Building Regulations Strangle Low Impact DevelopmentPosted: June 8, 2012
The opposite of joined-up thinking is…. what?
Two sets of mandated policies which are mutually exclusive, maybe. We are talking about Low Impact Development and Building Regulations as applied in the UK and specifically at the Lammas project in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Wales has a One Planet Development policy to encourage sustainability. Pembrokeshire has its own Low Impact Planning policy with the same objectives, but there is an elephant rampaging all over the policy woodpile – an implacable elephant called Building Regulation.
Simon Dale and Jasmine Saville are smallholders living in an experimental eco-village in Pembrokeshire. They wrote that they were “delighted when Pembrokeshire introduced its Low Impact Development planning policy. As well as bringing Low Impact Development out of the shadows, it offered us an opportunity to use our recent but modest inheritance to get a piece of land and home of our own with the security of planning permission “.
Needless to say, and despite its own Low Impact policy, Pembrokeshire County Council refused permission. That was in September 2008. The planners decided that the Lammas project’s proposal for nine smallholdings and a community centre near Glandwr in the north of the county could not generate enough income to be financially sustainable over the long term. Of course, the planners were assessing the business plans against traditional agricultural benchmarks and not against low-impact benchmarks because there are none. This low impact proposal was not about financial profit and loss but about resource protection, year after year, a perspective that conventional business plans ignore.
There was another application, another refusal, an appeal and, in August 2009, the planning inspector at the appeal overturned the county council’s refusal. The eco-smallholders, including Simon and Jasmine, were given five years to meet the productivity targets which they were obliged to set out in their plans for the new village, named Tir-y-Gafael.
The tortuous process since then is documented in Simon’s and Jasmine’s paper, ‘The Compatibility of Building Regulations with Projects under new Low Impact Development and One Planet Development Planning Policies: Critical and Urgent Problems and the Need for a Workable Solution’, published in November 2011. The clashes between building regulations and low impact development policies were so serious that Pembrokeshire County Council opted for a criminal prosecution against Simon and Jasmine because their home at the eco village does not meet building regulations.
Building regulations are a sort of consumer guarantee that a home purchased from a developer is constructed to specified standards. Simon and Jasmine point out that “if all projects under new Low Impact Development/ One Planet Development policies are expected to include buildings reaching full buildings regulations compliance in the same way as we have been asked [to do], the vast majority of established approaches to low impact development will be prohibited”. This would include carrying water to one’s home in containers and heating it on a woodstove; using an outdoor composting toilet; or not connecting to a mains electricity supply”. One of the barriers they crashed into was the requirement for a smoke alarm connected to mains electricity – because they did not have mains electricity. Another was the absence of electrically powered ventilation, again because they were not connected to the mains.
An additional hurdle relates to applications for relaxations of specific building regulation diktats. These applications have to be backed with evidence from acknowledged experts, or by the applicants’ own research completed to professional standards. This pushes the costs beyond the pockets of many smallholders, and is rather like being involved in lengthy legal proceedings – the total expense cannot be predicted at the outset. Simon and Jasmine obtained some quotations from professionals, and realised that fees would be twice as much as the £3,000 their home cost to build, or even more.
Planning permissions under Low Impact Development policies usually come with what Simon and Jasmine call “ambitious targets” for the output from smallholding land, which would be hard to reach in the best possible circumstances, let alone when having to cope with the pressures and conflicts imposed by clashing planning and regulatory requirements.
In January 2012, almost two and a half years after the grant of planning permission, and a couple of months after Simon and Jasmine published their excellent paper, Pembrokeshire’s building control department, responsible for compliance with Building Regulations, accepted in Haverfordwest Magistrates Court that the regulations could not be applied strictly to innovative structures that are designed to minimise environmental impact and carbon emissions, in pioneering new ways.
A candle in the sustainability gloom, lit only after years of effort, disappointment and refusal to give in.
The saga makes me wonder whether planning authorities adopt Low Impact Development policies to make them look ‘green’ but, at the same time, rely on Building Regulations to ensure that nothing really changes. Simon’s and Jasmine’s experiences are like those of Merav and Janta Wheelhouse at their Karuna permaculture project near Picklescott in Shropshire. The Wheelhouses battled for seven years for the right to live on their 18 acres in a sustainable way, their home and farm emitting not much more than one-seventh of the carbon emanating from nearby homes.
Next door to Pembrokeshire, in Carmarthenshire in 1974, the first of a changing population of tent-dwellers moved onto remote land at Llanfynydd, in the hills east of Carmarthen. The settlement became known as Tepee Valley, and the local council tried for years to evict the people living there. In 2006 the Welsh Assembly granted, retrospectively, a Lawful Use Certificate, but only for three tents and one caravan, and not for any experimental Low Impact dwellings. The authorities continue to see Tepee Valley as some sort of threat to established order, not as an opportunity to experiment with low-carbon, self-sufficient living.
The struggles faced by would-be smallholders who want to work their land contrast with deference that so many planning authorities show to Big Business applicants, like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and wind farm operators. It comes down to power differentials in the end. Big Business has the money and clout to persuade planning authorities that if permission is withheld, there will be appeal after appeal until it is granted. Meanwhile, young families who want to live the sustainability agenda have to fight every step of the way.
 ‘Council obstructs family’s ethical land project’ by Paul Evans, The Guardian, November 19th 2008.