The story so far - Part 1

Up to July 2002

The planning story of this house may be written up eventually, preferably by someone who enjoys that kind of thing. For the time being, this is a very brief summary. In essence the story is that a year or so after being built the roundhouse was either spotted by a spotter plane, or reported to the planning authority (take your pick). The press loved the first interpretation, and descended on us here at the community in droves, calling us the 'Lost Tribe' etc. The Daily Mail gave their reporting team a 3,000 budget to photograph us from the air! If you ever visit our hostel, check out the press cuttings scrapbook. The planning authority, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park,details here, drew up a list of fourteen infringements of the planning regulations, including the lake, the cycle shed, the Dome, the roundhouse and many more. These have all been solved or resolved in one way or another except this roundhouse. I applied for planning permission and it was turned down without a site visit by the committee. Only one member has ever visited this house. (And he was the one who abstained). I appealed and there was a public inquiry in Newport, Pembs which lasted two days. Many people spoke in our favour and one against. We had over 200 letters in our support. The inspector, in his report in Feb 2001, concluded that this house must be demolished by July 2002. You can view all or part of the report, which is in zip form here. Pages 10-16 give you the inspector's summary. At no point does he say what damage to the surroundings this house actually causes, and no evidence was given about it at the inquiry either. It is, as I discuss in 'Where and Why', merely an assumption of planners that people spoil nature. This landscape is actually the result of people working with, and in, nature. Must we always assume that we are wreckers? I refuse to believe it, and require more proof that Jane and I are actually doing damage than one person's prejudice. Similarly, note the statement in para 9.9: "With regard to the claimed sustainable nature of the appeal dwelling, bearing in mind that all new development should be sustainable, this is not of substantial weight." This would be laughable, given the Welsh Assembly's stated commitment to make sustainability a cornerstone of all its policies, if this was not typical of the whole planning system's inability thus far to make any changes on the ground to match its high flying rhetoric. 'Learning to Live Differently' - yes, but if anybody is already living differently, pull his house down!

Our lawyers advised that there were several serious flaws in the inspector's arguments, but that a court of law would only order a new inquiry, at best. We will therefore be re-applying to the authority this spring (2002) with the strong desire that the committee pay a visit to this farm to see context of the roundhouse, and how it relates to the environment around it. I will also ask to speak to the committee on the visit, and anticipate a bit of a struggle to get these two points accepted.

Basically I am not arguing that we should receive planning permission to live here through some loophole or technical trickery. Any opposition to this house has had one of two reasons; 1. 'they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it'. The essence of this objection is that many people would like to live in circumstances like this, but if the rules forbid it, those rules should be enforced strictly and without favour. This is fine so long as the rules take account of the need for our society to learn to live differently along sustainable lines, with the utmost speed. At present, the rules are set up to protect the status quo, which is unsustainable. The Welsh Assembly has admitted as much in its consultation document. We need to change the rules.
2. 'We must have some planning control to prevent bungalows springing up all over the place and to prevent ribbon development wrecking the countryside.' Of course we must, but should there not be a more open debate about what that control should be and what the role of the 'countryside is?

The best attempt I know to put forward alternatives to fill the current vacuum on planning for sustainability comes from the Chapter 7 document 'Defining Rural Sustainability: 15 Criteria for Sustainable Developments in the Countryside'. In a nutshell, this booklet offers fifteen criteria by which projects in the countryside could be judged, and is being considered seriously by many planners. It is significant that the compilers speak of 'projects' here, as they make it clear that new developments are more likely to be capable of sustainability if they involve more than a nuclear family. The evidence from the examples of European, Australian and American eco-villages suggests that clusters of dwellings and larger settlements can indeed reduce significantly the per capita ecological footprint. It is why Jane and I came to live here - to experience and be part of a project involving a whole group of people living on the land together.

