Please Note: This website is out of date. The Steward Community Woodland sustainable living project ended in 2018 for legal and planning permission reasons. The contents have been left here as a historical archive.

Low Impact Development

Planning and people in a sustainable countryside

a book by Simon Fairlie

Refered to extensively in our planning appeal 'Low Impact Development' was writen by Simon Fairlie with help from The Land Is Ours. It's a ground breaking book showing rural planning dilemmas from the point of view of the planned, as well as the planner. It takes a considered look at how the countryside can accommodate more people, with positive improvements to ecology and landscapes.

Several extracts from the book are collected here including the introduction, table of contents and foreword by Paddy Ashdown MP.


It is a poor and weak society, indeed, that is not prepared to have its values and premises challenged. Indeed progress can only come where people have the ability to challenge the conventional way of doing things. This applies to planning more than to most aspects, since planning at once brings together the power of the local community in its democratic form; and the wishes, hopes and fears of individuals who may be affected. This is what makes planning such an explosive issue.

Nevertheless, planning conventions must be open to challenge as well, even on an overcrowded island such as ours. Firm planning regulations are necessary to stop over-development in unacceptable way which damage our natural and human environment. But it is also absolutely vital that we never get ourselves caught in an inflexible planning structure which excludes human beings and their hopes and beliefs from the planning process.

I have been fascinated by the Tinker's Bubble experiment. It is "in my backyard". It has generated considerable and powerful feelings including in my own village. But my judgement is, that after two or three years of this experiment, the outcome has been to add, not diminish the quality of life in our village as we have had to cope with different life-styles and different ways of looking at our world. It is for this reason that I have always supported the Tinker's Bubble experiment, even though it clearly falls outside the accepted planning regulations.

Simon Fairlie's book, which clearly incorporates, but is not exclusively built around, the Tinker's Bubble experiment, provides an alternative way of looking at things. I think many of the ideas that are contained in this book are harbingers of a new way of thinking about our world and ought to be influential in the future. I wish him and it well!'

Paddy Ashdown MP, (Leader of the Liberal Democrat party)


Planning is boring. That, at any rate, is a view shared by many members of the public - even the planning magazines make jokes about the perceived dullness of the profession. Of course, planners themselves do not find it boring and can rabbit on for hours about 'material considerations' or 'Grampian conditions'. They sense that they are regarded as a race apart by more normal mortals: a queer grey-suited clique, living in its own world, something of a cross between policemen and trainspotters.

This boringness - perceived or actual - may help to explain why the environmental movement in Britain has paid scant attention to the planning system over the last 20 years. Planners are the principal strategists, decision makers and enforcement officers of the Department of the Environment (DoE); it is they, more than anyone, who decide what our environment will look like, where people, animals and plants will live, how we use our land and how much concrete will be poured over it every year. And yet in all the vast literature that has emerged from the environmental movement in recent years there is barely one book that concentrates upon the nuts and bolts of the planning process from a green perspective.

Friends of the Earth, Britain's main multi-issue green lobbying organisation, does not have a planning or land-use officer. Advocates of direct action are better known for their battles with the Department of Transport (DoT) than for chaining themselves to planning department doors or attempts to enliven public inquiries into local plans. It is hardly surprising then that planners, who like to see themselves as protectors of the environment, are often out of touch with the green movement and green ideas.

All those lengthy local authority notices in small print, tucked away amongst the small ads in the local paper, which most of us do not read, are descriptions of how our local environment is going to change. If, having passed them over, we find out too late that a line of trees is to be chopped down for an access road, or an Edwardian mansion is to be demolished to make way for a gaggle of bungalows, then who is to blame? The public do not have the time to examine every small-print Small wonder then that planners tend to retreat into their bureaucratic carapace and rarely make a move which cannot be justified by lengthy jargon-ridden citations from national, regional and local policy documents. And small wonder, in turn, many people find the planning process intransigent and unimaginative. If the environmental movement wishes to influence the development of our green and pleasant land before the point is reached when the only option left is to squat trees, there needs to take a much more searching and inspired look at the way the system operates and press for changes which may not have to be enormous to achieve significant effect. And if planners want to understand why their best efforts to protect the environment are so unappreciated, they should pay more attention to what the green movement - and Agenda 21, which is the outcome of 25 years of green lobbying - is saying.

The author of this report, like most other members of the public who do find planning fascinating, became interested in the planning system through fighting it. For nine years I lived in France in a self-built wooden shack on a smallholding, earning my living from agricultural work and building. When I returned to England, I found that I wasn't allowed to live in this way. Most rural residences were bought by people who didn't work (and sometimes didn't even live) in the country, and planning permission to build a cabin on a piece of land was virtually unobtainable. When, with friends, I rented a house with a sizeable garden on a country estate, we were thrown out after three years to make way for a golf course. I lived in a van for two years, and eventually, with some other people, bought a bare-land smallholding. To accommodate ourselves we pitched tents on our land.

