Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Tinker's Bubble
Photo: Nick Cobbing.

The Problem With Planning

You can’t even live in a hole on your own land for more than 28 days without falling foul of planning laws. Simon Fairlie, from Tinker’s Bubble, argues the case for more favourable planning consideration for low-impact dwellers..

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 25-26.

“Reclaim the Land!” has become a common battle-cry in the protest movement, which is hardly surprising, given that much of England, and virtually all of Scotland, is owned by an astonishingly small number of wealthy landowners. Land ownership in Britain is more concentrated than in many Third World countries where development workers are piously recommending land reform.

Yet, surprisingly, land in Britain is cheap. Low to average agricultural land sells at about £1,200 per acre. Admittedly, you have to buy it ten acres at a time to get this price because small areas are bought up by the rural bourgeois to provide grazing for their daughter’s ponies. And, of course, it isn’t easy to get £1,200 together on income support. But nevertheless, an acre of land - and there is one acre for every man, woman and child in this country - costs about the same as 20 Benson and Hedges a day for 15 months. Anyone who seriously wants to “reclaim the land” should think about saving up a grand, getting together with some like-minded people, and buying it.

For settlers with a bit of cash, the main difficulty with reclaiming the land is not ownership, but planning. Even if you own land you can’t live on it - not unless it’s designated “development land” in which case it costs £50,000 per acre, or more. In the seediest Third World dictatorship, any peasant who manages to scrabble together the money for an acre of land can usually erect a shack on it and live there without too much hassle from the government or big local landowners. In democratic, freedom-loving Britain, if you try to stick up a shack, or a tent, or a living wagon, or even nest in a tree-top, on your own land, the planners will come down on you armed with a ton of recyclable office paper. “Change of use!” they will cry. “By living on this land you are changing the use from agricultural to residential and that is against the law of the land.” Unless you are prepared to go through a long and expensive legal wrangle - which in all probability you are likely to lose - they will chuck you off.

In fact it is the planning system, rather than ownership, that is now the main way in which ordinary people are prevented from “reclaiming the land” in this country. However, this does not imply that would-be settlers should instigate some kind of aggressive direct action campaign against the planning authorities. On the contrary, the planning laws are something we would do best to work with, rather than against.

The planning system in this country was designed to stop the invasion of the countryside by urban developers. Since the Second World War the planners’ answer to ribbon development, dormitory settlements, urban sprawl, and other invasions of the countryside, has been to designate certain zones where development is permitted and forbid any kind of residential development in what is termed “open countryside”. They may not have been brilliantly successful at preventing some atrocious scarring of the countryside - from motorway cuttings to ten acre holiday caravan sites that are obliged, by law, to remain empty for half the year - but the planning system has been the only defence against the developers who would happily concrete the whole of Britain to make a quick buck. Any movement to “reclaim the land” should make sure that it does not undermine the planning system. There are plenty of free-marketeers lurking in the not so nether regions of the Conservative Party who would be very happy to see planning restrictions relaxed, so that they could start developing green belt land and unleash a tide of “economic regeneration” in the open countryside.

Moreover, planners are not total idiots when they look critically at applications from smallholders, settlers and so on to erect cottages, mobile homes or other living accommodation upon agricultural land. However genuine rural settlers may be about their intentions to live “in harmony with the land”, there is a chance that their project may fail, that they may decide to bugger off to outer Turkmenistan, or they may simply die. Whoever subsequently acquires or inherits the land may be less interested in living in harmony with the environment, and more concerned with extracting the maximum economic benefit from any change of use agreement accorded the land, by forcing through a further application for 20 residential bungalows or holiday chalets. Planners are quite right in viewing bona fide applications for permission to live on one’s land as a potential Trojan horse for much more undesirable forms of development.

What then is wrong with the planning system? The answer is that it bundles together all forms of development - from a tent to an estate of 200 bungalows - as something basically bad for the environment; something that should be restricted to certain “development zones” and not let loose upon the rural landscape. In the 50 years since the Second World War there has been no attempt to establish a distinction between residential developments that complement the rural environment and add richness and diversity, and residential developments that extend the domain of the city by smothering the countryside with car- based urban sprawl. Planners have tried to protect the countryside by excluding people; and in doing so have opened it up for destruction by the bulldozer, the combine harvester and the Range Rover.

It is the planning system, rather than ownership, that is now the main way in which ordinary people are prevented from ‘reclaiming the land’.

