Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Tinkers Bubble community, Somerset
Tinkers Bubble community, Somerset. Photo: Nick Cobbing.

Tinkers Bubble

Despite recommendations from a DoE Inspecter that the low-impact dwellers of Tinker’s Bubble should be given a chance, John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, wants them evicted in six months.

Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pp. 24-25.

Small scale agriculture and low-impact dwellings were the subject of John Gummer’s recent disrespect, when he insisted that a small Somerset community-settlement should be evicted off their own land.

The residents of Tinker’s Bubble, a small woodland near the village of Norton Sub Hamden, had originally applied for planning permission for seven low-impact dwellings (benders and tents) to accommodate up to 12 adults. They narrowly failed to obtain it after the South Somerset Area Planning Committee voted to reject the application by seven votes to six. Residents of the Bubble were then served with a local authority enforcement notice requiring them to remove both themselves and their tents within six months.

Planning restrictions on residential development are of course necessary to prevent profit-driven building work from ruining the countryside. However, the settlers on Tinker’s Bubble argued that there should be a right for people to live on their own land if they resided in Tow-impact dwellings’ next to small scale agriculture. The Bubble residents look after a 1,000 apple tree orchard, some farm animals and several allotments on their 40 acre organically farmed woodland site.

They appealed against the planning refusal and enforcement notice issued by South Somerset District Council, so becoming the subject of a DoE inspector’s investigation. The consequent appeal hearing took place in Norton Village Hall on April 5th this year, and was conducted by Dr

J. R. Frears from the DoE. Whilst waiting for the completion of the appeal process, the Bubblers had agreed to carry out a five year conservation management plan for the site in co-operation with the South Somerset District Council (see Page 24 opposite).

The DoE inspector spent some time interviewing local residents from the nearby village of Norton Sub Hamdon, as well as the Bubblers themselves.

In his report, the inspector concluded that the residents of Tinker’s Bubble were engaged in a unique experiment in low-impact living and small-scale agriculture and should therefore be given the opportunity to show what could be done.

He wrote: “The alternative lifestyle and the form of agriculture are, from the evidence presented, manifestly part of the one experiment. It therefore follows that the Appellants, if they are to make their experiment, need to live on the land in the countryside. Even if the way of life could be separated from the form of agriculture, I am very doubtful whether it could be acceptable if carried on in a town or village.”

The inspector also cited the “genuine” nature of the experiment, concluding that it did not harm the landscape of the Special Landscape Area in which it was situated. He also said that although the residents weren’t gypsies in the strict sense of the word, the DoE Circular 1/94 advising local authorities to encourage gypsies to acquire land for their own residence, “does have some bearing on the case”. The inspector’s report also comments on the very temporary nature of the residencies, saying that any decision to them a chance would not be irreversible.

Answering fears about a possible rush of applications that might follow were the Bubble residents granted planning permission, the inspector said that such a style of living would “only appeal to a small minority” and would not therefore “give rise to fears that it is a precedent for planning policy as a whole in the countryside”.

After the completion of his investigation the DoE inspector recommended that the residents of Tinker’s Bubble should be given the chance to show what could be done with small scale agriculture and low-impact dwellings on self-owned land.

The Secretary of State for the Environment called in the decision, making himself personally responsible. In the event that John Gummer might over rule his primary recommendation, the inspector also gave a conciliatory suggestion. He recommended that if they were to be evicted, the Bubble residents should be given at least a year to wind their settlement down due to the fact that children on the site were attending local schools from which they should not be hastily wrenched.

In September, the Bubblers received a letter written on behalf of Secretary of State, John Gummer, saying that he had no intention of allowing either of the recommendations made by his own inspector. Instead, he wanted to see the settlement evicted within six months in compliance with the original enforcement notice.

In the letter, he concludes that the aspirations of the Bubble residents were a “personal preference which do not justify setting aside the planning objection. Any benefit of these aims to the rural economy would be negligible, since minimal agricultural and other produce would be available for wider consumption. And the reduction in demand for conventional housing and other claimed social benefits would be minimal. The view is taken that the provision of groups of tents or similar residential accommodation in the open countryside, merely to provide a subsistence living for the occupants, is not a practical pattern of land use.”

The Secretary of State goes on: “To grant permission would be likely to encourage similar applications for other rural sites in this locality which, if allowed, would have a serious cumulative impact on this area of landscape value.”

So what future for the six adults and four children of Tinker’s Bubble? Well, they can and will appeal against the Secretary of State’s decision if they can find the necessary £5,000 appeal fee. Otherwise, after two years of putting their backs, hearts and passion into the development of a working organic community, the residents of Tinker’s Bubble will find themselves homeless again. And John Gummer? Well he’s probably already forgotten about them, in the same way as he has forgotten about the international Agenda 21 promise he signed in 1992.

But just for John, here’s the agreement this Government signed in Rio only three years ago:

“All countries should as appropriate, support the shelter efforts of the urban and rural poor, the unemployed and the no-income groups by adopting and/or adapting existing codes and regulations, to facilitate their access to land, finance and low-cost building materials and by actively promoting the regularisation and upgrading of informal settlements and urban slums as an expedient measure and pragmatic solution to the urban shelter deficit.”

Related Articles
The Problem with Planning - Simon Fairlie argues the case for more consideration for low-impact dwellers- 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.
SOME-WHERE-SET IN SOMERSET - travellers tales from the West Country - Squall 7, Summer 1994