Transition Culture

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“I’ve got some land and I want to set up a Permaculture project…” (1996)

**”I’ve got some land and I want to set up a Permaculture project…” – getting planning permission for rural Permaculture projects.** Originally printed in Permaculture Magazine Number 13. 1996.
(*Some of the information in here may be out of date by now, to check details with current planning law contact Chapter 7*.

Imagine the following. You find a beautiful piece of affordable land in the countryside and decide to develop it along Permaculture lines. You prepare a design for the site which includes, among other things, ecological housing, reforestation, orchards, intensive gardens and autonomy for sewage treatment, water and electricity. Excellent. However, chances are the planners will refuse you permission to build a house and live on the site, even if the only alternative is intensive agriculture or the land falling into neglect.

There are two main reasons for this. Firstly they are afraid that once you’ve got permission for a residential dwelling you’ll build a luxury home and sell it for a fortune and retire to the Caribbean with all your laudable Permacultural intentions long forgotten. The second is the fear of precedent, that is, once you’ve got permission they’ll have less of a leg to stand on when Wimpey or Barratt want permission to develop nearby fields for housing. In short, the problem is that the planning system is incapable of discerning between sustainable and unsustainable development.
It matters not, it would appear, that what you are proposing is in line with recent government policies promoting reforestation, biodiversity conservation, LETS schemes, energy efficiency, environmental job creation, the creation of traditional apple orchards, renewable energy schemes, “a high water quality environment�? and “local distinctiveness�? in buildings. Nor that sustainable development is now committed policy both nationally and locally. Nor that public opinion is more disaffected with intensive farming than it has ever been and calls for a re-evaluation of how we produce our food and how we use our countryside are becoming deafening.

Permaculture teaches us to “turn problems into solutions�?. So how to approach this quandary? While not understating for a moment the fact that obtaining planning permission for rural projects is very difficult, there are some approaches we can take that can help our case considerably. Firstly we need a way of presenting Permaculture to planners in such a way as it answers most of their objections before they can raise them. Secondly we need to present such a good argument that, to quote Max Lindeggar (designer of Crystal Waters Permaculture Village in Australia) “they look foolish if they turn it down�?. Thirdly we need to know the precedents that already exist and finally we need to reassure them that what you are proposing will be carried out as you say it will. Let’s examine each of these in turn.

To look at the first of these, how should we present our case to the planners? The first step is to get to know them, they’re only human, they’re there to help. Drop in and see them (that’s what they’re there for). Their first impression of you is vital, look (relatively) smart, be courteous. Establishing a harmonious working relationship from the outset is vital, applications where mistrust and antagonism are the main feature of the applicant/planner relationship are usually doomed to failure. The will also give you advice on what is likely to be acceptable and what won’t be before you submit your application. Read the Structure Plans and Local Plans for your area, they’ll let you know your regional and local authorities’ policies in relation to projects like yours (you can get them in your local library or planning office). Also read “Rural England – a Nation Committed to a Living Countryside�?, the recent Government White Paper which is the latest government thinking on rural sustainable development and gives you lots of quotes to show that what you are doing is government policy (should also be in the local library). Then prepare the Permaculture design for your site. You can move onto your land and reside in a caravan or a bender while observing the land and preparing the design (you are not committing an offence until an enforcement notice has been served). This will give you the opportunity to really study the land.

A full Permaculture design is an excellent tool. It should include a complete site survey, a listing of all the site’s resources, both physical and financial, and the proposed shelter, energy, water , afforestation and garden elements, as well as case studies of other places where Permaculture is being successfully applied. It should also contain some form of business plan, outlining how you will make a living from the land as well as why it is essential to the success of your enterprise that you reside onsite (chances are they’ll want to see something like this anyway so it’s good to pre-empt them). This may seem like quite a job, but it’s worth considering that if one is to undertake the establishment of a well-designed Permaculture project which is going to support you, it needs to be well thought out anyway. Other things worth considering in your project which other projects have indicated could improve your chances of success include earth-sheltered housing (overcomes objections of visual impact), the project being run by a Trust (overcomes fears of reliability) and care taken over access (one common sticking point).

You then need to present this design in such a way as to “make them look foolish if they turn it down�?. The first thing to do here is to get letters of support for what you’re doing. Approach the local parish council, the National Farmers’ Union, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, the Soil Association, a range of different groups, local residents, Prince Charles even! Also cultivate the local media. Send them a press release with some angle on what you’re doing that they can make a story out of. Remember also that the whole area of sustainable rural development is fast becoming a major issue, so contact the national papers too. Hold events on the land, run design courses and get local people to teach slots on it (i.e. beekeepers, organic gardeners, plant experts and so on). In this way you involve people who might otherwise feel threatened by what you’re doing. The essence of this is that everyone will know that what you are doing is good and worthwhile. Talk to the planners privately and send them copies of the design. Print copies of it in an odd size, A3 or something, so that it sticks out of their in-tray and can’t be ignored. Ring them a few days later and ask them if they’ve read it and have any questions. Ask them if they will be supporting your application and if not what are their reasons.

