This is part 2 of an interview with Paul Jennings, who has built his own straw-bale house and lives with his family on a smallholding in Carmarthenshire in Wales. They were able to build their house via the One Planet Development (OPD) policy in Wales. Here’s part 1 of the interview.
How difficult is it to make a living? Do you manage it from your smallholding?
No. I also teach Tai Chi. Sarah sells vintage clothes. But we don’t have to ‘make a living’ with the OPD – we have to have a land-based business. We have to be working towards something that will cover council tax, communications, clothing, food we don’t grow ourselves – plus another couple of things. If you boil down your needs to the bare minimum, you have to cover that from a land-based business.
But if you’re producing honey, and charging £6.50 per pot, in West Wales, not many people are going to buy that honey when they can go to a corporate supermarket and get honey from another country in a squeezy plastic bottle for less than half the price. The same is true of other things. If you’re producing fruit juice, or vegetable boxes, or dairy, or anything – if you’re doing it on a small scale, the price is not going to reflect market conditions out here.
We have this discussion a lot. You know I’m working to help build a mutual credit trading network for the UK. What small producers produce is quite expensive. We have people who make textiles and blankets, for example, and they’re expensive blankets. it’s the same for honey, as you say, and pottery, and baskets, clothes. But they’re really high quality, it’s sustainable and it builds community. So if we can put those people together, it doesn’t matter what the price is. You’ll be providing food etc. that in money terms is quite expensive, and you’ll be getting other, craft produce etc. that is also, in monetary terms, expensive. But if you consider swapping those things, the price is irrelevant.
Yeah, that works, except for when your domestic economy is leaking rent or interest, out of the community. The other day I bought a net of onion sets. I bought more than I need, and when they arrive, I’m distributing them out to other people, at something between what I paid and what the normal retail price is. I’m covering my costs and getting my own onions out of this process. I’m trading in onion set futures!
Someone said to me: ‘can we do a swap’. And I said that I can’t. Because of our financial situation, I can’t enter into that, because we have money leaking out of our household economy.
So you’d have to be able to meet all of your needs via this new, mutual-credit based system.
That would be lovely. People interested in social change have been through this for decades, and it goes right back to the 19th century – the co-operative movement was a fantastic idea. In the end, what hampers the development of a co-operative economy is the existence of capitalism. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s very difficult to build a parallel system, when capitalism is tearing people and communities apart.
If you try to build an alternative, it will try to eat you.
Getting back to OPD, it would be easier to envisage a healthy internal economy within OPD, when there are 10 times as many people doing it. Then it becomes easier, because things you might need, like onion sets, or fruit trees or livestock, then there will be an internal market – an opportunity to trade within OPD.
I think this is another of Simon Fairlie’s (The Land Magazine) things isn’t it? For craftspeople who don’t need any land, there should be a type of OPD for them to build their own house on the edge of towns or villages where they could have a little workshop.
Yes, I think the idea of a land-based business has got to be made more adaptable. People have got to be able to do it without being smallholders. A friend of ours is a blacksmith. The planners couldn’t get their heads around that being something that’s acceptable under OPD. But of course every good rural economy needs a blacksmith. And we need nurses too – people who can work in a hospital and come home and live a one-planet lifestyle. At the moment they can’t even afford the flats they have to rent, let alone being able to build a natural house on the edge of a town.
I wouldn’t want to be critical of OPD as a policy – it’s just that we have to be realistic about the socio-economic environment in which it’s trying to flower.
I’ve seen plenty of evidence that small farms produce more food per acre than large, industrial farms – and they employ more people. So I think that’s something we should be promoting. And yet it’s so difficult for people to get into. What would you advise people to do? What would be the first step? How could they get out of their marketing job for a large corporation in a big city and take steps towards being a smallholder?
Sarah and I look at ourselves, and how we got to where we are now. We were only ever able to own a place because we were lent money – by my father, in this case. We think that really, this was never for us. Realistically, unless we accept the Thatcherite meritocracy thing – ‘oh yes, you can have whatever you work hard enough to get’ – we have to admit that it was never really for us (and we’ve worked hard over the years). So I’m less concerned about the relatively well-heeled person in marketing in London than I am about people who live in Uplands in Swansea who might want to live in the countryside.
But I think the solution is the same – which is to try to build communities, starting with housing co-ops, worker co-ops, and to move down that route. That’s perfectly acceptable under OPD. It’s a coherent idea to use with OPD. So you can find a group, form a co-op, buy your land, and then move onto a One-planet development in Wales.
Did you form a co-op?
No. We formed a company, because when we came back to the UK, along with the other people involved with this project, we weren’t looking to form a community – mainly because we were exhausted from trying to find an established community. For example, if you have someone in a proprietorial situation, it’s then difficult to build a community around them (but that’s another conversation!).
