Postcard from Utopia - an exercise in "primitive living"

Gerrard Winstanley office at
Thu Jan 31 00:56:04 GMT 2008

Postcard from Utopia #2

One of the ironies of the utopia experiment is that preparations for
this exercise in "primitive living" have involved more administration
and red-tape than anything I've ever done before.

I've been taking advantage of the winter months to make some headway
with these less appetising aspects of the project, since the few hours
of daylight and the inclement weather conditions have severely reduced
the scope for outdoor work.

Of all the various administrative tasks, the two that have been taking
up most time are securing planning permission and drawing up the
schedule of visits for the volunteers. I first wrote to the local
planning office in August for some preliminary advice, and was shocked
by their reply.

It seemed we would need planning permission for the change of use of
the barn (as it will be used for accommodation), for the septic tank
and drainage system, the yurts, the shower and toilet facilities, and
for the wooden "meeting space" beside the river (which one of the
volunteers, Adam, has baptised "cafe utopia" – what a great name!). In
other words, we would need permission for virtually everything!

It took me several months to prepare all the documents for the full
application for planning permission, but eventually I got it all
together and posted off a big parcel to the planning office. Needless
to say, they replied to say that it wasn't enough, and asked for more
information. I've also got to talk to the Scottish Environmental
Protection Agency (SEPA) regarding a discharge consent for the
drainage system, as we want to discharge waste water, via the
reed-bed, to the river.

The other administrative task that's been causing me a few headaches
is drawing up the schedule of visits for volunteers to the utopia
experiment. I drew up a big table, with ten rows (one for each slots
at TUE) and lots of columns (one for each week). I then went through
all the applications that I had received so far (a total of 83) and
looked at the dates that people said they would be available.

I then put names into the relevant slots, trying all the time to
ensure that there would always be a good balance (equal numbers of men
and women, a good mix of ages and skills) and overlap (so there's
never a week in which everyone leaves at the same time). This was very
hard, and took a lot of time and thought, but with a lot of help I
finally produced a workable schedule for the first six months of TUE.

I then started sending out emails to the people I had booked in for
the first couple of months. I sent out twenty-two emails, and so far
have only got replies to eight of them. Of those eight replies, three
people accepted the dates I suggested for their visit, three said they
could not come on the dates I suggested and asked for different dates,
one person is still checking to see if they can come on the dates I
suggested, and one said he could no longer take part in the experiment.

It quickly dawned on me that the way I was approaching the matter of
scheduling visits by volunteers was not very efficient. For a lot of
volunteers, it's been a while since they sent in their applications
and they are no longer available on the dates they originally
suggested. Some did not even suggest particular dates at all. So I've
had a re-think, and a chat with Agric, another volunteer, and we've
decided to set up an online database for people to say when they are
available to come to TUE. I will check the availability database every
few days and, if there is space at the relevant dates, I will contact
those who have submitted their data to suggest an arrival and
departure date. I'm hoping that this will help make the scheduling
easier, but whether it really does or not remains to be seen.

Thankfully, dealing with all the administrative tasks hasn't
completely deprived me of all opportunity for the physical stuff
outdoors – a kind of work which I approach with more relish than ever
after all the red tape, no matter how cold it is, a kind of work that
William Morris aptly called "easy-hard work". I've been putting up
fences with my friends Mike and Rick to cordon off a new area for the
two sows, one of whom I suspect may be pregnant again.

As we bang in the fence posts, and stretch the wire, I exult in the
joy of physical effort. This is just so much more FUN than filling in
forms and drawing up schedules! This is what the utopia experiment is
really about.

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