In the two years since we moved onto our land, we have been through almost the entire gamut of planning procedure: committee decision, enforcement order, stop notice, Article 4 application, Section 106 agreement, appeal, call in by the Secretary of State and statutory review in the High Court. All this for seven tents! Insofar as I have any expertise in planning it derives from this experience. I have to declare an interest, and pursuing that interest has forced me to look at the way the planning process operates and realise that it is, in fact, rather interesting. My understanding of the complexities of the planning system is not, therefore, based upon years of professional experience. I am writing from the viewpoint, not of a planner, but of one of the planned. I trust that planners will view whatever misconceptions I may have about the planning system in the same weary, condescending tolerance that they habitually show towards lay ignorance when working in their professional capacity.

If one is faced with eviction, on environmental grounds, from a small tent on one's own smallholding, a stone's throw away from a new and empty 30 foot high concrete block barn erected with the blessing of the planning system, and from a cottage occupied by a man who commutes to the nearby town, one's initial reaction may, like mine, be that the regulations are daft. However as one learns how the rural planning system operates, one appreciates that there is a logic in it; and that if that logic is twisted, it is more by history than by the planners. Britain's rural economy has been moulded by a singular set of historical circumstances: enclosure and industrialisation have led to a countryside which supports less than a third as many rural workers as in France. Those who wish to find out more about this historical background may read the works of Jesse Collings, George Bourne, J.M. Neeson and Marion Shoard, among others. My concern is to pick up this story where these authors have left off.

Part One of this book describes how over the last fifty years the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and its successors have tried to deal with the environmental and social problems that were the legacy of enclosure and industrialisation by excluding still more people from the countryside; and how in many ways this has helped to exacerbate the problems. The countryside has been degraded by industrial agriculture and colonised by urban incomers; its partition between these two forces is turning it into a cross between a factory and a drive-in museum.

Part Two proposes a way in which, without radical changes to the planning system, apparently insoluble social and environmental problems can be combined to provide a democratic solution: a way in which the people presently excluded from the rural scene can participate in its revival. If permission to build or live in the countryside were to be allocated, not just to those who can afford artificially inflated land prices, but to anyone who could demonstrate a willingness and an ability to contribute to a thriving local environment and economy, then a very different kind of rural society would emerge. Low impact development is a social contract, whereby people are given the opportunity to live in the country in return for providing environmental benefits. Planners will recognise this as a form of what they call 'planning gain'. The mechanisms to strike such a bargain are for the most part already written into the English planning system and there is thus no need for any major structural changes. It is to the credit of the 1947 Act that the English and Welsh planning system is flexible enough to allow this.

There are many areas of planning that are barely touched upon in this book. It does not cover the important question of how to make cities greener and more sustainable, and thereby ease pressure on the countryside; it side steps the heated debate as to whether future development should take place in new settlements or on the edge of existing towns and villages; and it only touches upon the question of how to create 'sustainable settlements'. There are many much better qualified than myself performing these tasks.

Instead this book looks at the problem from the bottom up: it considers the scope for small scale, environmentally sound residences and workplaces in the countryside, outside the prescribed development zone, or village 'envelope'. In no way should this be taken to imply that low impact development is preferable outside villages; in many circumstances it is not. The book concentrates on the open countryside for two reasons. Firstly, changes in agricultural priorities, the introduction of set-aside, and a trend towards the fragmentation of farmland raise important questions about the countryside: What is it for? Who is it for? And how can the rural economy be made sustainable? Secondly, there are simply not the opportunities within villages for the kind of projects under discussion, partly because of lack of space, partly because of price. Where a low impact project can feasibly and affordably be carried out within the prescribed development zone, then it is right to question the need for siting it outside.

The concept of low impact development is not my own. It has emerged out of the efforts of a wide variety of interests - ranging from local planning authorities and those working in sustainable technologies, to permaculturalists and travellers' organisations - to find solutions to these problems.

However the term is not totally satisfactory. While it accurately describes those forms of development that only have a minimal adverse effect upon the environment, it does not adequately cover any forms of development that might be felt to have a positive or beneficial effect. This a particular problem in situations where the environment is so dire that almost anything would be an improvement. Jim Paton, of the Advisory Service for Squatters comments: 'A while back I was in the habit of talking about 'urban low impact housing' but I have stopped using this term now... Our urban aims should be high impact. We want to make a substantial change for the better to a degraded environment'. Some people concerned with the rural environment also have their doubts about the expression. 'Low impact' does sound apologetic, doesn't it?' writes Sue Clifford of Common Ground, 'We need more positive words ... but I haven't thought of any'.