So we don’t have a co-op here, but now, looking from a design perspective, what our five acres need is more people. Not just a couple. That’s what I’d advise people to do – to look at the human element first, because one day you’re going to be ancient (50!), and you’re not going to feel the same as you did when you were 30. And one day you’re going to realise that your kids are probably not going to stay on the smallholding, and that on your own, you’re never going to get that magnificent project done, because you haven’t got enough money to chuck at it to make it happen.
So a major part of our plan at the moment is to dissolve our debt, and we’re hoping it will happen quite soon, by having a friend buy in. Owning this place all by ourselves is just a millstone around our necks.
But, unless you go through an organisation like Radical Routes, for example, it’s still problematic – getting a mortgage, finding a deposit, being in debt. So it’s not easy. But it’s easier than the ‘we’ll do it all on our own’ approach.
So you’ve got 5 acres within a 20-acre project? And that project is a limited company?
We formed a limited to behave like a developer. We put our planning application in, with the limited company like the developer. And it still holds the barn and the track. But the land has been separated now – we went to the land registry and separated the land.
Into how many parcels?
Four. Four five-acre plots.
And you’re all very friendly with each other? A close-knit community?
Er, no. But none of us set out with that in mind. And Sarah and I least of all. We were probably the most stand-offish. And we were wrong – it was a big mistake. I’d advise people to get these things sorted first. When I teach permaculture now, I say that any fool can build a straw-bale cabin. Any group of people can build some raised beds in an afternoon. The first year you start growing veg, if you’ve got a book and someone to help you, you’re going to be able to do your propagation. But it’s the human side of things that makes or breaks permaculture, or communities, or co-ops, or OPD. That’s the really tricky stuff. I can teach people how to build a raised bed or a straw-bale house, but I’m damned if I’ve got the recipe for doing all the human stuff that, in my opinion, has to underlie it, in order to make it work.
When I lived at Redfield Community, and people asked what was the best thing about living there, the common response was ‘the people’. And when people asked what the worst thing was, the answer was ‘the people’.
I’ve been rubbish at that all my adult life. And all my adult life I’ve called myself a socialist or a communist, but only in my late 40s did I begin to realise that we talk about society or community without ever questioning what they might mean, or how they might work, or whether we’re qualified to even start building those things.
So one of the notions here, with the four houses, is that more communal elements might develop as time passes – and I think that’s great. It’s just that it might require the passing of a broken generation. We might need to look to the next generation, who’ve been used to the idea of this place.
I thought you were an anarchist, by the way.
Yeah, I am. I had this discussion recently. There was a stupid online quiz – are you a communist? It was ‘state this, state that’ … everything owned by the state, and I thought that whoever put this quiz together needs to look at the history of the International Working Men’s movement and realise that there’s a whole other strand of communism, nothing to do with the state. I’m an anarchist communist.
Kropotkin rather than Marx?
In the style of Kropotkin, yes.
And you built a straw-bale house?
Yes. We’re in what will officially be the barn. This is another symptom of our financial situation. We put up the first affordable structure we could from the planning permission, and then we have to start the other buildings within 5 years of getting it. So we live in a straw-bale barn, very simple structure, 15 metres long by 6 metres wide. It’s got sheep’s wool insulation in the floor and the roof. Steel roof, larch board cladding from local larch. Reclaimed doors and windows.
One of the things about OPD (and this is in contrast with the traditional Low-impact Development movement, which Sarah and I came out of) is that a lot of people aren’t real self-builders. They get builders to do their ‘self-building’. For us, it was always about home-made, hand-made houses. So we put this shack up for under £20k. It’s not finished, and maybe never will be. So our home is of interest to lots of people who don’t have much cash. Whereas some other OPD projects have amazing houses, with price tags I’d shudder to have a guess at.
That’s a problem isn’t it? So if someone else wants to buy that smallholding, to become an organic smallholder, they’re going to have a huge price tag, because someone wanted to build a massive house.
I guess. I think maybe only one OPD holding has been sold so far. So obviously to be able to take on the planning permission, you also have to take on all of the commitments, so it’s a big price tag for a smallholder.
In the Ecological Land Co-op there were big discussions about the footprint of the house that plot holders could build. They don’t want the next generation of smallholders to have to stump up hundreds of thousands of pounds because somebody built a luxury home.
There’s also a situation where if you want to build a house, you have to conform with building regulations, and building regs puts up the price enormously. One of the situations we have in Wales, which I don’t think you have in England yet, is that all new builds have to have fire sprinklers. So that can add 10% to the price of a build. We didn’t have to do it though, because the barn that we’re in is the same size as a twin-unit caravan, and it has no permanent foundations. So if they questioned us, we’d say that this comes under the caravan act. I mean you’d need one of those old soviet helicopters to get it off the site, but in theory, it’s mobile. The Caravan Act has quite a lot of wiggle room, as to what actually is a caravan.