You need to bring their attention to the precedents which have already been set in planning law relating to Permaculture developments. There are 3 main ones. The first is Tir Penrhos Isaf in the Snowdonia National Park. Here a Permaculture small holding was allowed temporary planning permission (due to be renewed as permanent permission) because they presented such a good argument and they were viewed by the Park Authority as being an experiment in a different approach to land use.

The second precedent is that of Brickhurst Farm in Kent, which was the first time that Permaculture had been recognised as a valid approach to agriculture and as being one which had different requirements in terms of ‘viability’ *. The Inspector at the appeal said “I regard the intended farming method as a material consideration, and from the evidence about Permaculture, I believe this holding should not be approached on the basis of a traditional farm�?.

The final one is that set by the Hockerton housing project in Nottinghamshire. Here the planners completely bypassed all the requirements for a project to prove its ‘viability’ and approved the application for 5 earth-sheltered autonomous houses under their energy efficiency policies, stating that it constituted “a move towards sustainable development�?. Many planners won’t actually know about these, and its important to bring them to their attention. They may respond with John Gummer’s recent linking of the term “Permaculture�? with the term “subsistence living�?. In this eventuality you could argue that firstly Gummer’s statement was just a statement of opinion, not a legal definition. Secondly you could easily present a wealth of information to the contrary to show them what Permaculture actually is.

Finally, how to reassure them that in 5 years time there will be a Permaculture project on site, not a luxury house and the odd postcard from the Caribbean. Safeguards already exist in the form of planning conditions. If you get permission, chances are it’ll be temporary, for a period of 3 years, in order to give you time to prove your viability. Such permission usually comes with to conditions attached. The first is called the “Agricultural Tying Clause�? which states that the site must remain in
use related to agriculture. The second relates to the period of time the temporary permission will be granted for. In theory, these two safeguards should be sufficient to give the Authority confidence that they can give you at least temporary permission in order to give you time to prove yourself. If you are unsuccessful and your case goes to appeal (often actually quite a good thing because the Inspector comes in from outside untainted by a possibly hostile local authority) you can offer to sign a Section 106 Agreement with the local authority. A Section 106 Agreement is a way of binding the applicant to carry out a development in the way specified in the agreement. Many local authorities aren’t too keen on Section 106 Agreements, and in theory the attachment of planning conditions should be sufficient, however sometimes they are very useful. In the case of Hockerton, a Section 106 Agreement was drawn up to enshrine the project’s sustainable aims. Another good example of how they can be used is that of a golf course in Derbyshire. At the appeal the Inspector considered that the proposal was acceptable if it were designed, maintained and operated in accordance with the principles of design outlined in their application. The same could easily apply to a Permaculture project with a detailed design.

Although all of this will increase your chances of a positive decision, it is very much the case that such permissions are hard to obtain. You can also increase your chances by being selective when looking for a plot. Avoid anywhere where what you are doing can be seen for miles around, visual impact is one of the most commonly used reasons for refusal. Try to be quite near existing settlements, this makes it much easier to argue that you are having a beneficial effect on the local community. Try to keep your application to a scale suitable to the surroundings.

The current situation in the national sense is that the Tinker’s Bubble High Court ruling, where the term “Permaculture�? was linked with the term “subsistence living�?, is best challenged by a wide range of people making applications for rural Permaculture projects. Each of these applications needs to be for a clear, coherent and viable example of Permaculture that clearly goes way beyond “subsistence living�?. It is only by planning authorities across the land having Permaculture projects in their in-trays and these projects being approved on the strength of being clearly beneficial to the environment and to the wider community that John Gummer’s ludicrous ruling will just fade away, crawl off red-faced into a corner, crumble to dust. The fact that such a ludicrous decision was made in the first place is perhaps a sign that we’re starting to get somewhere!

* Applications for new housing in rural areas is expected to prove that the house is essential to the successful operation of a viable farm enterprise. This is assessed by a ‘functional test’, which assesses whether there is a need for a worker to be “readily available at most times�? onsite. If this test is inconclusive, a ‘financial test’ may be required in order to judge present or future financial viability. Both of these, particularly the financial test, are designed for large scale farming enterprises, and would appear to exclude Permaculture projects, although the Brickhurst Farm appeal is an encouraging precedent (see above).