Transition Culture

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

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16 Feb 2015

Planning: the untapped power of community consent.


When planning consent is given for a development which local people bitterly oppose, is that the end of the story?  What options remain open to them?  As South Hams District Council planners grant the Duke of Somerset permission to close down the last working dairy farm in Totnes to replace it with 83 homes, the question I want to explore here is whether, and how, a community might skilfully render such a permission invalid or unusable.  Indeed, as we’ll see, there is a strong moral and ethical case for doing so when the permission in question directly undermines the community’s resilience, impacts its quality of life or, in fact, flies in the face of the government’s own objectives.    


Great Court Farm lies on the edge of Totnes.  It’s a dairy farm that has been in the same family for four generations, and is the last working dairy farm left within the town itself.  The land is owned by the Duke of Somerset, a direct descendant of the brother of Lady Jane Seymour (the ‘died’ out of the ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ sequence of the wives of King Henry VIII). He owns 2,800 acres around Totnes, including Great Court Farm.  Last year he held two paltry ‘public consultations’ (I went to one, it left a lot to be desired), before submitting an outline planning application.

To say the application proved to be unpopular would be an understatement.  The colourful and creative ‘The Duke’s a Hazzard’ campaign (see flyer, right) was started up by Friends of Great Court Farm, and generated a lot of support (and local press).  Totnes is already groaning under the pressure of new development, hundreds of similarly crap houses already under construction, or about to be.  It’s a town where the average house price is more than £300,000 but the average salary is just £21,000 per annum.  Every year sees the exodus of another year group of young people heading off to more affordable climes.

From any analysis, the plans for Great Court Farm are a dreadful proposal, yet we live in a world where dreadful proposals are being approved in record numbers, due, in no small part to the coalition government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which states that:

“At the heart of the National Planning Policy Framework is a presumption in favour of sustainable development, which should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking”.

This presumption in favour of development has led to a free-for-all, given the extremely low standards by which it is decided what sustainability actually is.  In the Highways Officer’s report recommending approval for Great Court Farm he writes:

“Totnes is a sustainable location, benefitting from shops, schools and transport links and as such can support the delivery of more affordable housing”. 

So just having shops and schools is now sufficient to render a place “sustainable”.  If only I had known 8 years ago it was so easy, I wouldn’t have had to bother with all this Transition stuff.  Planning departments, stripped to the bones thanks to cuts in government spending, no longer have the clout to take anything to appeal, and so virtually anything that is submitted is being approved.  All that “red tape” we were told needed getting rid of actually starts looking quite appealing again. 

Up and down the country, on appeals by developers about ‘viability’, levels of affordability are being driven down to virtually zero.  Five years ago we were told that by 2016 all new homes would be ‘zero carbon’: that all now seems long forgotten.  The least ambitious levels of energy efficiency you can get away with are the order of the day now. 

Great Court Farm was approved 6:5 by councillors, one of the deciding votes, strangely, coming from a fellow dairy farmer.  The application was granted on the grounds that it represented ‘sustainable development’.  Yet this is an application which will:

  • have grave impacts on already congested roads, affecting traffic safety and reducing quality of life for local residents
  • put pressure on already overstretched local primary schools and other local services
  • require residents to be dependent on cars given its peripheral location and the steepness of the hill leading to the site
  • add an unacceptable level of new housing to the 400 already granted approval in a small town
  • lead to the loss of the last working dairy farm in Totnes
  • add an unacceptable degree of extra traffic to a junction that is already very congested at key times of day.

Cllr Carol Wellwood of Totnes Town Council said, in relation to the application, that “for the people of this town it is a disaster”.  The Duke’s response to concerns about the inevitable car dependency of the development and the impacts of that additional traffic?  A free bike and free bus pass for every resident.  Given the steepness of the hill, they had better be mountain bikes, preferably electric ones, or better still a ski lift, and sadly no buses pass the site.  There is also no reason to assume that the houses built will be anything other than all the other developments happening around the town, i.e. the minimum standards the developer can get away with.