moon through skylight

The Criteria for Rural Sustainability in Detail

A project should be more likely to receive the support of planning authorities if several of the points are true;
1.The project has a management plan which demonstrates a) how the site will contribute significantly towards the occupiers' livelihoods; b)how the objectives cited in items 2 to 14 below will be achieved and maintained.
2. The project provides affordable access to land and/or housing to people in need.
3. The project provides public access to the countryside, including temporary access such as open days and educational visits.
4. The project can demonstrate how it will be integrated into the local economy and community.
5. The project can demonstrate that no activities pursued on the site shall cause undue nuisance to neighbours or the public.
6. The project has prepared a strategy for the minimization of motor vehicle use.
7. The development and any buildings associated with it are appropriately sited in relation to local landscape, natural resources and settlement patterns.
8. New buildings and dwellings are not visually intrusive nor of a scale disproportionate to the site and the scale of the operation; and are constructed from materials with low embodied energy and environmental impact, and preferably from locally sourced materials, unless environmental considerations or the use of reclaimed materials determine otherwise. Reuse and conversion of existing buildings on the site is carried out as far as practicable in conformity with these criteria.
9. The project is reversible, insofar as new buildings can be easily dismantled and the land easily restored to its former condition.
10. The project plans to minimize the creation of waste and to reuse and recycle as much as possible on site.
11. The project has a strategy for energy conservation and the reduction, over time, of dependence on non-renewable energy sources to a practical minimum.
12. The project aims over time for the autonomous provision of water, energy and sewage disposal and where it is not already connected to the utilities, shall make no demands upon the existing infrastructure.
13. Agricultural, forestry and similar land-based activities are carried out according to sustainable principles. Preference will be given to projects which conform to registered organic standards, sustainable forestry standards or recognized permaculture principles.
14. The project has strategies and programmes for the ecological management of the site, including: a) the sustainable management and improvement of soil structure; b) the conservation and, where appropriate, the enhancement of semi-natural habitat, taking into account biodiversity, indigenous species and wildlife corridors; c) the efficient use and reuse of water, as well as increasing the water holding capacity of the site; d) the planting of trees and hedges, particularly in areas where the tree coverage is less than 20%.
15. The project can show that affordability and sustainability are secured, for example, by the involvement of a housing association, co-operative, trust or other social body whose continuing interest in the property will ensure control over subsequent changes of ownership and occupation. (More details explaining these points above are given in the document itself.)

Imagine if these criteria were built into new planning policy! (I would personally also add a presumption against the use of cement or concrete outside already built up areas. We have this agreement here at Brithdir and there is no cement used in the roundhouse) We are urging the Welsh Assembly to incorporate them in its new policies for sustainable development. On this specific proposal to retain this roundhouse where I write, we can point to fulfillment of almost all the above criteria, and will also offer planners further agreements, such as a waiver of any development rights, and to enable them to control any permission they give.

Update 8.3.02: The survey by the Land Use Consultants has been interesting, and we supplied them with a bundle of facts about car sharing etc. Most people have advised us that it would be perverse of the National Park still to require us to demolish the roundhouse while the assembly considers the report and possibly changes its guidance. So I have entered a planning application with a simple submission that will include updates of our correspondence here.
Update 31st March here.
Reply of 2nd April
The officer I am dealing with is the chief development control officer in the National Park. This will be the person to email now with your support, should you wish to do so.

The address to write is: Ms Catherine Milner, Development Control, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Winch Lane, Haverfordwest. SA61 1PY.

Update April 10th: Two recent good developments are that the local Newport Town Council, apparently after a heated debate, agreed to back my application. This is a welcome blast of local support, and all thanks to them. The other development has been a visit from Plaid Cymru member of the Welsh Assembly Cynog Dafis, who was moved to write a very powerful two-page letter to the chairman of the planning committee, with a copy to Nic Wheeler. he also released the letter to the press, so our arguments had extensive coverage in the Western Mail, the Western Telegraph and the County Echo, which as usual gave a detailed and exact account. So in public support terms, things are looking up. And it's still not too late to write or email the Park! (See some letters in How you can Help page.)

