Planning permission for low / zero impact living

Back to top

If you already have a house and have no intention of moving in order to partake in the moneyless economy to a wider degree, then much of the following paragraphs will be irrelevant to your situation and you may want to skip this subsection. However, if you do want to move to a piece of land that has no existing residential dwelling, in order to create a moneyless micro-economy, then read on, as the first obstacle you’ll encounter is planning permission. I’ve seen hardy people weep at the very mention of these words, such is the scale of this particular hurdle in many countries. Those who have gone down the planning permission route and failed (usually because they take the up-front, legal approach) often lose hope of ever subsisting on the land, whilst others find it too overwhelming to even try.

Planning permission is one of those ideas whose intentions are admirable but whose current application is bordering on terrible. Before the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which was introduced after controversial projects such as the town now known as Peacehaven (near Brighton) gained popularity, you could build what you wanted if the land was legally owned by you. The Times, shortly after its introduction, described this Act as the effective ‘nationalisation’ of the right to build your own home from materials on your land – that right now belonging to the state, “to be released only at the political judgment of local authorities”.(68)

In a monetised, globalised economy where materials can be imported from all over the world and where land is viewed as a commodity to profit from, I wholeheartedly agree with author and land campaigner Simon Fairlie(69) that some sort of regulation is necessary to protect huge swaths of the countryside being turned into property development by those with the financial firepower. The downside is that, like many centralised public institutions, the Planning Inspectorate operate in reaction to the lowest common denominator, suspecting that everyone is trying to con them and profit from the system, which is usually the case in this monetary economy, to be fair. Meaning that anyone wanting to fulfil what I believe to be the closest thing to a natural human right that we have – the opportunity to make your own nest and grow crops for yourself and your community – finds it almost impossible to do so, as the planning system is designed to protect the countryside from all humans, even those who only want to enrich it.

If we are to do more than pay mere lip-service to ‘nice ideas’ such as sustainability and freedom, then a crucial first step will be to make distinctions in the planning system to separate the exploiters from the enrichers. As the need for such a system originates largely from the fact that materials can now be imported from all over the world (facilitated by money), I’d argue that the answer lies there also.

Whenever we see recently built houses in the countryside, they look like a blot on the landscape; nay, they are a blot on the landscape. This is for no simpler reason than they aren’t, or never were, a part of that landscape. Houses made from local materials, by their inhabitant’s own hands, compliment the countryside, give it a human touch, in the same way that a bird’s nest takes nothing away from a tree and only adds natural complexity and beauty. No one who has ever seen an old stone and thatch cottage in amongst an orchard of apple, pear and plum trees has ever expressed to me that they felt that such a habitat was a blot on the landscape. Such locally made homes enliven the countryside, make it a vibrant place full of life and abundance, instead of the tourist destination it has become for depressed city dwellers who want a much needed break from the stresses of urban life and disconnected consumerism. Therefore anyone who can build their own home – one hundred percent – from materials from their land (or within a short radius of that land) should be permitted to.

Not only would these homes complement the countryside and reinvigorate it, they would encourage abundant smallholdings that improve the nation’s level of self-reliance, boost local economic (ideally non-financial) activity in the countryside.(70) They would also likely lead to some reforestation, as locally produced wood would become a much sought after building material for others wanting to get back to the land but who lack adequate building materials.

As planning officers also want to protect the countryside from extra traffic, an issue I support them on, those who seek to live in the countryside under an application for a fully localised home could also be asked to sign some version of a Section 106 Agreement disallowing them from bringing a car to their site as part of such an arrangement (this lack of easy transport would also encourage those that live there to become fully self-reliant). This combination would separate the wheat from the chaff, as such homes would appeal little to developers, while appealing greatly to those who genuinely want to live subsistently and who, by their nature and values, tend to have very low incomes. Small ecologically-sound villages – places where people can grow crops for their own needs and those of their community, utilising the optimum economies of scale and division of labour that would come with such a set-up – could flourish under such circumstances. This change in planning guidance could be the basis for the beginning of a redesign of British society to a fully localised economic model.

