Should we have a right to live on the land?

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We think so. As long as we do it in a low-impact way. We’re not talking second homes, commuter homes or retirement homes. We’re talking about people who want to work the land organically, be part of the local economy, plant trees, build a home from local, natural materials and harvest their own energy. Over to Shaun of the Ecological Land Co-op, who are trying to change things.

I’ve been invited to write a guest blog here at Lowimpact.org to introduce you to our organisation, the Ecological Land Co-operative (ELC). We plan to provide periodic updates here as our projects progress.

We exist to provide affordable opportunities for new viable, ecologically-beneficial projects to find land, believing that the creation of sustainable rural livelihoods is one of the best solutions to our most pressing environmental and social problems.

The ELC also grew out of our awareness that there are loads of people who would love to meet this need by living on and managing land in an ecologically aware way, but that at present there are no affordable residential smallholdings available for small-scale ecological agriculture in England and Wales. There are two main obstacles standing in their way:

  • The cost of land
  • The nightmare of shepherding something unconventional through the planning permission system

So what are we doing about it? And where did we come from?

Well, our response grew initially out of informal discussions in the spring of 2005 between members of Chapter 7, a planning consultancy with experience working with smallholders and ecological projects: Radical Routes, a secondary co-operative of co-operatives working for social change: Somerset Co-operative Services, a co-operative development body; and farms and eco-communities like Landmatters, Lammas, Highbury Farm and Five Penny Farm.

As an informal group, we received some funding from the Co-operative Group in the South West for some scoping and feasibility work, and at later stages in our development from the Co-operative Fund, the Polden Puckham Charitable Foundation and Business Link SW. In November 2007 we registered as a company and in September 2009, converted to an Industrial and Provident Society: a co-operative.

This co-operative has been set up to buy land that has been, or is at risk of being, intensively managed, to then manage the process of securing planning permission for low-impact residences, and to make the land available at an affordable price to people that have the skills to manage it ecologically but who could not otherwise afford to do so.

We bought our first land – a 22-acre site on the Devon/Somerset border – in 2009, and have divided it into three plots intended for a ‘cluster’ of three independent smallholdings. The aim with this approach is to allow independence for each smallholding to manage their own land as they see fit, while also enjoying the benefits of a small community for tool-sharing, sociability, mutual support etc.

Our intention was to secure planning permission for the building of low-impact dwellings before inviting applications from potential plotholders, but in working with the local council we were informed that they wanted to see individual plans from prospective residents before considering granting permission. Accordingly, we advertised and went through a selection process last year, selecting from the applicants on a number of criteria including their farming and horticultural experience, vision and plans for the land, experience of low impact living and connection with the locality.

Together with our new intended plotholders, we then submitted our full applications for the three plots at the turn of the year. They ran to over 400 pages and were described by one planner with over 30 years’ experience as “by some way the most carefully prepared application for either an agricultural and/or low impact dwelling I have considered”.

Nonetheless, as has been the case with every other such low-impact application, we received the expected rejection from the local Planning Committee last month, but we have good reasons to believe that we may win on appeal, as others have; not least because we are the first such application to win the support of both the local Parish Council and the planning officers who spent the best part of a year carefully going through our application.

We expect to see new land-based projects blossoming on our site in the next year and are working hard to make it happen, as well as looking towards taking on more land in future and making it available, building on the hard-won experience of this first site.

In our next Lowimpact.org update we will talk more about the beliefs and motivations that drive the ELC and give further details of our current progress towards helping smallholders onto the land. www.ecologicalland.coop.

You can also join our mailing list by emailing: zoe @ ecologicalland.coop

Shaun Chamberlin became a director of the ELC earlier this year. He has also been involved with the Transition Network since its inception, co-founding Transition Town Kingston and authoring the movement’s second book the Transition Timeline. His website is www.darkoptimism.org.