This is the first part of an interview with Paul Jennings, who lives on a smallholding in Pembrokeshire with his family, and built his own straw-bale home under the One Planet Development policy that exists in Wales (but not in England), which allows people to build a home on their land, even if it is outside the development zone, if they can show that they will live with an ecological footprint of one planet or less.
Here are the main points raised in the conversation.
The One Planet Development policy
The OPD policy came into existence in 2012, under the devolved Welsh government. It gives people the chance to live in the open countryside where normally they wouldn’t get planning permission, as long as they can conform to quite a strict list of rules, about the nature of the development and how they live.
Anyone familiar with the permaculture or low-impact development worlds would be very familiar with the inspiration, the driving force behind elements of this policy. For example, the dwellings need to be carbon-neutral in their construction and use. You need to grow a high proportion of your own food, generate your own power, deal with your own waste, and not create extra demands on the local infrastructure. Plus you have to have a land-based business that meets the minimum of your financial needs.
The policy is intended to strengthen local, rural economies in Wales – it’s not about self-sufficiency.
They have to report annually on their progress towards meeting the policy requirements. That continues for 5 years. If those requirements are not met, they could potentially lose their planning permission. It’s like an old-fashioned agricultural tie.
Paul would absolutely not have been able to build his home and be a smallholder without the OPD.
The policy was inspired by a desire to bring back the kind of rural life and economy that is disappearing across Wales, and also to help people live more sustainably.
Many potential smallholders faced a problem – smallholdings with a farmhouse were too expensive, and it was not possible to get planning permission to build a house if there wasn’t one there already. Potentially, OPD is a way for people to be able to get into small-scale farming.
The number of working smallholdings in the UK has fallen dramatically over the last couple of generations. It’s very difficult to become a small farmer unless you have lots of money – for example if you sell a property in a major city (but people who have been living and working in a city are less likely to have the skills required).
The skills can be gained, but it’s a steep learning curve. Paul had worked in organic farming for several years before moving on to their smallholding, so he had relevant skills.
For a lot of people, OPD is an avenue for them to be able to do something they’ve wanted to do for a long time, but which seemed out of reach. In that sense, OPD could be seen as moving in the same direction as the Ecological Land Co-op, which operates across the UK (see our interview with Oli Rodker of the ELC here).
The OPD process was relatively easy for Paul and his family because they did it as part of a group. They were lucky to have some very knowledgeable and well-organised neighbours on the project who helped them through the process.
They’d been involved in a couple of planning applications – one in the UK and one in France, and they wouldn’t have done it again if not for the OPD policy and the collaboration with others.
Designing the project and the planning application itself were not difficult for Paul as he has a background in permaculture design. But it does put some people off – it’s quite daunting if you’re not used to putting together land-based or ecological building projects.
Apart from that, all the obstacles were political – dealings with the local council, with local opponents, with people who don’t understand the policy and who don’t want to engage with the policy – although he’s not saying that some of those objections weren’t valid.
Theirs was the first successful OPD application in Carmarthenshire. The planning committee turned them down at first, even though it was clear that their application fulfilled all the requirements under the policy. This was stressful and caused division and discomfort – living in a mobile home through two winters.
It was a drawn-out process. Although it’s a national Welsh policy, it still has to go through the lens of whichever local authority you want to live under – which is enormously variable.
There’s now quite a community of people who have been through the process. There’s a voluntary organisation called the One Planet Council (OPC), who are very helpful and have lists of resources. Virtually everyone who’s been through OPD is happy to reach out and help other people. There are open days, gatherings etc.
The OPC have also reached out to planning officers, who are not necessarily the biggest problem. They understand the policy better than local politicians or local residents. For planners, if you’re following the policy / rules, they tend to be fine.
Land is expensive. Although building your own home is cheaper than buying an existing home, you still have to find a lot of money. If the intention was ever to persuade working-class people to come out of Swansea and start smallholdings, it’s failed. Many people are in debt, and it’s very difficult to get a project off the ground when you’re trying to pay down debt.
Actually, the more people who try to get into smallholding, the more expensive land will become, so price is a major sticking point. Paul paid £8k per acre for their land in West Wales. They paid £40k for their 5-acre plot in a 20-acre development – plus legal fees. Then you have to build something to live in. It’s problematic – and much easier if you’re selling a property in the south of England, or have spent 20 years in a well-paid job. Then West Wales will seem cheap.
So it’s not meeting the social need for less well-off people to come back into the countryside to revive it. Paul perceives that the majority of people involved in OPD are English incomers. He thinks that’s problematic – culturally, in terms of language, and in terms of the intention of the policy, which wasn’t supposed to be for better-off incomers.
Paul went to university in Wales, and is learning Welsh, as are most incomers. But working-class Welsh young people are not coming forward. So as far as some are concerned, OPD is helping to erode traditional Welsh society. The policy is coming from a good place, but it’s operating in a capitalist market in land that makes it difficult to get traction in less well-off communities.
Getting people back onto the land
Paul’s not sure how many OPD projects / applications there are in Wales now, but he wouldn’t be surprised if it were more than 100, with probably dozens of projects under way. It’s only scratching the surface of the Welsh economy / sustainability / developing rural areas. It’s not impossible that OPD might become a historical curiosity like the land settlement projects after WW2. Eventually, unless things change, the relatively small pool of people who are interested in this kind of life, and who also have the money to be able to do it, will become exhausted.
Paul read Simon Fairlie’s book, Low-impact Development, in the 1990s, and his argument was that there should be another category of planning development that you might call permaculture – somewhere between business and residential. An ecological smallholding category. According to the Permaculture Association’s research a few years ago, there were hundreds of thousands of people who would like to move back into the countryside in this way.
But the problem is with the market in land. From a design point of view, OPDs would be best situated around towns where their produce would be consumed. There could be peri-urban permacultural zones around towns, or even penetrating into cities, so that there’s less of a divide between rural and urban areas. But the problem is that land becomes more expensive the closer you get to urban areas, because of speculation in the land market.
So there’s a fundamental lack of ‘joined-up thinking’.
Lots of people would like to give smallholding a go, if they thought there was the possibility of doing it. There was a 19th century principle that a combination of working with hands and with head leads to a happy life. With more smallholders, the countryside would change too. Having smaller landholdings would mean more interesting and resilient rural communities.
OPD is a beginning of a move in the right direction. But the most impressive OPDs have been developed by people with more money than most of us in the UK have access to.
Only farms over 8 hectares can get government subsidies or grants, which also makes things more difficult for smallholders. It’s also a problem for community-supported agriculture, as almost all of their produce comes from holdings under 8 hectares.
One criticism of OPDs is that ‘they’re not making a living’ – but virtually no rural enterprises make a living without subsidies.
- The One Planet Development policy allows people to build a home on their smallholding in the open countryside as long as they can show that they will live with a one-planet footprint or less.
- The policy has worked better for people with money. The problem is the market in land, especially speculation on land prices near to towns – the best place for smallholdings to be located, so that they can provide produce to urban areas.
- Most smallholdings are smaller than 8 hectares, but government subsidies and grants only kick in for holdings over 8 hectares. This needs to change if we’re going to encourage more smallholdings.