Admittedly, such restrictions as these don’t leave very many materials for a prospective home owner to choose from, and it would be more difficult to take trips into the surrounding towns, But that’s the point: if you really want to live in the countryside you ought to be prepared to actually live in the countryside, and not in a mix of various imported materials to that countryside. If you can’t make a home out of local materials and live there as part of that ecosystem, then you could argue that you no longer have that basic human right to live there. Importing stuff from the four corners of the world, and having a car, is not a basic human right.

Whilst I believe that we all need to support organisations such as Chapter 7(71) in campaigning for changes to the planning and building regulations systems, the reality is that things won’t significantly change any time soon, and most likely not until either the financial or ecological situation deteriorates so badly that we’ll have no choice but to create new, age-relevant stories. Therefore if you have some land now, or are planning on getting some, and you want to build a low impact dwelling (LID) (or better still, one with a positive impact), you will have to overcome this issue one way or another. You have two main paths open to you.

The first, and rather tempting, option is to just go ahead and build your low impact dwelling, keep a low profile, ideally hide yourself from all view (e.g. in a wood), and hope that no one ever sees you and/or makes a complaint. If you do get a visit from your local planning officer, then (in the UK, at the time of writing) you can apply for retrospective planning permission. If you are contemplating taking this route (or the second option), I would highly recommend reading Simon Fairlie’s book, the DIY Planning Handbook. Chapter 7 also give free advice over the phone(72) to anyone who needs it, but they recommend reading the handbook first as they don’t have the time or resources to explain all of its fine detail to every person who phones in with erotic fantasies of living The Good Life like Tom and Barbara.

This retrospective route has been taken by many intentional communities (such as the Steward Wood community in Devon and Tinkers Bubble in Somerset) and back-to-the-landers, and it has generally had a relatively high level of success, though at the cost of a great deal of energy, stress, and often money.

The second option is to apply for planning permission in advance. This has the benefits of being up-front with planners and the local community (whose needs ought to be given a lot of consideration), it is less risky (if you build without permission your house could be torn down/ removed at a cost), and it has the potential to pave the way for precedents in planning guidance which can then make it easier for those who come after you. Finding good allies can be a crucial first step. One possibility is the Ecological Land Cooperative,(73) a fledgling organisation working to provide opportunities for ecologically-minded smallholdings, and to address some of the absurdities of the planning system.

The good news is that as people become increasingly aware of sustain-ability issues, planning officers are becoming more open to projects which rate highly in terms of their local council’s sustainability objectives and have a small carbon footprint. Lammas,(74) an ecological living project in Wales, were recently successful in a landmark case which – utilising a Pembrokeshire planning policy, termed Policy 52, that takes a new approach to sustainable development in the countryside – effectively led to the Welsh Assembly Government issuing their own nationwide policy titled One Planet Development (OPD). This policy is a statement of intent from the people and government of Wales, and is part of a commitment “to reduce the ecological footprint of each Welsh citizen from 4.41 to 1.88 global hectares/person…within a generation.”(75) The result of Lammas’ graft and determination has meant that applying for planning permission for a LID in Wales is, at the time of writing, much more sensible, clear and appealing than in the rest of the UK. Others, such as Tony Wrench and Brithdir Mawr, have also been successful through Pembrokeshire’s Policy 52, and in doing so have pioneered a path that others can benefit from.

If you do not have land yet but are determined to live moneylessly, another option is to simply leave the country you’re in (presuming it is one where planning permission is required for the type of dwelling you want) to one where planning permission isn’t, or is not as much, of a problem as it is where you currently reside. In Greece, for example, no planning permission is required for dwellings that are conventionally viewed as temporary, such as yurts, meaning that you can just get on with creating your own moneyless micro-economy. Given the state of the Greek macro-economy, you probably would not be alone either. One group of Greeks called Free and Real,(76) who have been heavily involved with Freeconomy Greece and with whom I stayed during the summer of 2011 in the north of Evia, are already in the process of doing just that, establishing a project very much in tune with the ideals extolled in this book. In the process they are researching and testing solutions that will be of lasting benefit to the people of their country in the not-too-distant future. Such projects will be invaluable when the time comes that localisation is an economic imperative, and not the wacky alternative that it is perceived to be today.

One way or another, we need to stop believing in the story that humans are separate from Nature, and give ourselves back the same rights that we give to the birds and the bees, as long as we accept the responsibility to live within natural limits that comes with that.