Just going off the OPD a bit, I know that you’ve got strong political opinions – looking at the state of the world today, if you had a magic wand – what would you do, within reason?
I’d begin by recreating communities, at a local, human scale. I don’t think that any political project that starts at the other end can succeed.
I think you’re absolutely right. When I go to see my family, who live in a working-class community, if I start talking about environmental destruction, it doesn’t really grab them, and if I talk about any kind of economic or social issues, it’s the same. But what does grab them is their community. Their High Street has been bulldozed to make way for a giant Tesco and car park – and they miss the old shops and the market. Now people just drive to the shopping centre and drive home again, and they don’t really see each other. The local pubs are closing down. They really crave community. It’s a way to grab people’s attention. It’s what we want to do with mutual credit. We want to use it as an exchange medium withing communities, for small businesses, rather than having large businesses sucking wealth out of communities.
This is the problem. Sufficient, small-scale communities are inimical to capitalism and the state. Because as soon as people live in communities that meet their own needs, they start to become units of resistance to large-scale outside organisations. I think it’s those face-to-face relationships that make genuine human life.
Yes, I had a conversation with a Corbynite Labour supporter – nice guy. He said that the state is the only way we can have this safety net for people in communities. I asked if he’d ever heard of friendly societies. There used to be a friendly society in every town. The state decided that they were going to provide the safety net, and then there was compulsory taxation to pay for it, and so friendly societies, with voluntary contributions, died.
It’s often forgotten that the trades union movement was opposed to national insurance. But I think your Corbynite might have missed something about Corbyn and McDonnell’s programme.
Yes, actually he knew that Labour supported the community wealth building idea, and he was really in favour of it.
So I’m working on a paper at the moment, with the title ‘Community by Design’, as a way of challenging people on the left, and in the trades union movement, and in organisations like the People’s Assembly, to think about what community might be. My premise is that any moments of success the left has had – revolutionary moments, you might call them, have actually arisen out of vibrant, healthy communities. It’s difficult to get people to pay attention to these things, but I’ll send you a draft of it when it’s ready.
Yes please – I’d be very interested to read that. So what do you think are the biggest barriers to community building, that we need to remove?
Wow. Where do I start? I’m not enormously optimistic, to be honest. I think that the tools are there. But the tools are being built in parallel, by a group that wouldn’t even consider itself to be political. We have tools like credit unions, community gardens, food co-ops, so many things that already exist.
Community energy, housing co-ops, community land trusts…
Absolutely. Plus OPD, the Ecological Land Co-op. And a million miles from that, we have a left-wing party with half a million members, who are all concerned about the next leader, and getting people out to vote in 2024, as if they could change the world by winning those arguments on the doorsteps, in the weeks before the next election. Two minute conversations with people who’ve had a day at work and don’t want to talk with you about how they’re going to vote next Thursday.
And when you look at community energy schemes, which are fantastic – communities generating their own energy – a lot of them are in rural villages where they’re Tories. The reasons they’re doing it is for energy independence, or they quite like the engineering involved, and also, surprise surprise, right-wing people like community as well. So I think the community argument is a winning argument, for all people.
Yeah. Murray Bookchin made this argument – that in the end, everyone will be drawn together by the ecological crisis.
You recommended this book to me (holds the Ecology of Freedom, by Murray Bookchin).
Did you enjoy it?
I did. It’s fantastic. I’d recommend it to anybody.
Ecology and community go hand in hand. I think you’re right. I was angry about Brexit, but I’ve said sorry to people, and let it go. It’s divisive, and the important thing is community. Even though, as I said, I don’t feel qualified to do it. I feel in a way, paralysed about it, and I’m not preaching to anyone, because I think it’s a very difficult recipe to put together.
But from any political position, who’s going to say they don’t like community? It’s vital for human mental health.
Absolutely. I’ve started to look at it in terms of meeting human needs, and especially Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and how communities can meet all those needs, from food up to self-realisation, as a way of fitting all that into the localist, permaculture, green, community-building agenda.
I’d love to talk more about that some time.
- With the OPD, we have to have a land-based business. We have to be working towards something that will cover council tax, communications, clothing, food we don’t grow ourselves – plus another couple of things. If you boil down your needs to the bare minimum, you have to cover that from a land-based business.
- it would be easier to envisage a healthy internal economy within OPD, when there are 10 times as many people doing it. Then it becomes easier, because things you might need, like onion sets, or fruit trees or livestock, then there will be an internal market – an opportunity to trade within OPD.
- I’d begin by recreating communities, at a local, human scale. I don’t think that any political project that starts at the other end can succeed. Sufficient, small-scale communities are inimical to capitalism and the state. Because as soon as people live in communities that meet their own needs, they start to become units of resistance to large-scale outside organisations. I think it’s those face-to-face relationships that make genuine human life.