Local planning authorities can present a huge barrier to social and ecological advancement when elected councillors on planning committees scour planning policies to find ‘reasons’ for rejecting sustainable living ventures.
This is an example from Carmarthenshire, Wales:
Since 2009 the Wales Government has had a pioneer ‘One Planet’ policy to encourage rural enterprises which have ultra-low impact on the Earth’s non-renewable resources, but conservative (small c) councillors often struggle to appreciate the reasons for it — and that’s if they have heard about it at all!
Pioneers of low-impact communities need to be resistant — especially to suspicion and hostility from their longer-established neighbours. This was the case in Carmarthenshire’s Tipi Valley, which the local authority tried to quash, but failed. The settlement now has a much wider impact, as this short extract from my book ‘Solving the Grim Equation‘ indicates:
Tipi Valley is not paradise – too cool and rainy – but people can live there quietly and with very little money. Tipi Valley is a Carmarthenshire low-impact village, founded in 1974 with no permission at all, and the subject of protracted battles with the planning authority, Carmarthenshire County Council. The community describes itself thus, on the alternative communities ‘Diggers and Dreamers’ website:
‘To be honest, we’re a bunch of hippies, some of us ‘originals’. Tipi Valley is high in the Welsh hills, on 200 acres that we have bought bit by bit over 35 years. Our oldest land has already reverted to temperate rainforest. The idea is that we are part of nature, living within nature. Thus all our homes are low-impact dwellings such as tipis, yurts, domes and thatched or turf-roofed round houses. We are a village, not a commune, and everyone is responsible for their own economy. We do not have regular business meetings, and we never vote. It works by consensus and personal relationships.”
Forty years on, Tipi Valley is no longer ‘separate’. Children who grew up in the valley often live more energy-intensive lives than their parents, but possess practical skills which set them apart from children who were raised in houses and who received a conventional, book-based education. They can also support themselves and their families in unpromising surroundings because they have experience of getting by on very little.
These Tipi Valley ‘graduates’ frequently live in houses themselves, but like to stay close to the valley. They are electricians, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, growers, therapists, often more than one at a time. They socialise and they help each other out, and they are also a bridge between the valley and the surrounding communities. Their parents were much more often English middle-class rebels than Welsh country folk, but several now have a foot in both groups. The original ‘back to Nature’ purpose of Tipi Valley’s founders no longer guides many in the second and third generations, at least not so strongly, but as they integrate into other communities, they bring a rich range of different perspectives. If the founders had not battled for permission to stay, and had meekly left, the story of their experiences, including the capability to adapt to the environment, would be missing.
The exciting Lammas eco-hamlet project was eventually given planning permission by Pembrokeshire County Council under its pioneer Policy 52, a forerunner of One Wales One Planet, despite strong opposition from within the council itself. Lammas is a community creating nine low-impact smallholdings at Glandŵr, near the Pembrokeshire-Carmarthenshire boundary.
The Lammas founders, orchestrated by Tao Paul Wimbush, sought to make this a legitimate rural development by obtaining planning permission before construction, rather than going ahead and then seeking retrospective permission. The exhausting process revealed the chasms that exist between policy and practice, and highlighted the clashing frames of reference which planners must somehow align.
The planning system in England and Wales is currently mired in the 1950s, when the global context was entirely different. Local food production was perceived as of diminishing importance because cheap transport meant imports could be sourced easily. ‘The countryside’ was a collection of landscapes for rich people to live in and for poorer people to enjoy from a distance. As for the poorer people, new jobs in the bright technological future would result in each generation being more prosperous than the last, and these new middle classes would be car-dependent and live in spacious suburbs.
A wave of New Towns, including Basildon, Bracknell and Harlow, reflected the Utopian aspirations of the Labour governments of 1945-50 and 1950-51, led by Clement Atlee. The first section of the M1 London to Birmingham motorway opened in November 1959. Dr Richard Beeching came along in the 1960s and on his recommendation the rural railway network was largely abandoned. He thought the car would rule from then onwards. The UK was still a manufacturing nation, jobs were plentiful, and when oil from British fields in the North Sea started flowing in the early 1970s, how bright the future seemed. The Franco-British supersonic Concorde made its first commercial flight in January 1976. The fatal flaw of Concorde, the fatal flaw of the transnational industrial age, was profligate use of energy. Concorde’s engines burned 5,638 gallons of fuel per hour, or 56.38 gallons for every one of a capacity load of 100 passengers. Concorde was not sustainable, and was withdrawn from service in 2003, the final flight taking place on November 26th.
