Reg, the enforcement officer, came back to see us this week. He’s a fair-minded sort of chap and is waiting for us to put in our planning application before – and if – he does any enforcing. But one thing he said really took me by surprise, which was that we will have to probably work harder and jump through more hoops because what we are planning is so different from the norm.
I thought about this some more after he had gone and felt vague stirrings of outrage. In fact, I am beginning to view our project through much more of a political lens than I had anticipated.
Initially, the driving force behind what we are trying to achieve seemed pretty simple. We wanted to build a business in the countryside – one that would not only sustain us and provide a living, but which would also be our whole way of life. Sort of Tom and Barbara Good go to business school. Yes, we wanted to be pretty much self sufficient in food, but we also wanted to marry this with some sound business principles too.
As we developed our plan, we became increasingly earnest about the environmental legitimacy of what we were doing. We wanted to prove that you can make money out of the land in a way that enhanced rather than depleted it. That you could take a small space and work it very hard, but in such a manner that it was better off – more fertile, more diverse, and a richer habitat. This was why we came to permaculture, because it provided a way for us to cater for all the elements – ourselves included – that would be part of the land.
So far, so all very environmentally aware. But now I am beginning to feel my inner peasant uprising. If you want an interesting exercise, obtain a copy of Who Owns Britain. After you’ve got over the surprise of how much of the country is owned by the Church of England, leaf idly through the section that lists the biggest landowners by country. What is particularly striking is that over the centuries the book covers, little has changed. We find that the direct descendants of lords who owned 13,500 acres in 1750 own very much the same today.
Much of the countryside is still owned by wealthy landowners who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping it for themselves. Much of this goes back to the enclosures acts, which continued for nearly 700 years from the time of the Norman conquests until the 19th century. These effectively removed the land from commoners and small landowners and transferred it to large wealthy manors. The displaced peasants had little choice but to work for the lord of the manor and later, as the industrial revolution took off, were forced to find employment in towns as machinery took the labour out of agriculture.
This – and the rise of the motor car – left the door open for the creeping gentrification of the countryside – and with it the price of houses and the cost of land.
So, the long and the short of it is that if you want to live in the countryside, you need to be comfortably off. And if you want to start a land-based business even more so – for a ready-built house with a bit of land, you won’t get much change out of £500,000 in Devon – which doesn’t leave a lot of room for skills-rich, cash-strapped innovators – like us.
Which is why we have gone about things in a less orthodox fashion. This is not done lightly – giving up a comfortable house to live in the middle of a field in a caravan with the worry of eviction if you don’t succeed is not conducive to an untroubled night’s sleep. Years of hard work and costly mistakes lie ahead of us, during which we will have ploughed many hours of time and a considerable sum of money as we go along. If in the end, we obtain planning permission for a low impact, sustainable dwelling – well, it will have hardly been presented on a plate.
Thus we come back to those extra hoops we may have to jump through to justify our existence to the planners. We are lucky that we have planning laws that offer some flexibility to people like us and give us a chance to prove ourselves – and we most certainly need safeguards against rogue developers – but true innovation in the countryside needs to be encouraged, not slapped down and seen as some sort of threat to a rural idyll, that has largely been manufactured in the last 100 years. After all, it is through change and experimentation that the human race survived – someone once decided in a mad moment to cook something in oil on the fire to see if it improved its flavour – and thousands of years later, someone else took a punt on growing those new-fangled things called potatoes.
And what would life be without chips?