Tony Wrench (www.thatroundhouse.info) is an inspirational character who has built many roundhouses including his home pictured here, which has been at the centre of a decade long planning dispute which is still not resolved. In 1992 he wrote this excellent essay proposing a new catagory of land use in planning law as permaculture land, to allow this kind of living. 15 years later through the efforts of Tony and others such a policy is in place in Pembrokeshire, Wales and in consultation throughout the UK.
It is my contention here that we could make some small adjustments to planning law which would have beneficial consequences in several problem areas, and would enable significant progress towards a sustainable society. I am deeply concerned about the way our society is relating to the earth, and am continually baffled by the obstacles that prevent me simply doing what my grandfather did - build a wooden house in the countryside.
Planning has achieved some successes, particularly in the field of controlling the worst visual excesses of a growth-geared free market, but it is fighting a losing battle. For many reasons - historical, political, economicand ecological - it just isn't working, because the UK government has not yet realised that its policies are incompatible with the needs of the environment. We are breaking the oldest rule in the book - our way of life is not sustainable. Some of the symptoms are:
We have a trade deficit on food with the rest of the world of £5 billion per
year, and rising; this is in a country that prides itself on its agricultural
productivity and practices. Our ancestors ate what they grew or what they could
find and catch in nature around them. No longer. We now depend on other
countries to grow much of our food for us. In a world where so many are starving
this is a risky, not to say selfish, business. With the authorities asking them
to be guardians of the countryside but stacking the advantages in favour of
agri-business, small farmers are in a difficult position and are the most
suicide-prone of all occupations.
Meanwhile, pesticide residues mount in the soil and nitrates permeate our drinking water. The demand in organics cannot be met by our own system.
Overemphasis on 'jobs'
The economy is still geared to fear of unemployment. The holistic
alternatives to a job-based economy have yet to be even countenanced by the
establishment. (This myopia is not limited to Britain, of course. At present the
main priority of planning in all the major economic powers in the world is to
find solutions to unemployment.)
Planners pretend that in twenty years' time our society will still be in the same state as their elders insisted it was when they took their diplomas. They should be looking forward to a society in which people are engaged in real work of their own choice, and this only happens when people have access to land, if they need it. The threat to our whole way of life posed by dramatic climate changes and sea level rise has so far been totally ignored by planners.
Our notion of the countryside is largely an illusion. Monoculture and techno-fixes are still turning what was once mainly forest into desert. Before the Industrial Revolution, and when the national population was much lower than it is now, this was a slow but steady degradation, but it was at least organic, and reversible. Now it is a breakneck slide of soil loss, erosion, drought and sinking water tables exacerbated by the onset of global warming. Clever as we are, we are still going down the deforested road of all the previous failed civilisations on this planet. Areas of natural beauty, wetlands, peat bogs and hedgerows are still being lost. Habitats are threatened every day by agri-business, roads, supermarkets and housing developments. Wildlife is being beaten back by economic double-speak. Road plans still threaten SSSI's, ancient monuments and countless beauty spots. The main reason these areas are chosen for this desecration is because it looks cheaper in a paper cost-benefit analysis to drive a road through an area of outstanding natural value and beauty than anywhere else - they have not been given a financial value that equals their environmental value.
What is 'countryside' anyway? Many of our assumptions about what countryside
should look like come from the tastes of our ancestral nobility for pretty
parkland where they could hunt. Many large country estates owned by Dukes,
Earls, Lords and other descendants of the great Norman land carve-up still look
like this. Where land is not controlled by a toff in a country house, the
traditional countryside look can be maintained by careful fencing and livestock
control, or by ploughing regularly with unsustainable energy inputs. However, it
is instructive to imagine your familiar rural landscape from the point of view
of what Nature would tend to do to it after a couple of hundred years, say, of
neglect by the agricultural machine. In most cases in Britain it would return to
What we have now, then, is Earth with the mange. A few trees clinging on in rows where the humans have decided on some whim to leave them there. Great bald patches covering the land as far as the eye can see, producing mountains of food that often needs to be subsidised to be sold. Over every hill, more baldness, more mange, more topsoil being lost each year. We are not allowed to live in this diseased waste for fear of 'spoiling the countryside'!
Homelessness and social deprivation
100,000 thousand families are homeless or in 'temporary accommodation'. This is twice the number of twelve years ago, despite all the economic progress governments claim to have made. Millions are living out a half-life in decaying inner cities, and millions more are trapped in estates on the edges of the towns and cities of Britain, many without hope of anything worthwhile to do; without land on which to grow food; without space for their families to grow up nearby; and without contact with nature or their natural heritage. They live in rectangular boxes designed by another class for another generation, planned by public officials they have never met. The TV programmes that are watched for 5 hours a day on average (what else is there to do?), videos and films, all offer largely some form of escapism. This 'underclass' is so numerous that controlling it is now the government's greatest worry. Thousands are criminalised and packed into our antiquated prisons. Only Turkey, of the European states, exceeds Britain's rates of prison population, which has risen from 40,000 to over 74,000 in the last twelve years. Most of the 'underclass', however, stay where they are, needing more and more billions of DSS and 'Law 'n' Order' budgets to be spent containing them in the deteriorating homes they already have. Why the big fuss about asylum seekers? Because the way of life of the poorest 20% of the population already here is so lousy that there is simply no more space within the system to allow more poor people in.
