This evening I attended a talk by Simon Fairlie, to launch his new book 'Rural Planning Handbook for Low Impact Developers'. I left feeling very encouraged that we are moving more towards a future that gives increasing chance to people who wish to build their own low impact dwellings.
Simon gave us a brief history of planning, saying that, of course, for most of history there was no such thing as a planning authority, because no one was able to build something 'very bad' on a plot of land that would annoy people. The reason for this is that people used to live in the same place they worked. Fossil fuels were not used, and travel was limited, so people lived in sensible places. The first fossil fuel to be introduced was coal, used to power trains. People still lived in a sensible place near their workplace, only now increasingly centred around the railway. Towns grew in size and 'Town Planning' developed, but its job was mostly to keep towns healthy and morally well!
In the early 20th Century something changed: the arrival of the motorcar. Modern planning is influenced by the car, because now we can travel anywhere, we do not have to live and work in the same place. Thus, the whole of England became a building site. As development grew worse and worse, the organisation 'Council of Protection of Rural England' formed, which prevented people from just building anywhere. Full planning came into being in 1947 after WWII, which took away people's right to build anywhere they wanted on their land. The state now controls planning, and we have 'Town and Country Planning'.
A big issue was that of 'plotlands', which were set up by poorer people in communities. Remains of these can be found all over the place. The aristocracy, who thought they owned England, recoiled in horror at these peasant communities, and this had a huge influence on the Town and Country Planning system. Simon gave an example of Shoreham Beach, which used to contain plotlands, taken away from people during WWII to be used to grow food for the country, and then after the war were not given back to the people. The people wanted them back in order to escape the horrors of city life: a wish that many people sat in that room tonight all shared!
Essentially we exchanged the right to drive anywhere with the right to build anywhere, which is not necessarily a fair exchange. (We could all easily simply live where our work is...?) So now, land around existing settlements is likely to be classed as development land, and elsewhere is not. This creates a scarcity of development land, which didn't exist before 1947. Before that, development and agricultural land were a similar price: now, the price of development land can be up to 100 times more expensive than agricultural land. This also increases the opportunity for speculation and corruption, which is rife in the nontransparent modern system of submitting a proposal to a planning body, and having it either accepted or not. In any case, the price of land is so high that while many could afford to build a house (say £70,000), to buy a decent plot of land with it is much more out of reach (would likely take the price to £250,000). Where does that money go? To the land speculators.
Simon is a member of the Low Impact Building Movement, which tries to find loopholes in the planning system, to try to get people through. He gave several examples of people who stood up to show the world what can be done in eco-villages and communities, including groups such as 'The Land is Ours', and 'One Planet Development', which is based in Wales. What he sees is encouraging, as while planning authorities are typically resistant to low impact development, when the case goes to appeal, the appeal system is very good. Planning inspectors then get involved, who are more independent and seem to be more sympathetic. A very recent case saw a planning authority grant permission to a low impact developer mainly because they knew it would go through anyway if it went to appeal. This is great news! 3 out of 4 appeals are successful.
There are two main sorts of planning proposals. One is for 'rural workers' and enterprises, in which case they have to show that the dwelling functions correctly; it gives a decent income to the enterprise; it has a functional need. The other one is for people who have nowhere to live and stay in caravans on their land, someone tips of the authorities and they have to go through the process. It seems having nowhere to live is harder to justify than having a enterprising business.
Simon gives two definitions of 'low impact': one is causing little or no environmental impact on the land, and the second is making impact so low that it will be allowable in areas that conventional building wouldn't be. There are 10 criteria that a low impact dwelling has to meet, and one of them is that the structure can be removed with no trace and the land restored to how it was before.
Overall the attitude in this meeting was a positive one, it's been a long time and a lot of work, but the improvements to the system seem to be coming. Simon mentioned the Ecological Land Co-op, which took three years to get permission on the first bit of land it tried to develop on, in Devon. Their second project only took one year, even in an area notorious for its resistance to low impact development. Sympathetic reactions are on the increase!
For more info please see 'the Land is Ours' website: