Villagers outraged as teepee dwellers win right to stay

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BACK-TO-THE-LAND settlers have won their greatest ever victory. In a test case, a "bender community" which built huts illegally on a Somerset smallholding, has been given retrospective planning permission in the teeth of local opposition.

The victory is being labelled a precedent by both supporters and opponents of the community, which takes its inspiration from the 17th-century Diggers. They say it is likely to lead to the legitimisation of similar settlements throughout Britain.

This marks the end of a five-year struggle for the inhabitants of Tinkers Bubble near Yeovil, who live just an organic cabbage's throw from the home of Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. Throughout that time, they faced the threat that they could be made to demolish their dwellings.

The community - 10 adults, three children, a shire horse and two goats - were refused planning permission by the last Conservative Environment Secretary, John Gummer, who overturned a recommendation of his own inspector, following a planning inquiry, that it should be allowed to stay on the land. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has decided not to intervene over the latest decision, but local inhabitants are threatening to challenge the council's decision through a judicial review. The community and supporters collectively bought the 40-acre smallholding - which takes its evocative name from a spring where gypsies used to camp - five years ago. They have built 10 dwellings based on "bender" tents - but supplemented with walls of straw bales and windows taken from local rubbish tips - a bath house, and a teepee made from trimmed tree trunks covered in canvas, which serves as a meeting area. They use their horse to drag out felled trees from a nearby wood, and grow vegetables organically, tending an orchard and selling wood and apples to provide a small income.

But they have faced strong opposition from those in the nearby village of Norton-sub-Hamden, who complain that they "lower the tone of the village', "sponge off our tax money', and "live like pigs". They were banned from the local pub after accusations they had sneaked in by the back door to use its lavatories.

In reply, the settlers say they are bringing life back into the countryside and are pioneering a way of living that is in harmony with nature. "The countryside is becoming a desert for both wildlife and communities; this needs to be reversed," says one supportive resident, Peter Wright. Paddy Ashdown has also supported the community but has acknowledged local opposition.

When the community first applied retrospectively for planning permission, South Somerset District Council refused. The settlers appealed and won a planning inquiry, but Mr Gummer refused to accept his inspectors' recommendations. The community applied again, and now the council has given them temporary permission for five years. Officials say this is likely to be renewed unless the situation changes dramatically. All sides say that this thought to be the first time in Britain that an alternative community has been legiti-mised in this way.

Environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who has a stake in Tinkers Bubble and visits it frequently, said: "This is extremely good news and may become a precedent for this kind of sustainable development." But local ward councillor Andy Jacobs - who late last week resigned the Liberal Democrat whip in protest at the decision - called the decision "foolhardy and dangerous" because it is likely to be repeated elsewhere. He said local people were preparing to take the issue to a judicial review. Peter Wright admitted: "We are not yet out of the woods - in a manner of speaking."