Sunday, January 27, 2013

The village that took on the planning system - and won

Director Helen Iles
Director Helen Iles at the premier of Living In the Future.

Last week, a remarkable film sold out in all theatres in which it premiered, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket.

It tells the story of a five-year battle by ordinary people fed up with not having access to housing that they could afford, who wanted to build affordable, ecologically-sound housing for themselves on land which they owned.

The story began when nine families occupying 35 acres of land in South Wales innocently submitted boxes of detailed architectural designs and plans to their local council, seeking approval, which was initially met with hostility. The leader of the council is filmed saying: "Not now, not ever. Never!" as he rejected their application.

Their battle eventually succeeded, and resulted not only in a change in planning policy in that council, which has been adopted throughout Wales, thanks to the support of Wales' former Environment Minister, Jane Davidson, but a campaign to change the Building Regulations themselves, which, at present, are totally unfit for the purpose of enabling this type of architecture.

The film is Living In The Future. After the screening I talked to the director, Helen Iles, who has spent several years following, and filming, the development of this project.

The organisation involved, Lammas, set up an eco-village, Tir y Gafel, and are using it as a pioneering project to inspire others to do the same throughout the country.

It contains the first buildings in the country that are of ‘low impact’ and built with planning permission in accordance with Building Regulations.

These buildings use traditional methods of construction: timber frame, round houses, straw bale, and all natural materials: sheeps' wool for insulation, roundwood, mud.

Buildings for all of the families and a community building were constructed for the astonishingly low total cost of about £70,000. Of course, much of the labour was free, coming from the many volunteers who turned up to help.

The local council has stipulated that within three years 75% of the settlement's income must be self generated from the land, as a planning condition. This is a target the village’s inhabitants are still struggling to meet.

I asked Helen why she chose to focus on the planning issue for the substance of her movie. "It is incredibly hard to get councils to understand this type of settlement and building," she said.

"Not only that, but the Building Regulations are geared to conventional types of construction. If, for example, people want to have an outside composting toilet, then officials say: "Why? Surely we've left all that behind!'"

Similar issues apply to the choice of building materials and sewage treatment using reedbeds.

In fact, when the Building Enforcement Officers visited the site they came up with a list of hundreds of things that should have been done. In the end, these were whittled down to a few that were relatively easy to deal with, compared, that is, to knocking the buildings down and starting all over again.

You would class the people pursuing this dream as hippies. But I was reminded of the early days of the Centre for Alternative Technology, where I used to work. This started in much the same way, as an experiment in sustainable living in the early ‘70s, and was also founded by a peculiar mixture of hippies and upper-class dropouts.

The solutions that they pioneered are now mainstream simply because the mainstream has recognised the necessity of making them so.

I am confident that, while the nature of the buildings might change a little, and that the vast majority of people will not live in this kind of housing, a great many do want to live closer to nature, and in buildings that are softer and friendlier which they can design themselves and which are much, much cheaper.

With so many people needing affordable housing, you can hardly argue that there is no demand. The degree of interest in this type of living is evidenced by how popular the film has proved last week.

What is obvious from watching the film is the extreme stress suffered by these pioneers as they struggle not only with bullying of families and growing food, but building their homes and dealing with a non-comprehending bureaucracy.

They were lucky to have a friend in Jane Davidson.

"Jane was a visionary herself," said Helen. "She came and listened to the people at Lammas. She always listened to people. She was the best Environment Minister Wales has ever had. Most of her policies came from the ground up."

Sadly, Jane retired from politics and the Welsh Assembly Government to concentrate on her smallholding, and is now Director of the Wales Institute for Sustainability at the local Trinity St David University.

But the legacy she has left includes the vision of One Planet Living, which underpins the Welsh Assembly Government's Technical Advice Note 6 "Planning For Sustainable Rural Communities", part of Wales' comprehensive planning policy in line with its constitutional commitment to sustainable development, something which makes Wales unique in the whole world.

Planning officers everywhere deserve to take note of the experience of Pembrokeshire and the Welsh Assembly Government. Largely unseen by the majority, a quiet revolution is taking place.

At some point other communities will spring up in other parts of the country.

