Why does the planning system make it so difficult for people who want to live on the land sustainably?

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Posted Nov 2 2015 by Paul Jennings of Criafolen

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.