I doubt I'm the only person who dreams of owning a piece of land (preferably with friends) on which to build affordable eco-houses and grow food and fuel. This is difficult in the UK due to the vast disparity between the price of agricultural land (4,000-10,000/acre) and land with planning permission (200,000+/acre). Whilst politicians continue to trot out the usual rhetoric: 'sustainable development/lifestyles/communities, zero carbon housing, blah, blah, blah', what, if anything, has actually changed on the ground to make land accessible to Permaculturists and/or Transitioners of modest means and self-sufficient dreams?
Should I Take The Risky Road?
You may have heard tales of people in the UK who have 'succeeded' in creating their dream communities by buying land, moving onto it without planning permission, living in teepees, benders, yurts, caravan/cabin hybrids or whatever, spending years battling with their local planning officials, and finally winning retrospective planning permission. Permission, however, often comes with less well-known conditions attached e.g. Ben Law's planning permission for his house is a silvicultural tie, i.e. it applies to running a wood-land business and charcoal burning on the land and has a personal tie to Ben Law himself.
The Ten Year & Four Year Rules
There are rules, which apply UK wide, state that if you live in a caravan for 10 years or a building for four years, unnoticed by the powers that be, the dwelling becomes 'lawful' and you can apply for a 'certificate of lawfulness'. Clearly this means you need tolerant neighbours and that you will spend four to 10 years living with insecurity. Should someone complain about your dwelling, even at the 11th hour, you can be served an enforcement notice and rendered homeless. None-the-less, there are undoubtedly people up and down the UK pursuing this strategy, hidden away in bits of wood-land; mostly, I suspect, single people or couples. It would be harder to conceal a community for years...
Safer Routes: The DIY Farm/Smallholding
Another tactic open to single house-holds is to buy a suitable piece of agricultural land and submit an 'agricultural prior notice consent form' to the local planning office detailing the agricultural building you intend to build on your land. This is 'permitted development' on agricultural land and hence doesn't need planning permission. You should receive consent within 28 days and are then entitled to commence building.
You can then legally site a temporary mobile home on the land to live in whilst you build your barn (and set up your business). Your temporary accommodation can remain in place for five years (presumably as long as you are still building your barn) during which time you need to develop your business to generate as much income as possible.
At the end of five years you apply for planning permission to build a house. You must prove that you need to live on-site in order to run your business, e.g. caring for livestock that breed all year round, and that your business generates sufficient income to support you.
Additional Opportunities: Scotland
The crofting counties of Scotland have a long tradition of smallholding known as crofting. Although crofts for rent are very hard to find and crofts for sale are now as absurdly priced as other housing land, the Scottish Parliament recently made it possible to create new crofts. It is now possible to buy land and apply to the Crofter's Commission to have it crofted; the main benefit being that planning permission is generally granted for one house on a working croft.
Since this legislation is relatively new it's not clear how it will work in practice, and since the Crofter's Commission has to consult the relevant planning office it is still possible for planning permission to be refused, so plans should be discussed with the local planning office before buying land.
One advantage for prospective perma-communities is that a legal body such as a housing co-operative could be formed to purchase the land and apply to create a number of new crofts which could then be leased to members of the co-operative. It is common for crofters in a crofting 'township' (a group of crofts) to own/lease 'land in common' which is managed by a 'Grazings Committee'. Grants are available for crofters and Grazings Committees towards the cost of fencing, agricultural buildings and (for crofters) a house.
The National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS) & Woodland Crofts
This scheme allows communities in Scotland to apply to buy land owned by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) that falls within their designated boundary, even if the land is not for sale. Of interest to potential perma-communities is that the scheme also applies to 'communities of interest' (i.e. groups of people who aren't necessarily resident in the same area), which a group of permaculturists could surely describe themselves as. In combination with the legislation that allows the creation of new crofts, this scheme recognises and promotes the opportunity to create new woodland crofts.
Whilst you may not be attracted by the idea of purchasing a typical Sitka plantation, Sitka timber is good for both building and fuel. Once felled, the land can be replanted with other suitable timber crops. FCS is promoting the concept of woodland crofts which pre-suppose planning permission for one house/croft and the potential to build a house using your own timber. (Consult the planners first!)