UPDATE 16th APRIL

We have had visits from television crews from S4C (Welsh Channel 4) and BBC1 Wales, and done radio interviews with Radio Cymru and Radio Wales in the last two days. The S4C was broadcast this evening and the rest will go out tomorrow. Coverage has all been favourable. I have seen the 6-page report written by Ms Milner for the committee, and it leans heavily on the inspector's judgements in his report. It recommends refusal. It also contains some inaccuracies, which I will attempt to redress by the following email:

Dear Ms Milner, By today you will have received 24 emails from different individuals in support of this roundhouse application, in addition to replies, etc. I notice that in your agenda notes you give almost no attention to these emails, which I have found extremely thorough in their arguments. Please be so kind as to re-read them before the committee meeting, and to make copies available to the chairman. I also note that you are reporting to the committee that no comment was received from Newport Town Council, where I know for a fact that they had an earnest debate on the subject and agreed to support my application on the Monday evening before your printing date. I trust that you take their decision seriously and will report accurately what their decision was at the meeting. I would still urge you to accede to a site visit, and put two simple questions to you :1. have you ever successfully enforced against an occupied dwelling and had it demolished without the members ever seeing it? and 2. have you any idea what an attempt to do so will have on the respect in which the public hold the Park? Yours sincerely, Tony Wrench

UPDATE 18th APRIL:

0797 174 9765

0797 174 9765

Brithdir Mawr

www.thatroundhouse.info

Newport

Pembs

SA42 0QJ

18.4.02

Dear

 

This is to let you know that the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Planning Committee yesterday decided to refuse our application to retain the roundhouse for a further two years.

 

We must therefore demolish it before the Autumn. At the meeting the development control officer, Mrs C Milner, failed to correct an inaccuracy in her report to the effect that no comment had been received from Newport town Council, despite having been contacted by the clerk and angry members of the council that morning. She also failed to mention any of the material considerations I put in my representations, thereby giving members of the committee the impression that they had no choice but to refuse permission. Members were persuaded that sustainability is all very well, but planning rules are above this, in another realm of importance entirely. I was not allowed to address them, and a site visit was not recommended. This is par for the course with this officer and this committee.

We may still appeal, but I have no will left to do so at the moment.

Jane and I thank you for your excellent support. We really appreciate it, and are only sorry that your careful arguments fell on deaf ears.

 

I will put any further developments on the website above.

Thanks again, and 'bye for now,

 

Tony Wrench.

May I also thank here all who played a part through word, thought or deed to help us. This may not be the end of the story - in fact it certainly is not - but we need some time to decide what to do, so please don't ask me for a couple of weeks, OK? I will post here the report for the Pembrokeshire County Echo, whose reporter, Robin Pullin, has consistently over the years been by far the most accurate.

UPDATE APRIL 25th:
Here is the report (sorry about the lack of decent format - Notepad was all I could open it in) from the County Echo, less pictures, of April 26th. It is written by the Editor. I think we will be fighting on for a bit.

Brithdir Mawr

Anger at roundhouse decision

By Chris Taylor

Local residents and neighbours to roundhouse owner Tony Wrench have reacted with anger and dismay to the National Park's again repeated refusal to grant planning permission for his modest and environmentally friendly dwelling.
They are so angry that they have decided to seek a referendum on taking taking Newport and Nevern administratively out of the National Park. And Tony Wrench himself, who has been carefully assessing his situation since the Development Control committee's decision last Wednesday, is now considering whether there are any other legal avenues that he can and should pursue to save his treasured home.
His supporters, who consider that the issue has been dealt with incompetently by the National Park, have issued a request to Newport town council that a public meeting should be called so that a motion for a referendum on the proposal can be put to the vote.
Their request carries the minimum number of ten signatures as prescribed under the 1972 Local Government Act obliging the town council to hold an advertised public meeting.