The film, admirably financed by the Welsh Assembly Government, is available under Creative Commons principles, i.e. it has no copyright, but the makers would appreciate a donation or the payment of a voluntary fee for public showings.

I recommend you to view it, visit the eco-village, and support the campaign to get the Building Regulations changed.

Friday, January 18, 2013

It's Europe that has made our land more green and pleasant

Do you think that the UK's membership of the European Union is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? If a referendum were held on the UK's membership, how do you think you would vote?

These are the questions that David Cameron is addressing in his speech on Europe, and that are asked in public polling surveys on this most touchy of subjects.

According to one recent survey, which asked just these questions, over 56% would "probably or definitely" answer that they would vote to leave, and 45% think that Britain's membership is a Bad Thing. Only 28% believe it is Good for the country.

But the answer you get depends on the question you ask.

Suppose a pollster asked you this question:

Are you grateful that we have clean beaches?

Or how about:

Is legislation to keep our water and air clean from industrial pollution a good thing?

What about:

Do you think it is a good idea to set targets for manufacturers to make their products consume less energy?

I am willing to bet that well over three quarters of the population would answer yes to all of these questions.

Then the polling company might ask the question:

Are you aware that all of the above are controlled by laws emanating from Europe that have been accepted by the British government?

I am willing to bet that well over three quarters of the population would answer no to that question.

In this debate on Europe we hear a lot from the business lobby about red tape from Europe holding back growth.

As if, were we tomorrow to cast off from the continental landmass, like a hot air balloon we would rise majestically into a sky of profit having jettisoned the ballast of legal compliance.

It is never mentioned exactly which laws are supposed to be jettisoned.

Even the coalition government's own campaign to cut red tape, in which the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs has played an enthusiastic role, has actually found little besides ancient and redundant legislation that it can bury without affecting health and ecosystems in a way that would cause public outrage.

It is precisely our membership of the European Union that has forced business and agriculture in this country to take care of our environment and protect our health, to safeguard species and habitats from the otherwise careless activities associated with the production of goods and wealth, energy and employment.

These are successes that figure high on people's list of priorities. Breaches of, say, pollution laws, occurring on their doorsteps trigger howls of anguish and outrage.

The Bathing Water Directive protects our beaches. Directives like the Groundwater, Habitats, Industrial Emissions, Landfill, Nitrates and Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Directive protect us, our children, families and neighbourhoods from dangerous pollution.

Do UKIP and Eurosceptic MPs in all parties wish to abolish all of these as they abandon Europe?

Do they, perhaps, want to make Britain the continent's 'dirty old man'?

Let me ask you: are these protections, instead, not something to celebrate?

We can legitimately ask that, if our national government had not been not forced by Brussels to incorporate these laws into national legislation, whether it would have done so, and indeed whether they would be enforced, and by whom?

Think of how many times Britain has been taken to court for breaches of environmental laws, for example in the case of dirty beaches.

It is because of Europe that raw sewage is no longer poured straight into the sea and our rivers and waterways.

Even now, London is under threat of prosecution from Europe for breaches of air pollution legislation.

These foreigners should not be sticking their noses into our business, you say? Who else is going to protect our environment?

If you want us to leave Europe then you have to be clear on this.

That 'the environment', meaning weather, sea currents, migrating birds and so on, does not respect international boundaries is precisely the reason why we need a continent-wide protection regime.

And it is because it has set, and is due to meet as a bloc, its targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, for growth in renewable energy, and for increases in the energy efficiency of products made within its boundaries, in its fight against the worst ravages of climate change, that Europe can speak with a louder and more authoritative voice at global climate change talks.

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive and the Landfill Directive encourage recycling. The ambition of the Water Framework Directive is to protect our waterways.

I am sorry, but unless you can convince me that, outside of Europe, we would introduce protection at least as good as these for the environment, and, even more importantly, enforce all of these, I will vote overwhelmingly for us to stay within the European Union.

I'm all for simplifying red tape. But let's hear it for European green tape. Without it, our environment would be even more despoiled than it is already.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The case for the Severn tidal barrage must be improved

Severn tidal barrage map

Former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, MP for Neath near Swansea, has given MPs an enthusiastic account of the proposed design by Hafren Power for a tidal barrage across the Severn estuary twice recently.

