Whilst I'm primarily talking about the UK planning systems, I hope the following may also be of use to those in other countries. If anyone would like to contribute knowledge of other planning systems I'd be very glad, please use the forum
The British Town and Country Planning Act was introduced in 1947 to control the development and use of land. Other countries have similar legislation. This means that when we want to use a piece of land to live on or provide self sufficiency and livelihood we should seek permission for both any building work and any change of use of the land (as well as mining, engineering and other operations).
Whilst this system protects our land from uncontrolled development it has also come to play a important role in our economy. Our economy now grows by giving loans and creating more money in the form of debt. Rising house prices coupled with increasingly tenuous mortgage lending provide a crucial contribution to the growth and therefore stability of our economy.
The value of houses is related not primarily to the cost of their construction but to the permission to use that land for residential use. A quarter acre of an agricultural field might here be worth £1000. As soon as permission is granted for change of use to a residential building plot it becomes worth £100,000. So that puts £99,000 extra onto our national balance sheet, which the new homeowner is expected to pay off. Paying off this mortgage may well take the owner their entire working life and severely restricts their scope to live a simple and sustainable life.
There are planning regulations that control permission for those in agricultural enterprises to build and live on their land. This is close to suiting the low impact dweller who wishes to live on their piece of land in a simple way and work with that piece of land. These regulations require proof that both the enterprise is viable and that there is a strict functional need to live on the site. In practice viability of the enterprise is interpreted on its bottom line profit, this does not account for either produce derived for self sufficiency or for the fact that a very modest income is sufficient to support a simple way of life. In addition the functional need test is wildly variable in its interpretation and does not allow for the fact that living elsewhere may be economically crippling. (The test is more often related to the need for 24 hour attention to lambing ewes, burning charcoal kilns, or even battery chicken farm air conditioning backup systems -true example!)
Contrary to popular belief, in Britain it is not illegal to carry out building works and changes of use without applying for planning permission before-hand. It is acceptable to instead make a retrospective application. Of course it is possible that this application could be refused. This is the approach favoured by Tesco supermarkets who rely on a mutually agreeable financial arrangement to ensure approval. It is also the approach that has most successfully been used by both low impact dwellers and many more conventional farmers although these people have generally had to rely on paperwork and logic to ensure eventual permission.
In addition our planning departments do not have a general remit to enforce against unpermitted development, only to process applications and follow up on complaints. This is an significant retention of liberty and common sense. If I get a piece of land and build a monstrous palace which I use as a base for having excessively loud parties. My neighbours will probably complain to the council who will demand a retrospective application which they'd refuse and then serve an enforcement order for me to demolish the building. On the other hand, if I build a modest and discreet house on a piece of land somewhere and all my neighbours have no problem with what I am doing, the need to make a planning application will not arise. In this case, after 10 years the building and change of use will be eligible for a certificate of lawful use, meaning a planning application is not needed. If there is not a change of use, lawful use is granted after 4 years.
Many low impact living projects have now be granted temporary or permanent permission through the retrospective applications usually followed by appeals. Such cases are arguable through agricultural technicalities as well as appeals to general ecological and social commitments.
Agenda 21 says: "Access to land resources is an essential component of sustainable low-impact lifestyles. Land resources are the basis for (human) living systems and provide soil, energy, water and the opportunity for all human activity." and commits us to the objective of providing for "the land requirements of human settlement development through environmentally sound physical planning and land use so as to ensure access to land to all households and, where appropriate, the encouragement of communally and collectively owned and managed land."
And in the words of the Landmatters Project's' appeal inspector: "Permaculture is now an internationally recognised means of sustainable agriculture and the subject of much academic study in recent years. Moreover, the direction of travel of emerging national policy towards ever more sustainable approaches to development and the need to address the problem of climate change is readily apparent...In such a context I find there to be considerable ecological, educational and cultural benefits in further exploring permaculture...from the development of and experimentation with sustainable technologies and agricultural practices which that way of life facilitates" and "in order to practice permaculture properly and successfully...a substantial and continuous residential presence is essential"
This increasingly well trodden route of development and retrospective application has been the generally advised route for low impact development and gave us our homes for 4 years with very little complication. We never came to having to argue an appeal and we were never forced to demolish our home. We were encouraged by the worst case scenario that house were enforced against immediately and subsequently demolished after the inevitable couple of years paperwork. Over this time period the cost and amount of work it takes to make a simple home is small compared to the cost of renting a conventional house, not to mention the quality of our experience over that period.
Low Impact Development Policies
Over the last two years, we have spent our time following a different approach. Since the introduction of a groundbreaking low impact development policy in Pembrokeshire (SW Wales) we have been involved with the Lammas Project trying to get prior permission for a 9 dwelling low impact settlement. Our hope is that in so doing we will set the precedent which then makes it an easy route without the uncertainty of the 'retrospective' approach.
The Low Impact Development Policy is a farsighted and one which could potentially unlock a groundbreaking positive change. Under it, someone working and living on their land in a sustainable way and deriving their livelihood from that land is allowed to do so on agricultural land. This effectively subsidises sustainable livelihoods which would otherwise be economically unviable in the current, unsustainable financial climate.
Pembrokeshire have not yet managed to conclude any of the applications made under the policy. Whilst ours has been a frustrating process, we are still hopeful for a good result soon. Friends of ours who made a retrospective application under the same policy are in a better situation. They applied for 2 years temporary permission and have been living on and working their land for the 18 months since they submitted their application!
Similar policies are currently in consultation phase for Wales nationally and England is also making moves in the same direction.
I would currently recommend development followed by a retrospective application as required, preferably in Pembrokeshire, as the best approach for individual or groups wishing start a new low impact living project. There are also a number of established projects about who are open to new members (see resources page). Chapter 7 are a campaign group and planning consultancy for low impact development. They are almost certainly the experts on low impact planning matters and have some excellent publications and online resources.