Meanwhile uncertainty continues as to how it was that the views of Newport Town Council in support of retaining the house for at least another two years were not fully conveyed to the committee at its meeting in Haverfordwest.
The committee's formal agenda paper on that day carried the information that no comment had been received from Newport Town Council, but investigations by the County Echo have revealed that while the town council's letter containing its comments was almost certainly too late for formal inclusion on the agenda, nevertheless the clerk of the council had personally phoned and spoken to the development control officer before the meeting.
The clerk has told us that she informed the officer of her council's views, and that she confirmed that a letter was in the post. The clerk says she is certain her letter arrived at the National Park offices as its envelope contained another item which has already been dealt with.
We also discovered that the Mayor of Newport, town councillor Peter Harwood, had spoken to another member of National Park staff on the morning of the meeting and that he had been assured that the council's comments would be conveyed to the members.
It is in this context that the County Echo is today publishing on our letters page a letter from Cllr Byron James, chairman of Newport Town Council, expressing concern that despite two phone calls and a letter from his council clerk the town council's views were not conveyed to the National Park committee.

When the County Echo first received the letter we felt it was only right that we should contact the National Park for a comment on the criticisms.The authority subsequently replied to our enquiries confirming that the council's views had not been specifically conveyed to the committee at the meeting, and expressing apologies for this on behalf of the development control officer. The statement said 'This should have been done and it is regretted.'
In the meantime Tony Wrench has been pondering the outcome of the meeting which he perceives rightly or wrongly to have been geared against himself and his partner from the very outset. He is particularly concerned that the arguments about sustainability seem to have been almost completely lost along the way, and that the Park seems really to be uninterested in discussing the merits of his case from this point of view.
And while he is grateful that one councillor, Cllr Tom Sinclair, voted for his application, he is still concerned and surprised by the silence of North Pembrokeshire councillor Steve Watkins who neither voted nor took part in the discussions declaring that he had an interest in the application as he had visited the site on a number of occasions.
He is also concerned that no site meeting by the committee has ever been held, although the development control officer and a colleague did visit the roundhouse once on an earlier occasion.
Tony Wrench has not yet made up his mind what to do. At the moment he is allowed to keep his beautiful and very practical home for another three more months, and he has six months to appeal, so whatever he does decide, he will have to make up his mind relatively quickly.

Many people will undoubtedly be wishing him well as he struggles to resolve the awful situation now confronting him.He has promised to write down some of views for theCounty Echo and we will look forward to publishing these in the coming weeks.

*When we asked Cllr Watkins about his absttaining from the debate he told us that he had been acting on new legal advice recently issued to all National Park members, and confirmed by the Pembrokeshire National Park's own solicitor which suggested that privately visiting the site of an application could prejuduce a member's right to speak on the case. This applied, he had been told, equally to all members, both those appointed by the National Assembly and those who were representatives from elected local authorities. Caption: Tony Wrench and his cat enjoying the peace and quiet of the roundhouse where he has been considering whether there is still something he can do to prevent its imminent destruction.

news report from BBC Wales online - 17th April 2002
This local site may contain articles on the recent developments