The England and Wales planning system, though, has remained in the 1950s, in a landscape of suburban estates, industrial ‘parks’ and town-centre bypasses.
Lammas’s founders suffered years of failing to convince Pembrokeshire’s planners and councillors of the legitimacy of their vision, because low-impact development was off the agenda when the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was assembled, and has never been properly recognised as a permissible land use. We are stuck with outdated conceptions of development which oppress today’s priorities for low-emission, low-energy, local lifestyles.
Battles over planning legislation since 1947 have focused on whether and how to tax the rise in land values following the granting of planning permission. The 1947 Act in Labour Britain introduced a 100% charge on the rise in land value, but the Conservatives suspended it when they came to power in 1951 and abolished it in 1954, although public bodies were able to buy land at its existing use value until 1959. The 1966-70 Labour government created both a Land Commission to buy land required for the implementation of national, regional and local plans, and a ‘betterment levy’ of 40% on value uplift. The following Conservative government of 1970-74 abolished both. When Labour returned in 1974, they tried a ‘development land tax’ of 80%, which Margaret Thatcher’s first Conservative government of 1979-83 cut to 60%, before her second government did away with it in 1985. During the ‘New Labour’ interval between 1997 and 2010, a ‘planning gain supplement’ was mooted but the idea, vehemently opposed by developers, was dropped in 2007.
Since 1945 the big argument has been about taxing the financial gain conveyed by planning permission. The concept of land use for an ecologically balanced future is missing from the main legal framework.
The first gesture towards low-impact development was on the edge of the UK, in Pembrokeshire, West Wales. In June 2006 Pembrokeshire County Council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority (the planning authority in the national park) adopted Policy 52, Supplementary Planning Guidance ‘Low Impact Development Making a Positive Contribution’.
Policy 52 applications must pass eight tests:
- There must be environmental, social and/or economic contribution with public benefit.
- All activities and structures must have low impact on the environment and low use of resources.
- If there are buildings on the site, their re-use must have been investigated and incorporated wherever practical.
- The project must be well integrated into the landscape and have no adverse visual effects.
- The project must require a countryside location, must involve agriculture, forestry and/or horticulture, and be tied directly to the land on which it is located.
- A sufficient livelihood for the residents on site must be provided.
- The number of adult residents should be directly related to the demands of running the enterprise.
- If the project involves members of more than one family, it must be managed and controlled by a trust, co-operative or other similar structure in which the occupiers have an interest.
The policy sets low-impact development firmly in a business frame. An appendix states that “if residents become unable to contribute to the proposal, due to age or illness, the Authorities will consider whether they can remain on the site”. This condition implies that a low-impact settlement is only for the hale and hearty, and primarily an enterprise, not a home or group of homes.
from ‘Solving the Grim Equation’, published in 2015 by Cambria Books, written by Pat Dodd Racher, pps 147-150. Planning policy 52 conveys an assumption that enterprise income is more important than family or group solidarity. Planning, generally, is about access to profit.
‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, the classic 1961 book by Jane Jacobs, is probably even more relevant today — the mark of a great book. She emphasises that visual order is very different from functional order, a lesson which our planners and politicans have not heeded:
It’s all about the knowledge — some knowledge is valued by the Establishment, some knowledge is discounted as low status, of little import.
The knowledge required for successful low-impact development — knowledge about living far more self-sufficiently than it usual in profit-driven industrial societies — usually falls into the second category and is therefore not regarded by policy-makers or planners as legitimate.
…..but floods call into question our rigid planning system
Driving through the drenched saturated-sponge landscapes of the Cothi and Tywi valleys in Carmarthenshire today, windscreen wipers whirring away, the yellow-grey sky heavy with rain, it was a struggle to convince myself that this is not the most dismal winter ever. For people evacuated out of the Somerset Levels by deluge after deluge, it does seem to be the worst in living memory.
I have a book called ‘Agricultural Records AD 220-1977, by J M Stratton and Jack Houghton Brown, who brought up to date an 1883 book, ‘Records of the Seasons, Prices of Agricultural Produce, and Phenomena Observed in the British Isles, by Thomas H Baker. ‘Agricultural Records’ is a reminder that the last century has been a period of relatively benign weather in the British Isles, because the weather in history has often been appalling.
