Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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2 Oct 2014

Our month on rethinking real estate: Why I’m proud to be a SWIMBY

New homes

You’re passing a field and you see a large hoarding bearing the words ‘New Homes Coming Soon’.  What feelings do those words inspire?  Delight to see ‘economic activity’ underway? Thrilled that ‘place-making’ is happening? Or a sense of despair, impotence and violation?  As more and more such signs pop up around us, we’re giving space this month to exploring this in more depth.  Think less NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”), and more SWIMBY (“Something Wonderful In My Back Yard”).  The two are very different.  We can do a lot better.

MinotaurIn Greek mythology, King Minos of Crete makes a deal with the King of Athens.  He tells him, “I won’t send my navy to attack you if every year, you send me 7 boys and 7 girls to be eaten by the Minotaur in a maze complex beneath my palace”.  Eventually the deal unravels when the King of Athens sends his son, Theseus, who manages, with the aid of a ball of string, to slay the Minotaur. 

As the much of world enters a construction frenzy to build its way out of an economic collapse, and ‘New Homes Coming Soon’ signs spring up everywhere, I am reminded of the tale of the Minotaur.  Communities in towns, cities and villages across the country are now expected to sacrifice green fields, cherished places, open spaces, in order to feed the insatiable development monster. 

Of course we need homes, employment space and facilities, but is the current approach, what John Thackara (who we’ll be talking to later this month) calls ‘The Real Estate Industrial Complex’, really the only one?  In his latest newsletter he asks: “is it beyond our creativity to provide our fellow human beings with shelter and sustenance without covering more of the world in concrete?”

At the heart of the current explosion is one core crazy idea: that the best way to repair the damage done by an economic crisis caused by an unsustainable housing bubble is to create an unsustainable housing bubble.  I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

In England and Wales it feels particularly insane.  Clues as to what was to come were there to be read with the publication of the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012.  At its heart is a “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, which should be seen as a “golden thread” running through both plan-making and decision taking.  All development is now “sustainable development”, and is therefore a good thing. 

moneyWe are in a new world, where nothing is the same, as Oliver Wainwright so articulately set out in a recent article called The truth about property developers: how they are exploiting planning authorities and ruining our cities.  Local authorities, the very ones whose duty it is to decide on planning applications, now receive a New Homes Bonus, (whereby the government matches the Council Tax income from each property for 6 years) for every new home built in their area, at the same time as their own funding is being slashed, and planning departments are increasingly understaffed and under-resourced.  

That’s not a bonus for every Passivhaus built, or green field left undeveloped, or empty building brought back into use.  It’s not a bonus for every person on the housing list taken off the list, for every unused office building converted in apartments.  It’s for every new home, regardless of where, how, or by whom it is built.  It’s a toxic incentive, one that has led to a green light for developers up and down the country.

Already England and Wales are seeing shortages of some construction materials, and skilled construction workers in such short supply that we are already seeing wage inflation pushing up costs.  In Cornwall, one of the places experiencing what CPRE Cornwall have called “an invasion”, 47,500 homes are proposed to be built over the next 16 years, mostly unaffordable to local people. In Cornwall the average house price is now 13 times the average annual wage. 

The approach seems increasingly to be that Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSIs) are protected, but outside of those areas, it’s open season.  Green belt? What’s that?  New roads, flyovers, new housing developments in places with no infrastructure to support them, with no thought given to the transport implications? “Bring it on” seems to be the mantra.

In my town of Totnes things are getting ridiculous.  It feels like a microcosm of what is happening elsewhere around the country.  It’s a developer feeding frenzy. It is a town of 4,000 households.  Another 400 are already granted approval, which will increase by 10% a town that can barely cope with the traffic and whose schools and other infrastructure are groaning at the seams.  Yet still the Minotaur is not satisfied. 

In addition to the 400, we have the apparently schizophrenic Dartington Hall Trust (DHT), whose commitments to “play our part in building creative and resilient communities which can be a force for positive social change” and “to use our land and buildings to drive positive social change” are conveniently forgotten when it sells land not on its ‘core estate’, which happens to be the only place any land is made available for housing.  

