Interview with Tony Wrench in today's Guardian

marksimonbrown mark at
Thu Sep 25 09:46:12 BST 2008

Another article about Tony Wrench's planning victory.  
To recap here are the articles that went out on the diggers
list already :

Please post, if you find anymore.

Round the houses
After a 10-year battle, a low-impact housing scheme in Wales finally
won retrospective approval last week. Patrick Barkham looks at what
this decision will mean for the future of green building projects

by Patrick Barkham
The Guardian,
Thursday September 25 2008

A special bottle of sweet raspberry wine was cracked open in
celebration and then it was back to work for Tony Wrench: the creator
of the unique roundhouse finally granted planning permission in Wales
had some blackberries to pick. Last week saw a flurry of headlines
about the surprising reprieve for Wrench's "hobbit home". Now, those
who argue that similar low-impact developments may be the only
sustainable eco-towns of the future hope that the decision could
change our archaic planning rules for ever.

Enjoying the late summer sunshine in the long meadow surrounding the
satisfyingly squat, wooden and grass-roofed home he built himself -
and spent a decade defending from demolition - Wrench is more
circumspect. Britain has the lowest proportion of self-built homes in
the EU - less than 10% compared with upwards of 40% on the continent.
Its planning system makes virtually no provision for cheap, low-carbon
homes like Wrench's, which almost completely blend into the
countryside. Low-impact developments are treated like "a disease" by
planners, he says.

After a long struggle with the authorities, Wrench got retrospective
approval for his home, tucked away in a valley in south-west Wales,
via an unusual planning policy experiment in Pembrokeshire. County
council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park planners agreed to allow
for low-impact developments on rural land where normal houses would
not be considered, as long as they met stringent environmental,
economic and social criteria.

Without this planning guidance, known as Policy 52, Wrench would never
have been allowed to keep his roundhouse. He hopes his victory will
inspire the burgeoning Transition Town movement - where communities
from Totnes to Tring are seeking to drastically reduce carbon
emissions and find alternatives to oil consumption - to petition their
councils for a similar policy. But even if campaigners got their own
versions of Policy 52, they may still find it almost impossible to
build a low-impact home.

While Wrench celebrates, another low-impact proposal was refused
planning permission earlier this month under exactly the same rules in
Pembrokeshire. Lammas, an eco-village of nine carbon neutral homes and
smallholdings on 76 acres of mixed pasture and woodland was hailed as
"inspiring" by a member of the Design Commission for Wales. The
brainchild of carpenter Paul Wimbush, the proposals were meticulously
costed and showed how residents would not need electricity or water
from the grid, but would pay their taxes, run educational courses and
make a positive contribution to mainstream society.

Despite this, Lammas was rejected on technical grounds that included a
conventional agricultural assessment suggesting the community could
not meet 75% of its basic needs from the land, as Policy 52 demands.
Wimbush believes the decision was "sloppy" and will appeal to the
Welsh Assembly with an appeal decision due next spring. "Lammas is
being watched by a lot of people," he says. "If Lammas can't get
through, many think it's not worth trying."

The problem, say advocates of low-impact living, is that planning
rules do not allow ordinary people with conventional jobs to choose a
low-impact home with land that enables them to produce more of their
own food. So far, almost all low-impact housing has gained planning
permission retrospectively, and on appeal, after long confrontations.
In other words, low-impact housing has been all about hippies and
direct action. "Until a project can be recognised under normal
planning avenues, low-impact homes will remain the preserve of
activists," says Wimbush. "Doing it our way round it would enable
people to raise mortgages. By thinking long-term and investing savings
in a project, you are going to get very different standards of
housing, businesses and farms than you get when people are effectively
taking direct action to create their low-impact homes."

Simon Fairlie, the editor of the Land magazine, who has inspired much
of the low-impact movement in Britain, agrees that the planning system
does not allow ordinary people to take up low-impact homes. "There is
a huge desire from people who want to downsize, who want a connection
with the land, who also need affordable housing and are capable of
building their own home at no cost to the taxpayer," he says. "It's
daft that the planning system isn't beginning to think about providing
for these people."

Wrench believes that Policy 52's criteria - that low-impact proposals
must prove a positive social, economic and environmental benefit and
get 75% of their basic needs from the land - are far too tough. "Are
people in the government's eco-towns going to be required to grow
their own crops?" he says. The policy, argues Wrench, is a
straitjacket, which ensures that low-impact homes are confined to an
eccentric minority willing to drop out of wage-earning jobs. The "75%
of basic needs" demand means that applicants will have to work their
smallholding all the time and won't have time for a conventional job.
"When you try to get 75% of your basic needs from the land, you can't
do anything else," says Wrench.

A couple of other councils in Britain have a version of Policy 52, but
the criteria tends to be too tough to permit any low-impact
developments. Apart from the ray of sunshine provided by Wrench's
victory, those who believe low-impact housing could be a solution to
the lack of affordable homes as well as the crisis of the carbon
economy see more hope in Wales. The Welsh Assembly currently has a
consultation open on planning guidance for low-impact homes.
Campaigners hope the outcome could be a demand for all Welsh councils
to offer provisions similar to Policy 52.

Wrench is confident that, slowly but surely, other towns across
Britain will successfully lobby for their own versions of the policy.
But it seems too much to hope for encouragement from central
government. "Labour has a fixation with 'delivery'. To say the
government can 'deliver' sustainability for people is absolute
nonsense. All the government has to do is not get in the way of people
who want to live sustainably," says Wrench. "The planning system is
still terribly slow. Suppose there are a million of us living like
this when the oil runs out. There will still be 59 million wanting our
vegetables and there won't be enough smallholdings to feed our nation".

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