In 1236, when Henry III was king, “January, February and early March brought unusually heavy rainfall, consequently rivers rose and caused much flooding. In February it is said that the rain fell for eight days without ceasing. Autumn, too, was very wet with much flooding and high tides along the coasts. There was much loss of cattle and also of human life”.
A great flood in 1287 drowned some 500 people in Norfolk, but over the North Sea in Holland, many thousands, perhaps over 50,000 people, died in the flood which enlarged the pre-existing lake into the Zuider Zee, which remained as open water until the construction of the Afsluitdijk to keep the sea out. This dyke was completed in 1932, the land was reclaimed and is now the province of Flevoland, but keeping the sea at bay demands continual dyke maintenance, for ever .
Back in England, in 1315, after a succession of years with heavy rains, exceptional rains in July and August wiped out the grain harvest. “There was heavy mortality among human beings and cattle, and the situation was aggravated by plague among cattle”, the book says. In 1316 “[p]erpetual rains and cold weather not only destroyed the harvest, but bred a mortality among the cattle, and raised every kind of food to an enormous price”.
The notes from recorded history show that what passes as ‘good’ weather for us – plenty of sun, enough rain for plants to thrive – is by no means normal. Our epoch in geological time, an interglacial in the Quaternary Ice Age, situates us in a relatively ice-light interval of unknown duration. Previous Quaternary interglacials seem to have lasted for an average of about 10,000 years, and if the present one followed that pattern, it would be well into its final phase now, but the colossal escape into the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other warming gases, resulting from humans’ use of fossil fuels, may delay the start of the next glacial period, as well as having more immediate repercussions.
Ice cores from Greenland indicate that, during the past quarter of a million years, climate changes have been abrupt. The cores show that the present interglacial is unusual in that the climate has been more stable than in previous interglacials, meaning that although our weather can appear extremely unpleasant to us, if we had been living in the previous interglacial, it would have been even worse.
There is a profound link between climate and civilisation. The relatively benign climate of the interglacial which began about 15,000 years ago – although often miserable and even fatal for us — is an important reason for the continuity of human endeavour and the development of civilisation. Sad, then that civilisation has enabled us to acquire the destructive power to affect the climatic system, but never to control it.
These days we tend to assume that settlements are permanent, but for nearly all of human history people have been on the move, responding to climate change, extreme weather, the need to find water and food. Current patterns of settlement and home ownership in the UK make it very hard for people to move to sites that are safer, safer in the short term at least. Movement out of hazardous locations is difficult because of rigid planning zones which prohibit construction in safer places unless they have been zoned for housing. Movement out is also difficult because of the amounts of capital that home-owners have sunk into properties that few people will want to move into. How can they move, if they owe a mortgage on a home they cannot sell for anything like the price they paid for it? With one home in every six in the UK estimated to be at risk of future flooding, the problem is huge.
by Pat Dodd Racher
 London: John Baker, second edition 1978.
 ‘Was agriculture impossible during the Pleistocene but mandatory during the Holocene? A climate change hypothesis’, by P J Richerson, R Boyd and R L Bettinger, in ‘American Antiquity’ 66 (3) pp387-411, 2001
Too many people for the number of dwellings, especially in areas where people can find work: neither Conservative nor Labour nor Coalition governments have come close to solving the problem, which worsens year on year. The UK’s population is rising faster than the number of dwellings, as the chart below shows.
Only 281,030 new homes were completed in the two years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Meanwhile, the population rose by 1.678 million, from 2010’s 62.027 million to 63.705 million in 2012. The predominance of small households, one or two people, means that population increase of this order requires over 940,000 new dwellings.*
The shortfall is massive, yet construction firms have land banks lying fallow. Four volume builders — Barratt, Bovis, Crest Nicholson and Berkeley — had a total of 114,419 plots in their land banks, according to the Financial Times in September.** They are releasing about one-sixth of this total annually: not enough to fix the housing shortage, but then why would they do that? They want to keep property prices up, and in any case the number of potential first-time-buyer households is restricted by low incomes, as new data in Family Spending 2013*** makes plain. The chart below shows that outgoings exceed income for about half the UK’s households. The outgoings count only the net rents paid by households, after receipt of housing benefit and other subsidies. About 35% of households rent their home, up from just over 30% in 2001. The change reflects the declining affordability of home purchase.
