DIY In The Sticks
The council planner - bureaucratic jobs worth or potential reformer of society? Simon Fairlie, assistant editor of The Ecologist and resident of Tinkers Bubble, urges a fresh approach to the weary restrictions of planning law.
Squall 8, Autumn 1994, pg. 24.
Down here in Somerset we're suddenly hearing a lot about 'DIY culture' coming from our brother and sisters up in the smoke. Well, in the countryside Do-It-Yourself culture has long been practised, and still is by the majority of the world's people - peasants who grow their own crops, and their own seeds, collect their own firewood, build their own houses and make their own manure and their own music.
But not in Britain, unfortunately. Here the peasants got forced off the land long ago, in favour of a select line of wealthy landowners who now do it according to the dictates of the Ministry of Agriculture and who have progressively replaced 90 per cent of the people working on the land with tractors and chemicals. Any prospective peasant, anyone who wants to do it themselves on a bit of land, is actively discouraged in a number of ways - and the main way nowadays is through planning law.
Planning law in rural Britain works like this: a small quantity of the available land (called the development area), is designated for human habitation; the rest is designated for agriculture, or else 'heritage' (country parks etc). Consequently building land is ridiculously expensive - about 40 times as much as ordinary land - and anyone buying or renting a house is paying a whack of money to the building society, developer or whoever it is who profits from this massive artificial increase in value.
The development restrictions mean that if you can afford to buy a bit of purely agricultural land, you can work it, but you are not allowed to live on it - not in a house, not in a shack, not in a caravan, not in a tent, not in a tree, not in an abandoned fox-hole, not even in a sleeping bag under the stars. You have to rent or buy a house within the development area. But this is so absurdly expensive, no one could afford it on the meagre amount that can be earned off a smallholding, when industrial farmers with 1,000 acres or more are churning out subsidized produce for next to nothing - not to mention getting paid £150 per acre for leaving a proportion of their land untilled.
In other words, unless you've got stacks of money, if you want to do it yourself in the country, you're buggered. The best option for many seems to be to wander around from place to place in caravans, trucks and buses. And now even this is being criminalised by the CJB.
Tinkers Bubble is a deliberate attempt to challenge this state of affairs. Last year a group of us were offered a decent bit of land - 40 acres, south-facing with a spring, orchards and woodland - and amazingly between us we found the money to buy it (at about the same price as a two bedroom house in the neighbouring village). We've stuck up benders there and signalled our intention to live there in a modest but exuberant harmony with nature.
South Somerset planners say we can't do this; we might conceivably be allowed to do it if we were 'viable' - but viable in their terms means grossing about a quarter of a million quid a year to pay for all the machinery and chemicals that they consider necessary for working the land -and having enough land to justify that amount of machinery..
We say that, as far as we're concerned, we can be viable. Most of us are used to living off the '45 or so per week dole. With the subsistence opportunities offered by the land - water, firewood, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, and solar and wind energy - together with the money we can earn from timber cultivation, woodwork and agriculture, we reckon that after a number of years of trial and error, we should be able to live pretty comfortably, without sponging off the surplus the British state acquires through playing financial markets and exploiting Third World peasants.
We also tell them that if we are forced to go and live in a rented house in the neighbouring town, then the expense of rent, council tax, water bills, fuel bills, and transport to get us back and forth between land and home will make us non-viable. We'll have to keep signing on, 'looking for work', filling in those silly green forms - we won't legally be allowed to work more than 20 hours per week on our holding and most of the income we get from it will be deducted from our dole so it will become pointless. State-supported housing, we tell them, is a poverty trap - if they want us to get off the dole, then they should allow us the land and the planning flexibility to-do it ourselves - because we don't want their over-mechanised, chemically-intensive, planet-gobbling jobs.
We are not the only group in Somerset trying in some degree to do it ourselves. A bender site in East Pannard, a travellers site at Dommett's Wood and another at Slough Green near Taunton have all applied for planning permission to get a stable living place together within the limitations of the land they have at their disposal.
All four of these planning applications have been turned down, though sometimes by very small margins - we at Tinkers Bubble, lost ours by six votes to seven. All four have been given between six months to a year's grace, before being moved off. And all four are planning to appeal.
Yet, encouragingly, councillors and planners are beginning to take what we're saying seriously. South Somerset District Council recently adopted a new draft structure plan which says that "favourable consideration will be given to the development of derelict or unused sites in the countryside" to provide "short term transit sites.... long term residential sites", and sites for "low-impact dwellings in conjunction with agriculture/permaculture proposals".
This is really sensible, in fact almost visionary, policy. Unfortunately, so far, Somerset councils are going about implementing it in completely the wrong way. At a village called Middlezoy, the county council forced through planning permission for a traveller site in a place where there weren't any travellers. The irate villagers mounted a bitter campaign against this threat to their rural tranquillity and even, perversely, squatted the site themselves. All that the well-meaning council achieved by this exercise was to ignite the latent local prejudice against travellers, with the additional threat of interference by an outside authority. And yet when we try to do it ourselves on 'derelict and unused land', and to take on the responsibility ourselves for demonstrating to understandably suspicious local residents that we're in fact not nearly as bad as the gutter press makes out, the councils regularly turn our applications down.
However we are optimistic. There are some well-intentioned thoughtful people on local councils (a hell of a lot more than there are in the present government) but, operating as they do within a cumbersome hierarchy, it takes them a bit of time to get anything sensible together, even when they have a mind to.
We are also aware that all around the country there are initiatives like ours in Somerset to gain a bit of space. When the CJB clamps down on squatting and customary stopping rights for travellers, then more and more people will be putting in planning applications, either on their own land or on derelict land owned by the council or some other body.
In fact, if you don't consciously want to be nomadic, putting in a planning application has a number of advantages over squatting or shifting from site to site. It buys time - often a lot of time. It gives you a respectable soapbox from which to put your case across to the authorities, the press and local people. It makes you stop and think out more thoroughly what it is you are actually trying to do. And it encourages a more constructive 'let's get our shit together and show them' approach, rather than the nihilistic fatalism that has done so much harm to the travellers and squatters movement over the last decade.
Gradually, as the CJB comes nearer to being a reality, an as yet unformalised network is emerging, focused on planning issues and access to land for those of us who don't buy TV culture but want to do it ourselves. If you have anything constructive to contribute towards the growth of such a network, please write to the author care of SQUALL.
TINKERS BUBBLE - the DoE recommends that the low-impact dwellers of Tinkers Bubble be given a chance - John Gummer wants them evicted - Squall 11, Autumn 1995.
SOME-WHERE-SET IN SOMERSET - travellers tales from the West Country - Squall 7, Summer 1994