It hired WYG, a company who prides itself on “making challenging concepts possible”, and whose portfolio includes advising Russian coal companies on how to extract coal in Siberia as the ice retreats, to argue its case to the local planning authority.  When challenged on this at a public meeting, DHT defended this decision by saying WYG “had a local office” and that they were “an appointable consultancy”.  Hardly what you would imagine for a charity whose core values are supposedly those of resilience, social justice and sustainability.  The discrepancy between its values and its actions is vast.

Development at Sawmill Fields, Dartington.

Already local developer Cavanna Homes are building a housing estate called ‘Origins’ on a field it bought from DHT that no-one locally wanted developed, built to the very unambitious Code 3 and with just 17.5% affordable housing, haggled down from the original 60% promised due to “viability”.   DHT, supported by WYG, have put 14 sites forward for consideration for development, which, if developed, would add 400-500 homes to a small parish. It appears, as I post this blog, that a very active community campaign has forced the Trust to reconsider this, and to, temporarily at least, withdraw these sites from consideration, opening the potential for a rethink, hopefully along the lines set out in this blog. 

logoWe’ve a development of over 100 additional homes on prime farm land on the edge of Totnes which was forced through in spite of vigorous local opposition and a road infrastructure unable to support it, and which has been somewhat patronisingly branded by the developer as “Camomile Lawns” (‘Camomile Lawns’ and ‘Origins’ sound more like brands of perfume than uninspired housing developments). 

We’ve the Duke of Somerset, whose pension fund coffers are already significantly swelled through selling the land for ‘Camomile Lawns”, submitting an application to build 63 homes on the last working dairy farm in Totnes, which has sparked the creative and well-supported Friends of Great Court Farm‘s ‘The Duke’s a Hazard’ campaign.  He met campaigners last week who asked him to withdraw the application, but the next day issued a statement saying:

“A number of issues were discussed and the Friends did ask whether the estate would consider withdrawing the application and engage with the Totnes Neighbourhood Plan.  A decision has been made to continue with the application to develop this area of land … for much needed new housing”. 

DoHAnd it feels horrible and wretched.  The process that leads to such developments is disempowering, patronising, and belittling.  The Duke of Somerset’s ‘consultation’ on his planning application was an insult to the intelligence of those attending, and the feedback received (almost entirely negative if those attending that I spoke to are anything to go by) was never made public.  The consultation on ‘Origins’ never gave the option as to whether such a valued green field site should be built on.  Rather like saying “would you like me to paint your living room luminous orange or dark purple?”  The option of “leave my living room alone and get out of my house” is never an option.

Doing anything about it is exhausting.  We all have busy lives.  We think maybe we’re the only ones who have a problem with it.  We have no resources to oppose developers with large PR budgets and comms professionals.  It’s time we’d rather spend with family, loved ones, or out walking.  But people are increasingly mobilising and trying to do something about it. 

To return to the Duke of Somerset’s “much needed new housing”.  Much needed for who?  Let’s take a step back and get a sense of the context here.  The houses we build today will stand for at least the next 60 years.  A recent report by PwC, its Low Carbon Economy Index, found that, according to Katie Valentine at ClimateProgress:

“… if countries want to get on track in lowering their emissions toward a 2°C goal, the world needs to cut its carbon intensity by 6.2 percent each year from now until 2100 — more than five times the current rate for the global economy. That rate would also be “double the decarbonisation rate achieved in the UK during the rapid shift to gas-fired electricity generation in the nineties,” the report notes”.

The International Energy Agency have warned that if we don’t get our emissions under control by just 2017, we will “lock-in” our economy to dangerous and irreversible global warming:

“The energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed … leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly”. 

We have a generation of people under 40 who, unless well-off parents are able to give them a deposit, have little chance of getting on the housing ladder at all.  The homes we build use materials and techniques that are no longer appropriate.  Cement, for example, is responsible for around 9% of global carbon emissions.  Time to leave it behind. 