Layout plans for the Great Court Farm proposals.

So here’s my question.  What can a community do when a development is foisted on them that they don’t want, when the planning system fails them so gravely?  When presented with a development that has exploited the “build everywhere” frenzy generated by a government that conflates economic growth with an unrestricted construction industry?  Is that it?  Game over? I think not.  What might it look like if the community itself withdraws that consent?  There are interesting precedents here…

In 2008, Greenpeace activists who had scaled the chimney of a coal-fired power station were found not guilty when they argued that their actions had prevented a bigger crime, namely that of the impacts that climate change will bring.  In 2000, five Greenpeace activists were found not guilty of criminal damage after occupying an incinerator on similar grounds.  In 1999, three women were cleared of causing £80,000 damage to a Trident nuclear submarine, claiming they were preventing greater possible war crimes, a similar case used in 1996 by four women who caused £1.5 million damage to a Hawk fighter jet at a British Aerospace factory. 

While not proposing the kind of direct action approach seen in these examples, what I am suggesting is a withdrawing of community consent.  All of the above show that it is justifiable to oppose something that on the face of it is legally acceptable, if, in the bigger picture, its negative impacts outweigh the benefits.  The leaders of the 3 main political parties at Westminster recently signed a joint pledge on climate change which commits them “to seek a fair, strong, legally binding, global climate deal which limits temperature rises to below 2°C”, the level seen as the threshold of dangerous global warming. We need to hold them to that (although in fairness they did also all support the recent Infrastructure Act, which commits governments to “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum“, a bill George Monbiot callsthe Climate Change Act’s evil twin”.  For example, actually staying below 2 degrees requires huge cuts in carbon emissions from the residential sector, as seen here:


The Duke’s development flies in the face of this, rather than contributing to it, as does all the rest of the poor quality building being thrown up around the town.  It is being built to 20th century energy efficiency standards, not 21st.  The town also needs affordable housing (the Great Court Farm application currently promises 44% affordable housing, but everyone knows in a full application this will be haggled down, on grounds of “viability”, to something more like 17.5%).  The town needs work and training for local people.  It needs the maintenance of its existing farming industry.  It needs safe roads and clean air.  Yet this development will provide none of that.  If the planning system won’t provide them with that, then as a community we do have another option.  It is to withdraw our support, withdraw our consent.  And that consent is more powerful than we perhaps realise. 

The 'Origins' development at Sawmill Field: an example of the poor standards of new housing being put up around Totnes.

In Hay-on-Wye, local people, faced with their local school being sold to a developer for housing and a possible new supermarket, launched ‘Plan B for Hay’, bringing together local residents who were architects and planners to put forward an alternative for the site, which is now, several years later, what is happening on the site.

There are other precedents closer to Totnes too.  Costa Coffee famously decided not to open a branch in town, in spite of being granted planning approval.  The strength of feeling in the ‘NoToCosta’ campaign led to Costa’s CEO meeting with the local MP, local Mayor and local traders and deciding not to take up the permission.  A recent campaign in the neighbouring village of Dartington, ‘Don’t Bury Dartington Under Concrete’, formed in response to Dartington Hall Trust putting 19 sites forward for consideration for planning permission. 

The resultant campaign involved petitions, a march, a ‘Community Vote of No Confidence’ in DHT’s Trustees and Senior Management, and resulted in a complete u-turn, DHT actually writing to local people to apologise for its behaviour, and may well have led to the resignation of its CEO.  The local Atmos Totnes project, being created by Totnes Community Development Society, is modelling what good consultation looks like and what development owned and driven by the community can lead to. 