Here's the text of an article for the County Echo, sent 7th May 2002

CITIZENS OF SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITY NO. 23, GREETINGS! That's you in Nevern and Newport. Didn't you know? If you live in the National Park, now you'll be in one of these Sustainable Communities, too. It's OK; you don't have to live more sustainably - it's just their way of getting kudos without actually doing anything. Why do I care? Because I've been trying to live sustainably, in an earthright way, for 20 years. As you probably know, our roundhouse eco-home was turned down again by planners last month. This time we asked simply for two years' extension until the report into Low Impact development, commissioned by the Welsh Assembly and part funded by the Park, was taken on board and acted on. But no. Ms Catherine Milner, Development Control Officer says planning rules are fixed and unyielding. Dwellings in the 'open countryside' (what would be 'closed' countryside, I wonder?) must be strictly controlled, ie stamped out. Dwellings for ordinary, live humans, that is. We could have had permission had I been a cow, a horse, a dead Iron Age chieftain, or, possibly, a millionaire Labour MP. Words are important to planners, but I am seriously worried that the National Park, in this its heady 50th year, is moving the goalposts too much with words, and failing really to safeguard this beautiful landscape of ours, which grew with and through the actions of people. They formed the small cottages, laid the hedges and walls, made the lanes. Their homes were part of the landscape. They lived where they worked. It's more sustainable that way, without cars and tractors. They wouldn't get planning permission now. So this landscape is gradually getting stuck as the Brave New Park asserts control. What happens if someone challenges planners' assumption that nature and people don't mix? Here are a few tricks played by one officer to ensure that the members of the Park committee, elected and appointed, did what she wanted: 1. Telling the committee that 'no case had or could be made' for the 'functional test' for an agricultural dwelling. By existing rules, our roundhouse might be allowable if we were agricultural workers neccessary on a farm. Both Jane and I work at Brithdir full time. She gardens, milks the goats, makes cheese and a host of other things. I have built the billy goat shed, the cow shed, the compost toilet, and played a part in many other agricultural activities, as well as having a sustainable livelihood turning bowls and platters from wood coppiced on the farm. We have, because of this earthright lifestyle, managed without our own car all the time we have been here. On our first application, Ms Milner asked the Principal Estates Surveyor of Pembrokeshire County Council, Mr Geoff Kingston, to advise on this question, as she is obliged to do. He visited us, and wrote a thorough report, including: 'the question of, do the applicant and his partner have to live on site..If you look at the diverse range of work undertaken at Brithdir Mawr by the applicant and his partner, then it is fairly clear that in terms of the functional requirements of the community, that the answer would be yes. They play a major role in ensuring its sustainability, and carry out tasks which could, by the very nature of their diversity, collectively require constant presence on the land, not because of one overriding need, but because of the number of essential daily tasks and unforseeable minor emergencies, coupled with input into group projects, which would make their alternative of living off site in, say, Newport, totally impractical.' He made no recommendation, because he was asked simply to advise. Ms Milner was unhappy about this, and insisted. He recommended a three year temporary permission. This was never reported to members of the committee. If you are a member of the committee, you probably believe Ms Milner when she asserts 'no case has or could be made'. Who supervises the planners? No-one. That's the cosy way we allow quangos to be, isn't it? 2. Members have been subtly advised against seeing our house for themselves. Last year we had about 950 visitors (we counted them for the WA survey). Not one member of the committee last month was one of those 950. One member has seen it - Steve Watkins, our nearest councillor. The meeting was told that the solicitor has advised him that his 'interest' in our case could be prejudicial, so he cannot speak or vote on it! This is a deliberate distortion, and stands local democracy on its head. 3. At the inquiry, we were anxious to put forward conditions that would prevent us or others taking advantage of a permission, such as agreeing to only inhabit our house for 11 months of the year. The officers refused to accept such offers, and then told the inspector that we had not come up with any. 4. I have been denied a request to address the committee. Two years ago I attended a committee at which a bunch of business smoothies presented a five minute long promotional video for a gaming alley in Tenby. What's the difference between a woodturner and a gaming alley owner? You tell me. 5. Planning laws are not carved in stone. Policies do not, says the law, have to be rigidly applied if there are 'material considerations' suggesting otherwise. This is not something, as far as I can see, that all members are aware of. I asked three material considerations to be offered to the committee. How many did Ms Milner report? None. 6. Finally, and to cut a long story very short, Ms Milner reported to the committee that no comment had been received from Newport Town Council. In fact, that council had had a long debate on our roundhouse the previous week and taken the bold and generous decision to support it. Despite three separate attempts to ensure that this was made clear to the committee, it was not. Don't lets bother members with the facts, eh? Now, fellow Sustainable Community dwellers, what do we do? Take all this jiggerypokery lying down? Appeal again and trust that this inspector likes turf roofs a bit more than the last one? Hundreds of people have visited our house and said 'They can't make you pull this down!' Well, they can, even though they don't play fair and only tell their committee half the story. Maybe you will play a part. Maybe you are a member who doesn't like having wool pulled over your eyes. The new planning roadshow comes around our towns in the next two weeks to show off their new glossy plan. Lots of words. Even if you are an ordinary citizen, you can ask them some knotty questions! Get a bit of democracy back. Tony Wrench. May 2002.

That ends the story up to July 2002. We have decided that we will appeal against the authority's decision, as we can do it by 'written representation' and this will allow more time while the Welsh Assembly considers possible new guidelines on Low Impact Dwellings. The further story will be on a new page Story 2.


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