Sustainable Living: Law of the land

These people all own a little piece of rural Britain, and their impact on the environment is minimal. So why are they being forced out? By Charlie Ryrie. Photographs by Nick Cobbing
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Ownership of a piece of land in rural Britain does not give you an automatic right to live there, even if your home is no more than a humble homemade shelter. In 1947 the Town and Country Planning Act established a framework for controlling all forms of rural residential development, and this act remains the basic reference point for all planning law. But this could be changing. A new term, "low-impact housing", has been creeping into planning law, and it is having an increasingly high impact on policy makers. Around Britain communities are challenging planning legislation by fighting to live on their land. Following protracted legal battles, some of them have been granted temporary residential rights, but others are still battling.

The new breed of development tends to look unconventional, even uncomfortable, but the settlements have a low impact on the environment, seeking to improve their surroundings rather than exploiting resources. Homes are sited to blend in with the landscape and, ideally, are built from local materials. Sun, wind and water are the chosen means of power, rather than fossil fuels. Waste is turned into a resource, land is managed to sustain and improve the local ecology, and wildlife is protected. Some low-impact developments are designed to be temporary; all are designed to keep car use and traffic to a minimum.

However laudable these principles, planners remain wary. Planning permission is granted not on the basis of what someone wishes to build, but where they wish to build it, and although councils nod towards objectives of sustainability, there is as yet no statutory provision to make environmental impact a basis for any planning decisions. Campaigners for low-impact development are arguing for a new category of land use, one in which individuals or communities erect buildings which conserve resources, enhance the environment and where residents live sustainably. Their plans for sustainability would be an integral part of the planning permission application.

Some planning officers see this sort of low-cost housing as a form of rural regeneration; others remain fearful that any loosening of legislation could lead to green fields disappearing under housing estates. The very idea of alternative lifestyles raises the spectre of hordes of travellers in old buses, with antisocial behaviour the norm. Yet low-impact dwellers, by definition, want to respect the land and their environment - and that includes the people around them.

Captions: Brithdin Mawr

When Julian and Emma Orbach bought Brithdin Mawr, a 165-acre farm and farmhouse on the edge of the Pembroke National Park, the land was degraded and buildings derelict. Six years later, pasture, woodland and wildlife are flourishing; buildings have been renovated and gardens are productive.

Eleven adults and five children live and work here, managing the land, growing food and using wood for building, fuel and to make bowls, furniture and charcoal. Horses have replaced a tractor. Power comes from a windmill, a water wheel and solar panels. "We want every aspect of living to be sustainable," explains Emma, "not just the way we use the land, but also the way people work and live together."

The Orbachs obtained planning permission to renovate the farmhouse and for one building, for hostel accommodation, but none was sought for further development, which is where problems arose. While some community members live in the farm buildings, others have built homes from local materials. Tony Wrench's turf-roofed, wooden round house (left, top) lies in the valley; Letty Rowan's wooden, shingled dome in the productive circular garden. These and other structures, including a store built from straw bales and a turf-roofed animal shelter, are currently threatened with the bulldozer after a series of enforcement orders issued by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority earlier this year. These orders were followed in July by a general enforcement order prohibiting change of use of an agricultural holding to a settlement promoting "the evaluation of alternative means of power production", among other things.

Planners believe the activities at Brithdin Mawr harm the "natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the park", but resident Brent Brown is bemused. "The council accuses us of adversely affecting the local landscape, but they haven't even been here to look."

King's Hill

Brian and Christine Monger first erected a "bender" - a wooden frame with canvas or other material draped over it - on the King's Hill field above Glastonbury, Somerset, seven years ago, at the invitation of the landowner. Two years later they formed a collective with 18 others and bought the four-acre field. Since then they have been developing a sustainable community. The site is well managed - their water and waste arrangements are even licensed by the Environmental Health department. Planning permission has eluded them, despite five years of appeals against eviction orders. Invited by Mendip Council to reapply for temporary residential permission this August, their application was once again turned down and awaits appeal in October.

A once inhospitable patch of land has been transformed by the collective into a woodland garden with wood and canvas bender homes. Brian and Christine's youngest child was born there, along with two of Lisa and Joel's three children (Lisa in main picture). Up to 40 people live at the site. Most make their living through craft work, along with landscaping and seasonal employment. The children go to local schools.

A wooden pirate ship has been built as a children's playground, and each bender has its own productive and ornamental garden. "Some say we are nothing more than an alternative housing estate," says Brian. "We lead individual lives, but all decisions about the collective are reached by consensus." Not everyone would want to live like this. It is hard work and while summers are beautiful, winters are challenging.

If the whole community decided to up sticks, within a year there would probably be little to show they were ever there, apart from fast-maturing vegetation and a wildlife haven.

Tinker's Bubble

You have to be fit to live at Tinker's Bubble, a 40-acre smallholding of orchards and woodlands below Ham Hill National Park, near Yeovil, Somerset. Ten adults and two children live in temporary buildings high up a steep hillside, in a small clearing among tall fir trees. Mary (top, with son Jo) has lived there for more than two years and admits: "It can be a bit like living at the bottom of a tall chimney." Adults work the land, helped by Samson the heavy horse. Children help with the goats and fowl.

Sun and wind provide power - one solar panel perches at the top of a 30ft tree - and water is pumped from a bore hole. Homes are built of canvas and wood, or straw bales. A wooden-boarded wash house shows what more conventional low-impact buildings could look like. An indoor and outdoor kitchen and a round house (above, right) provide community space.

After a five-year legal battle, South Somerset District Council in January granted residents temporary permission to stay. They have drawn up their own directives on sustainable land management and lifestyle to be built into the planning permission, including a guarantee that they will never profit by selling their land for further development. Resident Simon Fairlie (above, left), an author and campaigner for changing planning laws to stimulate rural regeneration, believes that "planning should be linked not just to land use but to land prices".

Although the council wants to legislate to allow low-impact dwellings and sustainable development under certain criteria, the next tier of local government, the Government of the South-west, has so far rejected the idea, fearing amendments could lead to an open-door policy for potentially undesirable developments. The battles continue.