Travellers appeal for right to settle in their rural idyll

Alternative village: A planning inquiry that begins this week could set a precedent for 'low-impact dwellers' across Britain
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"Look at my nasturtiums. They didn't do anything all summer, and now they've gone mad," said Peter Robertson as he stood pondering his land, near the picturesque village of East Pennard in Somerset, in the manner of gardeners across the country.

However, this garden may soon be demolished. The home it surrounds is made from branches, pallets and tarpaulin and was built by Mr Robertson.

The home, or "bender", forms part of the Kingshill collective, a group of 20 travellers, which will tomorrow be the subject of a planning inquiry that looks likely to set a precedent for "low-impact dwellers" across Britain.

Having bought four acres of land near Glastonbury from a local farmer 18 months ago, the collective applied for permission to set up an "experimental sustainable living system".

The alternative village, comprising 16 "benders" - semi-permanent homes made from largely organic materials - takes its power supply from solar panels, uses dead wood for heat and draws water from a bore hole at the top of the field.

But it has been denied permission to settle by Mendip District Council, which says it is in contravention of existing development plans and that it detracts from the rural and visual character of the area.

The refusal, and the subsequent appeal, is one of a spate of cases where John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, "called in" similar judgments for reconsideration, including that of the nearby Tinker's Bubble collective.

The Kingshill collective believes that Mr Gummer is unfit to rule in these cases. It says his recent speech at the Tory party conference, in which he referred to "those honest, decent country people whose lives are made miseries by ravers, trespassers and hippie camps" shows an inherent bias and renders him unable to judge impartially.

It also claims that through its refusal the Government is contravening Agenda 21, the agreement it signed at the Rio Summit which states that all countries should support the efforts of the urban and rural poor by adapting existing codes and regulations to facilitate their access to planned, functional and low-cost housing.

Mike Hannis, a percussionist and member of Kingshill, helped compile the case against the council. He said the collective had tried to do what the Government has been encouraging travellers to do, namely to settle down on their own land and build somewhere to live.

"It's difficult for people like us to buy land, so we have a private mortgage arrangement with the previous owner. We all pay pounds 5 per week each over two years," he said.

What had gone wrong was that the homes they chose to build did not fit into present planning legislation. He added: "This is institutional prejudice against travellers through the planning system. Our appeal is based on the idea that the benders are being judged by inappropriate criteria. But they can be judged within the existing plan because the plan contains the provision for exceptional circumstances, even for normal housing."

He claimed the travellers had a "basic human right" to live on the land they had bought provided they were not damaging it in any way.

Ravi Low-Beer, of the Public Law Project, is representing the collective free of charge. He said that the travellers have many problems with the planning system, and that a disproportionate number of their applications fail.

"The latest government advice says travellers should buy their own land and apply for permission to build ... but time and again travellers apply for planning permission and get refused," he said. "We've actually asked the Secretary of State why he called this case in. He says it's because it raises environmental and important development issues and there's significant public controversy."

According to the Department of the Environment that was indicated by the number of third-party applications that the application had generated. But Mr Hannis denied that there had been much local opposition to the camp.

"There are a few rabid objectors in the village but we've got more friends there than enemies. Three children go to the local school and one of our guys plays cricket for the village team. We're very much trying to integrate into the community, even though we may have ideological differences," he said.

In its appeal, the collective boasts letters of support from local villagers, including one from the chairman of the local parish council.

A spokeswoman for the Department of the Environment said yesterday that if the collective felt a decision had been made wrongly they would be free to challenge it in court, adding: "Every case is judged on its own merits."