If we want to reclaim the land, then we have to confront the planners with a well-thought out project for the future. “Look,” we should say, “there is a difference between modest rural dwellings that fit into the countryside and developers’ schemes that propose to extend urban sprawl into the countryside. Planners should be distinguishing between dwellings that are low impact, because they are small-scale, or temporary, or surrounded by trees, or built with local materials, or make low demands upon energy and resources; and those that are high impact because they introduce, to a countryside that doesn’t need it, all the mediocre extravagance of urban-style development. It is about time that you, the planners, made this distinction so that we, the growing number who want to find ways of living in the countryside without consuming excessive resources or importing products made by slave labour on the other side of the globe, can find some space to do it.”

Believe it or not, planners will respond to these kinds of arguments. For 25 years planners have had a chip on their shoulder because everything they do is reactive rather than proactive. Their attempt to keep development out of the countryside has been a rearguard, defensive action, doomed to failure. It gets little support from both developers who resent being restricted and from environmentalists who object to the countryside being torn apart by an agriculture based on machines rather than people.

Giving planners the opportunity to decide what is and what is not “low-impact development” - to put it another way, to decide what new rural buildings accord with Local Agenda 21 and which are out of tune - would enhance their standing immeasurably. No longer would they be charged merely with deciding where undesirable development should or should not take place, but instead with the altogether more useful job of deciding what sort of development is desirable, and what isn’t. For example, they might be empowered to say: “OK, you can build a house there; but only as long as you use local materials, plant a screen of trees, replace the uprooted hedgerows and use renewable energy for heating and lighting.”

Can these unimaginative grey-suited bods in district planning departments - yes, even planning magazines print cartoons about how boring planners are - be entrusted with making such important decisions? Perhaps not; but it is they who at present make local decisions and recommendations about how land is used, comparatively free of government interference; and it is they with whom those of us who want to “reclaim the land” will have to deal. And believe it or not, there are a surprising number of sympathetic, thoughtful people in the middle echelons of the planning bureaucracy who have been waiting for something like Agenda 21 (and subsequent government policy statements about sustainability and diversity) to give them licence to pursue more idealistic objectives. They are now looking around for good ideas.

There are a couple of ways we can feed them with ideas. One is to put in a planning application at every opportunity. It is not widely realized that anyone can make a planning application on any property or piece of land - you don’t have to own it. Whether you are squatting a disused council gravel yard, an abandoned airfield, a dilapidated mansion or a derelict warehouse, it is worth thinking about putting in a planning application for “change of use”. It will cost £140. Follow it up with a detailed proposal explaining what you plan to do with the property, why it will be good for the property, for the environment and for the local community, and how it fits in with Agenda 21 and other government utterances. Find a friendly planning expert to help you if you can. Send your proposal out to the local press. Work on the property to show neighbours that the “change of use” will be beneficial to them. Particularly if it is council property, you will be less likely to be evicted until after the planning process has run its course.

You will probably lose your application; but you can then take it to appeal, a process that usually lasts over a year. You’ll probably lose that as well, but you may have bought yourself some time. More importantly, you will have shifted the legal debate beyond the issue of a possession order to a matter of planning permission. The public question is no longer simply “who owns this property?” but “what is the best thing to do with this property?”. The more the planning authorities and the Department of the Environment are bombarded with planning applications of this nature, the sooner the Government will realize that things have to change - that ownership does not confer only, or even necessarily, the right to eject others, but also a responsibility to use the land in a socially and environmentally acceptable way.

The other way to bring round the planners is to present them with clearly reasoned arguments and evidence showing them how, by ceasing to exclude people from access to land, they can enhance the richness and diversity of the landscape - and the townscape. The Tinker’s Bubble Trust has been commissioned to prepare and publish a 50,000 word report on Future Planning Policies for Low-Impact Development. We are keen to receive the views and comments of anyone who is concerned with these issues, particularly anyone who has experienced planning problems, or is considering putting in a planning application. The report will be primarily focussed on the rural situation; but there will be a section on urban questions that will examine possibilities for sustainable low-impact, community-based projects designed to make cities better places to live.

If you wish to contribute towards this report in any way, or require more information, please write to Simon Fairlie, Tinker’s Bubble, Little Norton, Stoke Sub Hamdon, Somerset TA14; or telephone 01935 881975.

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the DoE recommends that the low-impact dwellers of Tinkers Bubble be given a chance - John Gummer wants them evicted. Squall 11, Autumn 1995.
DIY in the Sticks - Tinkers Bubble, and the difficulty of restrictive planning laws for rural communities. By Simon Fairlie - Squall 8, Autumn 1994.