at https://www.facebook.com/permanentlybrilliant/?ref=hl . Onward and upward…!!
16Daniel Scharf December 16th, 2015
I suppose that I am advocating along the Simon Fairlie lines, not to rule out those who want to go it alone (or in threes as per the ELC model), but using the planning system to make use of the urban fringe for smallholdings, market gardens, CSA, village farms etc. As a practicing planner I don’t see the system changing very much (other than to support the building of more housing – including an Osbornism of more ‘affordable’ housing in villages) so I have concentrated on ways of using the system (and the new housing developments) to provide access to affordable land and associated housing that might tie in neatly with the registers being started by planning authorities for self building by individuals and associations of individuals. You will have to fight a way through stuff on other planning matters but there is plenty on local food systems at http://www.dantheplan.blogspot.com
17Malcolm Purvis August 13th, 2018
There is a very simple solution to living a low impact lifestyle and fairly easily gaining planning permission to live on the land that you want to grow food and/or raise animals on. This is to move to one of the crofting counties in Scotland, in addition to this large areas of the land in Scotland is community owned (60% in the Western isles).Crofting law states that crofters have to live near their croft, so planning permission is almost a given if you buy a croft outright or buy the tenancy agreement. Tenancy agreements on a croft of typically 5 acres can be as little as £10K although most are nearer £40K, rents for these are around about £20 to £50 a year (yes I know, hard to believe) and are regulated by the crofting commission and crofting law, making them probably more secure than owning them sometimes.
Added to this Scotland is crying out for young people, especially with families, to rejuvenate the crofting system and they are welcomed with open arms.There are also grants available of 50% to build a croft house.
So, if you can put up with a little rain and a slightly colder climate come to Scotland and be a crofter. We made the move from Suffolk 7 years ago and could not be happier. We have a 7 acre croft that sits on the beach. See here – seasidecrofting.blogspot.com