Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Land For People
Photo: Nick Cobbing.

Gaining A Foothold

Even planners joke about how boring planning is. But if you want to live on a piece of land for more than 28 days, you'll need to know something about it. Simon Fairlie puts it simply.

Squall 14, Autumn 1996, pp. 46-47.

Is the rural planning system a conspiracy by developers, industrial farmers and the conservation lobby to keep ordinary people out of the countryside?

In one sense, yes. Rural Britain is divided up into two parts: the ever expanding development zones around towns and villages where various kinds of high impact, high profit development take place; and the open countryside, where, in theory, no one is allowed to build except farmers. Plebs cannot build within the development zone because land prices are too high; and they cannot build in the open countryside unless they are netting around £12,000 per year as a farmer. People who want to live a simple low income rural existence and build low impact dwellings respectful of the local environment are not allowed to do so.

Or so it seems. For the planning game is complex but in some ways surprisingly flexible.

Based on negotiation and compromise it is arguably one of the more open procedures in the country. Someone once said that the English planning system is Newtonian: for every policy guidance in one direction there is an equal and opposite guidance in the other. For every rebuff there is recourse.

With this in mind, here are some suggestions for people considering lodging an application for low impact dwellings on land in the open countryside.

What are you up against?

Basically, Planning Policy Guidance 7 (PPG7 from HMSO bookshops) which says that the building of isolated rural dwellings and other forms of development should be “strictly controlled” in accordance with the development plan (ie. they should be within the allocated development zone). The only common exception is for agricultural and forestry dwellings; and these have to pass a “functional test” (do you really need to live there? couldn’t you commute?) and a “financial test” (are you going to make loads of dosh?)

What’s on your side?

A number of things: firstly PPG7 is not a law, it is a policy guidance. Exceptions are allowed and it is up to you to find sufficient reasons why your proposal should be regarded as a warranted exception.

Building without planning permission is not an offence. But before this point, you are quite at liberty to move onto your land and start living there or building straight away without applying for planning permission. It is up to the planners to stop you or get you off. If you are confident about your ability to get planning permission, if you have influential friends and letters after your name, then it might be sensible before you move on. If you have dreadlocks, a 1973 Bedford van and a lurcher, it’s probably better to move on first and talk from a stronger position.

If you have dreadlocks, a 1973 Bedford van and a lurcher, it’s probably better to move on first and talk from a stronger position.

Even if you lose and an enforcement notice to remove you comes into effect, the planners are not obliged to carry it out. I know of a small house in the woods which the planners ordered to be demolished several years ago. It is still there and inhabited. The local planning authority has no interest in blundering through the woods with a bulldozer or risking a punch up between their bailiffs and local people who support the woodsman.

How to go about it.

(1) You’ve got access to land. Before you move onto it, prepare your case. Acquire a thorough understanding of the planning process - it’s not that difficult. Read Appendix E of PPG7, the first few pages of PPG 13 (on transport), the General Permitted Development Order and the local plan (and DoE Circular 1/94 if you are or have been a traveller). Get hold of appeal decisions relating to developments that are similar to yours, especially successful ones - these are the best way of understanding how planners think.

Find a friendly planning solicitor or other expert if you can. Check out whether you are in a Site of Special Scientific Interest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty or some other specially designated area.

When you understand the issues, prepare a management plan for your settlement, showing how it will benefit the local environment and the local economy. Outline, for example, how you will improve the ecology by planting trees and hedges, restoring meadows, converting to organic agriculture or permaculture, improving soils and encouraging wildlife and biodiversity.

Describe any plans you have for autonomous technologies (reedbeds, compost loos, on-site water provision) or renewable energy. Show how you plan to support yourself and how to produce from your land and how the work you can perform in the immediate area will contribute to the rural economy.

Show that commuting to your land from a house in a village will involve more transport than living on the land and that you have access to facilities such as shops, schools etc. without being dependent upon a car.

Get letters of support from influential bodies like the local Wildlife Trusts, and the Permaculture Association. Show how your project is a constructive experiment in sustainability, in line with Agenda 21, that couldn’t conceivably be carried out within the development zone.

(2) Now you are ready to move on. If at all possible, select a site for your dwelling that is sheltered by trees or otherwise invisible from public rights of way. If this is impossible then plant trees around the dwelling as soon as you can.

Unless you’re going for a reed bed system or a “tree-bog”, dig compost loos six foot deep if possible and well away from any watercourse. Make friends with your neighbours, local walkers and the animals that live there. Then wait for the planners to arrive. If they don’t discover you for 10 years (4 years if you are in an existing shed or barn), then at the end of that period you can claim lawful use of the land. But they probably will.

(3) When the planners come round, don’t panic. You will be asked to put in a planning application costing about £160. Fill in the form and deliver it. At the same time tell them that you have a management plan for the property.