In 1994 West Lothian District Council instigated a policy called 'lowland crofting' to encourage regeneration and repopulation of a specified rural area west of Edinburgh.
The policy allows small farmers with holdings of 100 acres minimum to boost their income by creating 'crofts' on their land. These 'lowland crofts' are not subject to crofting law and are primarily aimed at the 'hobby farmer' or horse enthusiast. Farmers have to submit a plan for the whole farm which includes planting broad-leaved woodland, preserving and enhancing biodiversity and creating footpaths, as well as providing the infrastructure for the new houses. If granted planning permission (not guaranteed) 'croft' plots can then be sold on the open market or fully developed with housing and then sold.
Whilst not specifically aimed at intentional communities, the policy does suggest that farmers seek suitable 'development agents' who might include 'groups of interested individuals, operating as a consortium or perhaps as a formal co-operative'. Perhaps a group of perma-people could purchase a small farm and use the scheme to develop it along the lines they would likely want to go anyway.
Thanks to prolonged lobbying by 'The Land is Ours', now known as Chapter 7, in Wales the development of 'Low Impact Dwellings' in the open countryside is legal. Adopted by Pembrokeshire National Park Authority in May 2006 and by Pembrokeshire Council in June 2006, Policy 52 '...provides a context for permitting development in the countryside as an exception to normal planning policy...' This is the policy under which the Lammas group finally achieved planning permission and is developing their site.
A highly detailed management plan must be submitted to the planners and an Annual Monitoring Report recording the progress made towards achieving the targets set out in the plan. The policy has eight criteria which must be met by prospective developments.
Wales: One Planet Development
In July 2010 the Welsh Assembly Government issued planning guidelines entitled 'Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities'. These include 'One Planet Development' (OPD) which addresses the Welsh objective of using 'only its fair share of the earth's resources' within a generation i.e. reducing the ecological footprint of each Welsh citizen from 4.41 to 1.88 global hectares/person.
The guidance states that 'Low Impact Developments' may be located within or adjacent to existing settlements or in the open countryside. Whilst a lot shorter than the Policy 52 guidance, there are many similarities and it is safe to assume that most of the same tests apply.
Unfortunately for those of you in England, I know of no new policies that might improve your chances. Suggestions for using existing policies are well covered in Chapter 7's excellent DIY Planning Handbook. However, the coalition government is in the process of redrafting all planning policies closely following the blueprint in the Tory Green Paper 'Open Source Planning'. The measures outlined for the most part don't look very supportive, and may threaten even the four and 10 year rules.
I have no additional information about Ireland.
For groups feeling a sense of urgency the only tried and tested, legal path to buying an affordable piece of land to live on appears to be that trod by Lammas under Policy 52. Whilst the demands feel a little excessive, the policy does detail exactly what is required and as long as you meet the stringent conditions planning permission should be guaranteed, even if you have to go to appeal first. Likewise the OPD policy could be used anywhere in Wales.
In the crofting counties of Scotland there are options for groups willing to test the waters. Whilst the legal mechanism is in place to create new crofts/woodland crofts this has not necessarily penetrated local planning office resistance to 'development in the open countryside'. Also taking on crofter status entails buying into a highly complex system of legislation; not for nothing did some bright spark define a croft as 'a piece of land surrounded by legislation'. Nonetheless the situation still looks less bleak than for self-sufficient dreamers in England.
Chrissie has been a permaculture enthusiast since attending a course in 1990. She lives with her partner in a small community on the West Coast of Scotland where she enjoys experimenting with a compost heating system, breeding worms and watching her veg-verge grow.
She has spent several years researching affordable housing options and has written a book called, Grounds for Hope Ways to Live Legally on Cheap Land in the UK, available as an ebook in iPad and Kindle formats.
N.B. Agricultural Permitted Development Rights are only applicable on 5 hectares or more - see http://adlib.everysite.co.uk/resources/000/264/299/annexepps7.pdf