Experts in crisis
In our reductionist society, where every expert has their own specialised letters after their name, it is easy for us to use words to make all the above problems look separate, containable and handleable. Even within one organisation it is possible to palm off a problem on another department. "No mate this is the Housing Department. You want the Sustainable Development unit on the fourth floor". The continuation of such avoidance will, however, lead to crisis and the collapse of our society - for the syndrome we face is uncontainable and unsustainable, economically, socially and environmentally. Somehow we have given away our power to a system that rewards the right hand at the expense of the left. Our decision-makers are clever but not wise. The spiritual essence of what it is to be human, as one species among many on this earth, has been forgotten by our leaders. This is a terrible realisation to come to - it means that the deal whereby they pretend to 'deliver' appropriate things for us is a fallacy - it never worked. It's up to us, you and me, to get us out of this mess. We must take this as an opportunity for empowerment, as we are urged to by Agenda 21.
The way forward
Somehow, as dozens of green writers have already pointed out, we need new policies that conserve nature while encouraging people to choose and build their own homes. We need to reverse the flow of people from the land to the cities, and to give people something worthwhile to do. We must grow more of our own food, organically, and reduce dependence on fossil fuels and techno-fixes. Will there be humans living here in a thousand years? Birds, trees, hedgehogs,apples too? If so, we have to move fast now.
Why the relatively young discipline of permaculture offers so much hope in this context is because it integrates care of the earth with care of people and an awareness of natural limits. It takes account of the effect of a settlement on the community around it, and of the needs of wildlife at all times and levels. If, therefore, people can be educated in the principles of permaculture design before they develop a site, and if it is a requirement that certain agreements be kept during its development, we would be certain to see biodiversity increase along with human settlement - the opposite trend to normal housing development. We could also expect to see no net increase in demand on the common utilities. It is perfectly possible to build new eco-homes nowadays that require no mains electricity - especially if these homes are in clusters that can take advantage of joint biomass composting or community heat and power schemes, and are well located for wind, water or solar power. We could even plan for a net exporting of electricity from renewable sources, thereby generating a profit. Composting of human waste would be the norm, as would systems for irrigating gardens with grey water, so no sewage connections would be required. Permaculture is very strong on rainwater harvesting and the efficient use of water. If a settlement was sited near a spring, river or stream, or was in an area of generous rainfall such as here in West Wales, no extra demands would need to be made on the water mains. Local, second-hand and recycled materials can be used in building.
The knowledge now exists for new settlements to be designed along permaculture lines in which people would feel fulfilled; find a new sense of purpose; develop new skills; design and build energy efficient natural homes; and grow and eat good organic food. They would be working and living as equals within walking distance of dozens of others of like mind, in a safe and healthy child-friendly environment that they themselves help to form. These settlements would also provide habitats for a greater variety of plants and animals than was there before - both wild and domesticated - whether the site was a quarry, an airstrip, a piece of city waste land or a farm. Eco-villages are much more self-sufficient than ordinary towns and villages - they are therefore much more likely to offer their residents survival and continued good quality of life in the case of total breakdown in society.
How likely is this doom scenario?
At the Exeter conference called by the
UK government to discuss the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC in March, 2005,
there was the most pessimistic assessment yet of global warming causing collapse
of the Gulf Stream which perversely would bring a new ice age to Europe. A group
of American scientists calculated that in the absence of major action to control
emissions, the chance of this happening was now greater than 50 per
There was also an assessment that the ice-sheet covering Greenland may start to melt - which would cause global sea levels to rise by 20 feet - with a temperature rise of only 1.5 degrees C. above pre-industrial levels. We are already 0.7 above pre-industrial levels; we are well on the way. So will we succeed in making the 60-70% cuts in CO2 emissions required to avoid catastrophe? The conference chairman, Dennis Tirpak, head of the climate change programme of the OECD, reminded delegates that the 2004 World Energy Outlook of the International Energy Agency calculates that in the next 25 years global emissions of CO2 are likely to increase by 62 per cent, mainly from the developing world, as the Chinese and the Indians rush to build coal-fired power stations to service their exploding economies. The necessary cuts are a fantasy. (Source: Michael McCarthy, environment editor of the Independent, in an article in the Tablet).
Are we going to sit back and watch these scenarios unfold while we complain about our elected representatives not 'delivering sustainability'? Or are we going to build something positive to rise to the challenge?
Some people question whether there is a demand for ecovillages based on permaculture -whether there any people who would actually leave the safety of their present life, however dire it is, for the challenge of a simpler way but in harmony with the earth. I assure you, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, who would start tomorrow. There are now plenty of gaps in the Planning regulations that have been bulldozed by supermarkets and various Ministries. What we need are some gaps for ordinary, creative, positive people to come through as well, doing some healing to our ailing countryside as they do so. My proposal here to you is that we could make a small change in Planning law that could set in motion a great tide of change for the better.