Mortgage rates which are kept low by the quantitative easing programme — the creation by the Bank of England of additional, artificial digital money — and rents subsidised by housing benefit have both been critical in keeping roofs over the heads of the hard-pressed population.
Without housing benefit, typical rents would be unaffordable for households with incomes in the lowest 40%, less than £17,784 a year in 2012. Rents in London are so high as to be unaffordable for over three-quarters of households.
In the E1 postcode, immediately east of the City and including Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, until recently regarded as a cheap area, typical rents for two-bedroom flats are between £336 and £450 a week, at the lower end more than the average gross weekly income of 30% of households and at the upper end more than the gross income of 40% of all UK households. Smart postcodes in central and west London are beyond the financial reach of almost all British households.
Our next chart plots gross rents against household incomes in 2012. In the first decile, incomes are below £170 a week, and in the tenth decile, over £1397 a week. Households in the first decile were asked to pay rents of £122.50 a week on average, from incomes under £170. In the second decile, gross rents averaged £118.60 a week, and incomes ranged between £170 and £256. For decile no.3, rents of £124.70 a week would have to come from incomes in the range £256 to £342, were it not for the housing benefit subsidy.
Static wages and soaring rents have turned housing benefit, a means-tested welfare payment, into a colossus of the social security system, costing just on £24 billion in 2013-14, 14.7% of the total £163.593 billion for all welfare expenditure. By 2018-19 the government itself predicts that housing benefit expenditure will be £28.406 billion, 15.3% of all welfare spending. The only category of welfare costing more is the state pension, £82.997 billion in 2013-14 and £100.731 billion in 2018-19.
Rent subsidies are paid to households right across the income spectrum. Subsidies typically exceed 50% of rental cost for renting households in in the bottom third of the income distribution, and are above 25% for about half of all renting households. The next chart shows the high dependency on housing benefit, over £88 a week in the bottom income decile and more than £47 a week as far up as the fourth decile, for households between the ranks 31% and 40%.
While the word ‘sustainable’ is over-used, it’s reasonable to say that, in this era of welfare cuts, the gap between rents and incomes is unsustainable and becomes more so every year that the gap widens between numbers of dwellings and of households.
Given the colossal chasm between supply of and demand for housing, it is no surprise that rents and property prices are so high – especially in areas where jobs are easy to find.
In the towns and villages in the remoter rural areas, like here in northern Carmarthenshire, there are plenty of unoccupied homes, but scarcely any well-paid (or even paid) work. Surely part of any solution to the startling housing crisis should be to help local businesses (a) start up and (b) expand, in a process of rural re-population. That process could not be more expensive than £24 billion a year spent on housing benefit. One problem is the attitude of ‘not-in-my-backyard’ that is common among affluent country-dwellers, another is the rigid planning system which zones land uses and prefers big and corporate to small and individual.
In big towns and cities, have we reached the point at which novel approaches to home provision need to be taken? Municipal conversion of defunct shops, offices and public buildings such as redundant schools into homes at regulated rents, accompanied by a significant dispersion of jobs? Greater use of mobile homes, as in the years after the Second World War?
£24 billion paid in housing benefit is an annual cost of more than £900 for every household in the United Kingdom. The policy is not working. House-builders see no profit in building for people who in reality cannot afford to be housed in a cool, wet country where building regulations are stringent and land costs are exorbitant.
Looking forward, there seems little relief from a critical underlying problem: the downwards pressure on wages resulting from the globalisation of economic activity, juxtaposed with the upwards pressures on living costs caused by more and more people competing for resources on a finite planet.
Even after counting housing benefit and other welfare payments, about half of the UK’s households spent more than their income in 2012, financing the excess by taking money out of savings and/or borrowing – from family, friends, banks, building societies, payday loan companies, and even loan sharks.
This is no basis for an economic ‘recovery’ but a downward slide towards penury, in a land with too few homes for its people, and too little money to continue with multi-billion £ annual subsidies.
by Pat Dodd Racher
* Table 5, households by size, in ‘Families and Households 2013’ from the Office for National Statistics, October 31st 2013.
** ‘Housebuilders buy up plots at pace last seen in 2006’ by Gill Plimmer, September 25th 2013.
*** Family Spending 2013 was released by the Office for National Statistics on December 11th 2013.