Which brings us to the distinction between a NIMBY and a SWIMBY.  Anyone opposing any of the above developments will inevitably be labelled a NIMBY, in much the same way that anyone who suggests that local economies matter and need some protection is a “protectionist”.  When I reported on Twitter about a Neighbourhood Planning meeting in Dartington called to discuss DHT’s plans, someone called @PlanningAlex called the process “too parochial and unpredictable”.  Didn’t feel parochial to me.  Felt bold, engaged and focused.   Focused on the “something else” rather than just calling for no development. 

Although SWIMBY doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as NIMBY, it is far more useful.  It’s a constructive approach, driven not by the wish to prevent change, to pickle things in aspic, but by a vision that it could be done in a different way, one that meets long term objectives rather than short-term ones, one that could revive rather than undermine communities, and could be built on, rather than steam-rollered over, local wishes. It could be wonderful. 

It is in this context that last week we announced that the Atmos Totnes initiative will finally be going ahead.  Atmos is a project driven forward by Totnes Community Development Society, formed from the coming together of Totnes Development Trust and Transition Town Totnes.  The development is focused on the 8 acre former Dairy Crest milk-processing site adjoining the town’s station, which closed in 2007 with the loss of 160 jobs. 


Atmos will be the first Community Right to Build Order (CRtBO).  A CRtBO is a power given to communities in the 2012 Localism Act for England & Wales.  The Localism Act is a deeply flawed double-edged sword. On the one hand offers powers like CRtBOs and Neighbourhood Plans, on the other it gives ever more power to hungry developers.  In essence, a CRtBO states that if a community is able to show that it has community support, has done good consultation and engagement, and produced a masterplan, then if that masterplan is approved by over 50% of those who vote, that’s planning permission.  It has yet to be tested anywhere.  Atmos will be the first. 

It’s a sea change, a vitally-needed and radical initiative, which shows a different way in which things could be done.  It’s the embodiment of the SWIMBY approach. It’s what the project will make possible that is as, if not more, important than the development itself.  It changes the context. 

When a community owns its own assets, it can finally generate the funds needed to start turning the local economy round.  It can buy options on land and decide whether to develop it or not.  It can invest in much-needed new local businesses.  It can start putting renewable energy in place.  It can start to compete more evenly with the leech-like mass housing developers putting their community under siege.  It really matters.

Atmos is wonderful, but there are still very few such projects.  It took seven years to get that far.  And the scale of what’s needed is vast.  So, in that context, of the need for many more projects showing the power of communities not giving up and deciding they want a different story for how development happens, I would like today to suggest “A SWIMBY Manifesto”.  We hope this inspires other communities around the world to argue for these too. It goes like this:

“We are urging a rethink.  We recognise the need to house those in need and future generations.  But the current approach is socially unjust, is increasing the debt burden on a generation already saddled with huge tuition fees, is increasing, rather than reducing, the carbon impact of the future, is extracting money from our local economies rather than keeping it there, for empowering and engaging communities rather than steamrollering over their opinions.  It’s a huge missed opportunity as we could, if we truly engaged local communities, create something wonderful.  We therefore call for:

  • Genuine community-led planning: in most cases, “community engagement” is a tokenistic exercise along the lines of “here are our plans – what do you think?”  Two of the potentially good things to emerge from the Localism Act are Neighbourhood Plans and Community Right to Build Orders.  We call today for a moratorium on any new planning applications, or any designation of land for planning, until a Neighbourhood Plan has been approved for an area.  We also call for any developments of more than 10 homes to use the Community Right to Build Order route to planning.  This should become the norm for all development, and mean that development is meaningfully shaped by communities.
  • Inspire people with possibilities: A Neighbourhood Plan can be used as a powerful tool to reimagine the economy of a community, or as a rather insipid thing that focuses on parking and houses without challenging any assumptions.  Before embarking on the process, I think groups need to sit down, as it were, to a “Feast of Possibilities”, an inspiring immersion of what’s possible, so they are in a position to really maximise the possibilities of the process
  • Retrofit first: although it seems to have escaped developers’ notice, we already have a lot of houses.  However, taking Totnes as an example (because I have the data in front of me), 22% of homes fail the Decent Homes Standard due to “poor thermal comfort”, twice the national average, with 11% considered a “Category 1 Hazard” due to excessive cold. Around 14% of households face fuel poverty.  The Totnes & District Local Economic Blueprint how retrofitting activity could be worth between £26m (basic) and £75m (full) in total. This relates to around 70 to 700 jobs respectively across the whole supply chain. Aiming to unlock 10% of the basic spend within the next year adds up to £2.6m to our local economy.  Change the business model and do that.
  • Empty buildings second: there are lots of empty buildings that could be repurposed.  Walking around Bristol city centre, filled with office blocks shaped by architects egos and investors capital, it’s shocking to see how many of them are empty.  Initiatives like Dot Dot Dot Property are one response, placing ‘property guardians’ in vacant properties to look after them and stop the blight caused by boarded up houses in exchange for 16 hours a month volunteering on local community projects.  The story of Focus E15, the 29 single mothers in Stratford who took over boarded-up Council homes close to the Olympic Village is a great example of people deciding to just get on with this.
  • Brownfield third: we support CPRE’s #wasteofspace campaign which is inviting people across England to nominate a brownfield site in their local area.  Brownfield sites should be given preference over greenfield sites.  The government has called for 200,000 new homes on redeveloped brown sites, but this is well short of what’s possible, estimated by CPRE to be nearer 1.5 million.  Owners of brownfield sites should be compelled to make them available to community development organisations such as TCDS, rather than landbanking them for many years while the communities live with the blighted sites.  Government and Peer-to-Peer support should be available for community groups.  Had this been in place, Atmos Totnes would already be built by now.
  • Support to level the playing field: community groups need support to be able to take on land options and create feasibility studies.  It’s all very well to give communities new rights such as CRtBOs, but they need support in order to be able to run with them.  It’s no surprise that Atmos will be the first.  It emerged from an especially determined community and a team of people with great patience and a particular set of skills.  Funds need to be made available to support communities in taking on options.  Interest repayment rates should be lower the lower carbon the development strives to be, thereby reversing the “viability” incentives that usually lead to such measures being dropped as the development proceeds. 
  • Zero carbon homes should be the norm: at present, developers are driving down the sustainability and energy efficiency of what they build, arguing it isn’t “viable”.  As far as future generations are concerned, anything other than homes that lock up carbon in their construction and emit as little as possible during their lifetime are “unviable”.  Code 6 should be the norm, and the potential of local materials to enable a far greater contribution to local economies should be recognised. These, after all, will be the homes that will need to be consistent with the low carbon economy we so urgently need to be building, rather than actively working against that.
  • Spreading the gain: there needs to be a review of Government initiatives like the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and New Homes Bonus. These generate money for areas where there is high growth but do nothing to stimulate growth in under-performing areas where development land is available, but not viable.  Why not collect a percentage of these monies collected in high growth areas and spread it across those areas where there is no growth but available land and communities who wish to use such land for development but cannot get a foothold. 

This month we will hear from Transition and other community groups who are trying to change what’s being proposed in their area.  We’ll visit the social enterprise that has turned vacant office space into an urban mushroom farm, and to the co-housing project in Leeds who have pioneered a different development model and used strawbales too!  We’ll explore the ingredients of a housing bubble, and how Transition initiatives can make best use of Neighbourhood Planning as a tool.  We’ll speak to the architects who have pioneered the weaving of urban agriculture into new developments. 

Former offices in Exeter converted to an urban mushroom farm.

We’ll explore this from as many different angles as possible, in the hope that it inspires you to become a well-resourced and well-networked SWIMBY. Like any out-of-control compulsive eating disorder, like that suffered by the Minotaur, at its root is a deep sense of unhappiness and loneliness, a gap to be filled by gorging on, in his case, young Athenians.  The development sector is similarly rooted in unhappiness and unhealthiness, perhaps more than any other industry it embodies the sense that there is no such thing as enough.  Our need for housing has, given the maze, or rather the maze of legislation, financial incentives, political disempowerment, corruption that currently surrounded it, become a monster.  If we can free our need for housing from that maze, it will be all of our benefit.  We have everything to gain from looking at it afresh.