Imagine a new category of land use - Permaculture Land (Pc Land). This is
land used for permaculture - sustainable self-reliant agriculture and
horticulture in which work, house building, leisure, growing food, rearing
animals, education, renewable energy, recycling and nature conservation are
integrated in an infinite number of ways. The essence of Pc Land would be that
there is a contractual relationship between the owner and the local/national
authorities. This states, basically:
'I will buy and live on just this piece of land.
I will not buy several plots and speculate.
I will not let it out.
I will conserve energy and nature in line with a permaculture design.
I will plant over 20 trees per acre.
I will co-operate with my neighbours over transport, infrastructure, power generation, waste disposal, water harvesting and supply, and common land.
In return for the freedom to build my own house in the style I choose I will do without additional connections to mains water, electricity, sewerage or road systems.'
Planning authorities would be given the power to designate any area Pc Land, whether it was previously industrial, agricultural, military or even residential land. Conditions would be put on the number of dwellings per acre (maybe a maximum of two), roads and vehicles, and a height limit of structures appropriate to the site - say 10 metres. Authorities would be encouraged to designate areas of several square miles, or large zones of Pc Land. These could be areas currently suffering the effects of monoculture, depopulation, inadequate housing or chronic unemployment. Disused military bases could be designated Pc Land. Any farmer or landholder could apply to change from agricultural land to Pc Land, and there would be a presumption in favour of acceptance.
The consequences of this small change to planning law would of course be enormous, and I invite you to use your imagination with me. We might envision this scenario [and please bear in mind the global warming scenarios that will be unfolding in parallel]:
Government, in conjunction with the Town and Country Planning Institute, designates the first 20 trial areas. Farmers elsewhere apply in their hundreds for designation, and succeed. Their land sells at £10,000 per acre, as against about £2,000 now. Pioneer communities set up throughout Britain. Stroud sprouts Sustainable Villages. There is an explosion of building work in rural areas, and thus a marked expansion in allied industries. [Peak Oil is acknowledged - crude oil hits $60 a barrel]
Pc Land prices stabilise at £5,000 per acre. First legal trial cases against land speculation and breach of Pc Land contracts are decided in the local authorities' favour. A surge in Land Trusts emerges. These trusts hold the common land and freehold of ecovillage sites. A massive re-afforestation programme is happening, as Pc landholders take advantage of already existing woodland planting and hedgerow creation grants. There is a boom in renewable energy, alternative technology, landscaping and permaculture design. Photovoltaic prices drop markedly. Homeless figures drop, as do housing waiting lists. The first self-build community schools are established. [Gulf Stream slowing - official]
House prices in suburbia fall. Inner cities become significantly greener as authorities increasingly designate inner city zones of Pc Land. The Government offers a Basic Income of £40 per week to all Pc Land dwellers, with a consequent fall in jobless totals and DSS budget. Fruit imports drop for the first time ever. Local markets and LETS systems blossom. Wales becomes a net exporter of electricity, from renewable sources. [Greenland Ice Sheet melting fast - Holland draws up emergency evacuation plans - oil hits $100 a barrel - western economies in crisis]
National demand for electricity stabilises. All nuclear power stations are closed, starting with those at pre-2000 sea level. A new tourist industry in Pc areas develops. Pc Land principle adopted in all EU countries. A crash programme of demolishing old unsustainable housing and rebuilding as ecovillages is started. [Western Ice Sheet of Antartica starts to move - Holland, Bangladesh, London, Cardiff, all oil terminals in the world, etc flooded. Gulf Stream stops, the penny drops].
The consequences of a Pc Land reform would, you can see, be revolutionary. [Make up your own scenarios - these are simply a few events that I think look likely from here]. Enthusiastic implementation would result in a burgeoning of creative talent as millions of people had access to land, with a great mushrooming of diversity of habitats both for wildlife and for humans. In some respects we can see that it would be but a logical extension of present government policies towards more land ownership, individual responsibility and deregulation in many areas of life. It would certainly have a short term effect of creating some windfall riches for present land-owners - maybe a windfall tax would be in order, thereby creating a win-win situation for people and the government.
In other respects this proposal can be seen as subversive, as being a step
towards the restoration of a yeomanry of free landowning citizens, organising
themselves as they will, consuming less of the products of big business, and
being less dependent on the state for livelihood, work, food or
People with a vested interest in the paternalistic power structure will find it very hard to let go of the reins over even a small proportion of the land. They would probably oppose the visible eroding of the bottom rungs of the 'housing ladder' - this is, I suspect, one reason for the almost irrational urge by a small handful of bureaucrats to have our Roundhouse wiped off the map.
We only need remind ourselves of the surge in global warming, and the fact that the British eco-footprint is over three times the size of Britain (!), however, to realise that totally new and radical changes are necessary for our civilisation merely to survive.
So I urge you to take this proposal as far as you can.
Tony Wrench. 1992. Modified April 2005.