A Tent, a Stove, and an Outdated Planning Regime

Planning policies lag behind economic realities.

Matt and Lily Gibson couldn’t afford to live in a rented house any more so they moved into a tent. I read it in The Guardian on Saturday. The rent had been £625 a month, apparently. The tent cost £370. They needed somewhere to pitch it, and the farmer friend of a friend obliged by offering a corner of a field.

Living simply requires time to be substituted for money. Matt and Lily keep themselves and their baby daughter warm with a wood-burning stove, on which they cook. The stove requires feeding every two hours around the clock in cold weather, and that’s a lot of wood to chop up. Time taken to survive off-grid, without utilities, means less time for paid work. The couple want to save up to buy a plot of land on which to build an eco-home. Saving up enough money may be just as hard as paying to live in a rented house.

Matt and Lily “believe more working families will be forced to live like they do, as rents and bills rise and first-time buyers are permanently priced out of the housing market”, wrote article author Patrick Barkham. Cuts in welfare payments like Housing Benefit are sure to result in more families sinking under the breadline. Yes, there may be downward pressure on rents, but landlords with mortgages to service do not have huge room for manoeuvre, and the shortage of homes means that they can, for the moment, usually find another tenant.

The planning laws in England and Wales are not keeping pace with the social and economic changes that are swirling around us like a cyclone. Nice little suburban estates, out-of-town superstores with vast car parks, no development in the countryside (unless you have the money to build a house deemed to be of architectural merit). Suburban estates require occupants with jobs somewhere else, access to a car, and sufficient income to pay a seemingly endless series of bills – mortgage or rent, council tax, water charges, electricity, gas, telephone, and so on.

Planning policies have still to recognise that the past is not a predictor of the future. Motorised transport made the suburbs possible, made retail parks possible, made long supply chains for food and all other products possible. Motorised transport is going to become so expensive that people will need to live close to work, and the items they consume will have to be made closer to where they live. Until planning policies come to terms with this shift, people like Matt and Lily are likely to bang their heads against a wall of planning negativity.

They haven’t been in the tent long, although if they can survive January, June will be a breeze.  In the UK we may think their downshifting rather extreme, but the newly homeless in Greece would recognise the shattering of past habits when incomes are no longer sufficient to meet the costs of urban living.

See ‘We couldn’t afford to live properly’, by Patrick Barkham, The Guardian February 11th 2012, Family Section pp4-5.

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