So what might a community withdrawal of consent look like in relation to Great Court Farm? Friends of Great Court Farm have:

  • Launched a petition requesting the Duke to withdraw his application (launched last week and already signed by 377 people)
  • Begun planning a series of high profile events to bring public attention to the Duke’s approach
  • And my favourite: there are plans to submit a planning application for affordable housing on the lawn in front of the Duke’s house

Also, Totnes Town Council, with the support of Totnes MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston, have written to the Secretary of State and asked him to “call in” the application for review.  A letter from the campaign to the Duke concludes:  

“We hope you can see that it is in all good conscience that we do not feel like we can just let this go. Not only do we feel you should acknowledge that you have a duty of care to the Hooper family and the community who live on and near the land of which you are a ‘custodian’ and act upon it but also that you cannot continue to hide behind your agents and planning consultants. You need to take responsibility for this appalling state of affairs and back down before any more heartache is caused and any more money is wasted.  We would like to ask you again to withdraw this application and work with Totnes and Berry Pomeroy on their neighbourhood plans to reach a right and proper approach to the divestment of your land”. 

A key to this is the idea of ‘discrepancy’.  In Motivational Interviewing, a technique used to treat addiction, the aim is stated as being to “develop discrepancy between the client’s goals or values and their current behaviour”.  The Don’t Bury Dartington campaign has been all about discrepancy, putting a mirror up to the gap between the organisation’s stated values and its actual behaviour.  I think that as a tool for communities wishing to withdraw consent from ruinous planning applications, highlighting discrepancy, the gap between what the community wants/needs and what they’re being offered, the gap between the landowners stated values and the development they’re proposing,  and the gap between the values that most local people live by and the values underpinning the development, is a very powerful approach.  

The NPFF argues that in order to be considered as ‘sustainable development’, any development must demonstrate that it is sustainable in terms of its economic, social and environmental impacts.  For a development (Great Court Farm) that builds unsustainable, high carbon houses on prime agricultural land, leading to the forced closure of a family business, in a setting that will worsen air quality, reduce safety for pedestrians, be unaffordable to most local people, and in a way that takes no account of national climate targets to be granted planning approval on the grounds of being a ‘sustainable development’ is an affront. 

Local residents objecting on planning decision day.

Under such circumstances, it’s time more communities began to withdraw their consent from such appalling approvals, and they can be found up and down the country.  Indeed, rather than being somehow wildly subversive, there is a strong case, as in the Greenpeace example cited above, to say that doing so is actually helping the government meet its aims better than the current planning system seems capable of doing.  Consider, for a moment, the following selections from the NPPF:

  • “empowering local people to shape their surroundings”
  • “a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which people live their lives”
  • “support the transition to a low carbon future in a changing climate”
  • “allocation of land for development should prefer land of lesser environmental value, where consistent with other policies…”
  • “promote the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses”
  • “encouragement should be given to solutions which support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduce congestion”

Yet the Great Court Farm permission flies in the face of all these.  This is the small field in South Devon where sustainable development went to die.  If we seek to build resilient, vibrant, diverse communities, and to build an economy consistent with our grandchildren not having to live with the worst effects of climate change, then communities have more power than they might realise in shaping that. What an approach best suited to supporting them in doing this is something we sketched out a few months ago in our SWIMBY (‘Something Wonderful in my Back Yard’) Manifesto.  Giving their consent and support to developments that are consistent with that, and withdrawing it where it’s not, is powerful indeed.  And indeed it is more consistent with government policy than the planning system currently appears capable of being. 

I would argue that good development, development that meets the needs of the community and of the wider world, is ONLY possible if communities are engaged from the outset.  We need new models of development, rooted in Community Land Trusts, a Land Value Tax, genuine local decision-making, an explosion in innovation around local building materials, a reimagining of the potential for development projects to drive local economic ingenuity.  But we also need to be able to mobilise to stop developments which are an affront to our values as communities and which undermine our local economies and what makes them resilient.  In doing so, we inevitably also start talking about the kinds of development we do want, and therein lies the spark for rich creativity and collective brilliance.