The first time was in the Commons debate on the Energy Bill and the second was last Thursday in front of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change, which is pursuing an enquiry into the scheme.

I have to declare an interest here: I was commissioned to help write a document advocating the advantages of the scheme at an early stage.

I think it is a very exciting project. But at the same time I want to see any negative environmental effects of the scheme minimised.

It's now well known that this is a completely different proposition from the previous tidal barrage proposal that was rejected in 2010.

For example, it is claimed that the turbines are fish friendly, because they operate at a lower speed, enabling fish to swim both ways through them.

These new turbines will also work on the ebb and flow of the tide, meaning they can generate power 24/7.

Peter Hain told the Committee that the developers, Hafren Power, are prepared to settle for a strike price for the electricity generated that is the same as that received by offshore wind under contracts for difference (CfD). That, if true, is very reasonable.

The claim by the developers is that it will generate 5% of the UK's electricity needs, about the same as three new nuclear power stations and 7,000 wind turbines.

But it will last a lot longer. Like any hydroelectric scheme, it will last for up to 120 years, possibly more, and for most of its life it will therefore produce electricity 75% cheaper than coal or gas. Another considerable advantage.

No Treasury (taxpayers') money will be required to help finance it. However, it will use up a considerable amount of the Levy Control Framework. DECC has already indicated that this could be a concern for other low carbon technologies, for which little money would be left. Why put all one's eggs in one project basket?

The developers claim that the project will remove the need for millions of pounds worth of flood defences being built, because in itself it will protect much of the area from the risk of sea level rise and storm surges. They have even offered to build a Bridgwater bund to protect the Somerset Levels, which are very vulnerable.

However, this money saved cannot be offset against the Levy Control Framework, which is passed on to electricity consumers. There is no way to compensate them for the money saved from not spending on flood defences.

Nor has Hafren demonstrated that the project will protect areas upstream of the barrage from floodwaters coming down river.

It claims that it will generate 50,000 jobs, and on this basis it has won the support of Martin Mansfield, General Secretary of the Welsh TUC and Andy Richards, Wales Secretary for the Unite Union. However there is no supporting evidence explaining how so many jobs can be created.

The Angling Trust is adamant that the technology as so far presented to it is not safe for fish. Other conservation groups equally remain to be convinced.

The Habitats Directive requires that any designated ecology threatened by development must be compensated for elsewhere. In order to comply, the estuary would have to be stripped of its special status by application to the European Commission, a process which could take years due to the scientific evidence that would need to be collected and the natural inertia of the Commission.

Hain, in giving his evidence, was bending over backwards to help appease these objections. The man is staking his reputation as an MP on a private company's single project.

It would be tragic if a perfectly good opportunity to tackle climate change, energy security, promote renewable energy and stimulate the economy to the extent that this project has the potential to, were to be scuppered by the traditional, knee-jerk, objections of the traditional wing of the conservation movement.

After all, it is projected that between 10 and 20% of the habitat within the Severn estuary will be lost due to climate change and other factors anyway, in the future. The barrage proposal claims that 25% will be lost. This leaves a net loss of between 5 and 15%, which is perhaps not so significant when comparing to the environmental benefits.

The company has committed to engage with the Angling Trust, the RSPB and other conservation groups in developing the design. It has invited the Trust to test the turbine with them to see if it is a danger to fish. Together they can perhaps develop an even more fish friendly version of the turbine.

Similarly, a war has been growing between Bristol and Port Talbot ports over their mutual future viability, once the barrage is built, and employment prospects. They need to talk to each other and engage with the project to make sure that everyone benefits and no one loses out.

The project also has the potential to divide the south-west from South Wales, over competition for jobs. Developers must make sure that each side benefits here too.

This is a project with such potentially massive benefits that it cannot be dismissed easily. Its impacts will be correspondingly huge.

All big projects represent big change, and this scares people. They find it difficult to imagine what the finished product will be like and how it will affect the surrounding area.

All affected parties must therefore come together and explore it to see if together they can find a mutually acceptable solution.

It behoves Hafren to listen carefully to them all, to take their concerns on board and work with them.

All of this will take time. But it is the only environmentally and socially acceptable way to proceed.