Neither have I. One correspondent suggested 'Earthcare' (a term used by permaculturist Bill Mollison), which is accurate, but sounds like a brand name for an ecologically sound garden product; the prospects of this expression making headway in the planning system are slim. The word 'sustainable' has been considered; but 'sustainable development', as defined at the Rio Earth Summit, has a social content which distinguishes it in meaning from the term 'low impact development', which relates more strictly to environmental matters - though the two concepts are profoundly linked. Moreover there is some confusion between 'sustainable development' as envisaged at Rio, and 'a sustainable development', which in planning parlance might signify, for example, a solvent farming enterprise. I have therefore stuck with an expression which at least has the virtue of having a familiar and fairly precise meaning for planners: 'low impact'.

The attraction of this term to planners is not a coincidence. Its apologetic nature is in deep accord with certain assumptions that underlie modern rural planning policy. These assumptions are linked to what the US landscape theorist Robert Thayer has called 'landscape guilt' - a deep seated feeling that modern development is intrinsically at odds with the environment, resulting in a corresponding need to mitigate, to zone, to hide or to disguise it. The question of landscape guilt will crop up repeatedly in this book. But here we need only note that planners are professional practitioners of landscape guilt - and consequently terms such as 'minimal impact' and 'low impact' are ones with which they feel instinctively comfortable. One other factor commends the use of the apologetic term.

While it is not easy to define 'low impact', the concept is initially easy to understand. To an extent (but only to an extent) it is a quantitative term, which presupposes a continuum of degree. It is clear for example, to most people, that a six-by-eight-foot shed has a lower environmental impact than a sixty-by-eighty-foot warehouse; or that a single lane track has a lower impact than a motorway. When it comes to a more qualitative term such as 'positive impact', however, we enter at once into a minefield of subjectivity. An imposing stone clad villa that some people (including presumably the architect and the buyer) may view as a positive asset to its surroundings, others may experience as a pretentious monstrosity or a blot on the landscape. No system for regulating human impact can afford to provide so welcoming a harbour for every conceivable architectural prejudice.

This is not to say that the term 'low impact' does not have its own difficulties. What of a planning proposal for a small cottage that involved planting a large belt of native trees in a flat and heavily deforested area? Such a scheme could be said to have a high impact upon its degraded surroundings, and one which most people would agree was positive. However insofar as a proposal can be said to have a high positive environmental impact, it can equally be said to have a low negative environmental impact. And here is the crux of the matter. As long as we remember that 'low impact' is shorthand for 'low adverse environmental impact', then we will not get into semantic difficulties: the cottage and its trees can safely be so defined. In other words a low impact development is not necessarily one that is unobtrusive in its surroundings or that does not alter the existing landscape; a low impact development is one that, through its low negative environmental impact, either enhances or does not significantly diminish environmental quality.

This then is the definition of low impact for the purposes of this book. I apologise to those who may have found the above discussion pedantic; but if the movement for low impact development is to make any impression upon the planning system, then sooner or later the term may have to stand up to scrutiny in the law courts. And I apologise to those who may feel that 'low impact' is a misnomer; I can only point to the large number of concepts and movements that have flourished under a terminologically inaccurate banner - for example, the Conservative Party.

This book is an attempt to distil the ideas and suggestions that have arisen around the concept of low impact development into a coherent and politically acceptable policy - and to explain it in terms that are sufficiently robust and rigorous to be acceptable to planners, but that are comprehensible to the general public. It starts with a historical overview of the effect of the planning system upon the rural economy; it ends with specific recommendations for adjusting the nuts and bolts of rural planning procedure. I hope it will let some refreshing air into a debate that after seventy years has grown stale. I hope also it will serve as an aid to people who wish to make a low impact planning application, and to the planners who must respond to these applications.

Simon Fairlie, Tinker's Bubble



Part I

Before planning
The urban octopus
Reconciling the irreconcilable
Agenda 21

Betterment: The skeleton in the cupboard
Preserved in aspic
Lost livelihoods

Agricultural settlers
The planners' view
In search of a livelihood

Part II


Local materials
Wildlife and biodiversity
Resource consumption
Sustainable use
Positive environmental impact

Lowland Crofting (West Harwood)
Earth shelter (Hockerton)
Permaculture (Tir Penrhos Isaf)
Tent Settlements (King's Hill)

A future for nomads
The Second Great Wood of Caledon....
... And Reforesting Albion
Sustainable settlements

Trusts, housing associations and co-operatives
Planning conditions
Planning agreements
Simplified Planning Zones: a planning serendipity
A new land use class
Looking ahead


A. A Guide to the English and Welsh Planning Process
B. Acts, Guidances and other Official Publications
C. Recent Decisions on the Need of Smallholders to Live on their Land
D. Criteria for a Permaculture Land Use Category
E. A Survey of Local Authorities on Low Impact Accommodation
F. Locating Appeal Decisions and Planning Documents
G. Contributing Organisations



Last updated: 2009-04-22

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