Request interviews with the chief planning officer for your area, with the environmental department, and the environmental coordinator (the person on the council responsible for implementing Agenda 21). Tell them you are carrying out an experiment in sustainable living that couldn’t conceivably be carried out within the development zone, show them your management plan and invite them to make suggestions as to how it could be improved.

(4) Your case will probably come up within six weeks. The planning authority will make a recommendation to the planning committee (composed of elected councillors) which will make the decision. The most likely outcome is that the planning authority will recommend that your application should be rejected (because it does not conform to the development plan). But you never know. If you do get given planning permission, it will almost certainly be for a trial period of two to five years.

(5) If you get refused, the council will place an enforcement order on you. At this point you may be able to try a second slightly altered planning application.

Or you can go to appeal. If you can get the appeal process heard at a public inquiry, then this is likely to take at least a year, during which time the enforcement order will be suspended. You then have the time to prepare a good case, to make friends with local people and to show that you are bringing life and diversity to the local community.

(6) At this point (if not before) you should be reminding the planners of the tools they have at their disposal for ensuring your low-impact development does not metamorphose into a high impact one.

For example Planning Conditions can regulate the size, range or appearance of your buildings, the number of people that live there, the amount of mess you make, the number of trees you plant or the number of vehicles you operate.

Section 106 Agreements are legally binding agreements on the effects a development may have on the wider community. Such an agreement might seek to ensure that an area of woodland remained accessible to the public in perpetuity.

There is no reason why you should not, at any time, propose conditions or agreements which you are happy to accept to the planning authority, and these will be taken into account when your case is considered.

(7) If you present your case well, you might win at appeal. But if you lose, the enforcement notice will come into effect after a period of say six months or a year. But you still have a number of options: you can delay enforcement once again by taking your case to High Court; you can then put in another slightly different planning application; you can try and negotiate a compromise with the planners; or you can lie low and hope that the planners won’t carry out any enforcement.

How can the planners throw you off?

If the planners do try to throw you off your land and you refuse to move, they have a number of choices. Most likely they will take you to a magistrates court where you could be fined quite heavily; but if you are on a low income, you will be required to pay it off in instalments.

There was a case in Kent recently when the planners, impatient with mobile home owners paying a weekly fine that was considerably cheaper than rent, moved in and demolished the mobile homes. But I have yet to hear of planners demolishing a bender.

It is also possible for the planners to apply for a High Court injunction to keep you off your land. However injunctions are not automatic - a sympathetic judge might accept that the absence of alternative accommodation and no visible damage to the environment were grounds for not granting an injunction.

But just because planners can throw you off, it doesn’t mean that they have to. Even after an enforcement notice comes into effect they are at liberty to negotiate a compromise and grant you planning permission. Moreover, preventing determined and inconspicuous low impact dwellers from returning to their land is an enforcement officer’s nightmare. Because you are allowed to reside on your land for 28 days in the year and you are allowed to perform “non-residential” activities such as gardening or charcoal burning, the council would have to maintain a measure of round-the- clock and round-the-year surveillance to prove that you were living there full-time.

In fact there are relatively few cases where planning authorities have gone in with bailiffs and bulldozers and in at least some of these cases there seems to have been a lack of communication and an obstinacy on both sides that developed into a futile feud.

The classic case was the one where Albert Dryden shot Consett planner Harry Collinson in June 1991. Dryden was an awkward, volatile geezer just looking for somewhere, anywhere, to carry out his line of business – sawing firewood, keeping animals and so on. He wasn’t allowed to do it within the development zone (it annoyed the neighbours), so he bought an acre of land in the countryside and he wasn’t allowed to do it there either (it was offensive to tourists). In his efforts to accommodate the planners he planted trees and made a hopelessly ill informed attempt to construct an earth-sheltered dwelling.

Derwentside District Council responded ineptly and stubbornly and failed to come up with compromises. Dryden issued not very veiled threats about how he would resist eviction with force: the council carried on with the remorseless steamroller of enforcement. This bureaucratic parody of a Greek tragedy ended with Harry Collinson walking, incredibly bravely, in the vanguard of the bulldozers, to his death (dulce et decorum est pro local authority mori); and Albert Dryden going to jail, one of the least reviled murderers of the decade.

It doesn’t normally end like this and any local planning authority that presses ruthlessly ahead with eviction or demolition is bound to have the lessons of the Dryden affair at the back of their mind. If applicants for low impact developments can establish a constructive relationship with planners; and demonstrate their settlement makes a contribution to the local community and to local Agenda 21, then there is a prospect that the project may eventually be permitted to proceed.

At the end of the day, when it comes to enforcement, planners don’t have to kowtow to central government policy, they have a measure of choice. Those of us who want to build alternatives should take advantage of this fact and learn how to build bridges.

For more detailed information on planning matters, see Simon Fairlie’s book Low Impact Development: Planning and People in a Sustainable Countryside, published by Jon Carpenter, 1996: available in bookshops, or send £10 payable to Low Impact, 20 St Michael’s Road, Yeovil, Somerset. See review of this book in Squall #14 book reviews.