Where it is and Why

First a bit of background information. My name is Tony Wrench and I live in this Roundhouse with Jane Faith, with whom I moved to Wales (for the second time) in 1989. My main concern is environmental sustainability, and this house is a direct result of a 25 year search for a means of living in an earthright way.

Over that time it has become apparent to an increasing number of people that the unsustainable consumption, waste disposal methods and pollution in the countries of the "developed" world are causing serious environmental, social and eventual economic crises for the whole planet. What was once the concerned speculation of a few weather scientists is now common knowledge - the global climate is changing as a result of 200 years of burning fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide produced by this process needs to be absorbed by growing plants, but we have overstretched the demands on nature to clean up for us. We now burn in each year the carbon (in the form of natural gas, coal and oil) that the earth laid down from dead vegetable matter over a million years. In the Rio Summit in 1992 the leaders of the world's nations convened to attempt to agree action to curb our consumption patterns, and, as you know, each attempt to meet again to agree the way of doing so is fraught with political intrigue, bold statements, inertia and subterfuge by the fossil fuel companies. So far the Kyoto Agreement will deliver a 5-8% reduction in CO2 levels over the 1990 levels, a reduction falling far short of the 60-80% agreed by most scientists as actually necessary to prevent disastrous global warming. It may already be too late, in fact, to avert the worst case scenario whereby sea levels continue to rise by as much as 6 metres or more, displacing over half the world's people and effectively bringing what we call "civilisation" to a chaotic halt. A catastrophe of truly biblical proportions is inexorably building up; so slowly that the media cannot maintain interest in it for long, and politicians find that issues of environmental sustainability lose out to daily crises that beg their attention.

The consensus is growing, however, that radical and drastic changes need to be made to our basic way of life in order for us to live while giving the earth a chance to recover and allowing other species and future generations a chance to live sustainably too. Methodologies for refining indicators of sustainability - quantifying the consequences of certain courses of action or lifestyle - have been established. In particular I am interested in the concept of the ecological footprint, which is a way of expressing consumption patterns as the amount of land area of the planet necessary to maintain it. Latest studies indicate that we would need eight new planets if all the inhabitants of the earth adopted consumption patterns of the US. In Britain we are consuming four times more than our fair share. To find out more, and assess your own ecological footprint, click here.

Change is being contemplated, however, and most countries in the developed world have set up some kinds of mechanism to assess policies in the light of the need for future developments to be earthright. Here in Wales, for example, much noise has been made about the declaration in the constitution of the young Welsh Assembly that sustainable development must be at the cornerstone of all policies. In practice,however, it seems to be very difficult for politicians and the people working in offices who carry out their decisions to bite the bullet and make any serious changes to policies to change the current trends. Thus the Assembly came out with a bold consultative document called "Learning to Live Differently", pledging to review all policies with sustainability in mind, but also attempting to square the circle by saying sustainable development also involves economic growth. Of course, if your constituency includes a car factory, an oil refinery or a steelworks you are going to fight hard for your corner even if a few more species do go to the wall and if no reduction in emissions has been achieved at all. There is no evidence whatsoever that a long term reduction in CO2 emissions can be achieved without a cessation of economic growth, but the consequences of truly debating this are political suicide for the instigators. Agenda 21 - one of the outstanding features that followed the Rio Summit - foresaw this, however, and urged individuals, local organisations and groups of people to do what it takes to achieve sustainability in their area. It urges partnerships to be set up with government bodies, and recommends that local and central government engage in new training schemes to educate staff, councillors and members of the public in new ways of living more lightly on the earth, and to consult more widely on ways forward.

In 1993 I wrote an article called 'Permaculture Land' ,here in updated form,that pointed to certain dysfunctions in our society and environment caused by a set of assumptions built into British planning laws. Basically these laws can be traced back to Norman attitudes that large areas of land should be owned and parcelled off to powerful landowners and that small holders of land, tenants and peasants should be controlled by the law. These attitudes came to have their most notorious expression in the Enclosure Acts, but are still to be seen underlying the basic attitudes to people and the land. As more peasants have been attracted to the towns and cities, and as wars took country people from their holdings, to dump them homeless on demob, a series of assumptions have built up among the landowning classes, politicians and the senior civil servants that assist them. The wish to force agriculture to be more productive after the near famine of the second world war, plus the drive of the growing chemical and manufacturing industries to urge more and more mechanisation and inorganic treatment on the land combined with the landowning and middle class assumptions that views and landscapes are the important thing - the fewer people actually cluttering up the countryside the better. Now the situation is critical, and if you live in Britain I don't need to tell you any more problems of the countryside. What is not apparent to most people, however, is the role that outdated assumptions within the planning system (such as the one that assumes people living in the countryside are bad for it) play in shaping our entire society and economy. They mean that in the SE and SW of England it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit plumbers, carpenters, post people, teachers, cleaners - the practice of squeezing new homes into towns while allowing the existing country houses to be second or commuter homes for city workers or the rich means no simple working people can afford a new house any more. It means that although the demand for organic food is now massive and rising, only a small proportion of that can be met by farms in this country, because you need more people to farm organically, and the flexible way communities grew in the past has been curtailed. It means that planners are more likely to say yes to a new housing estate of identikit homes that are designed to feed the property market than to allow organic, efficient, self build by people who want to work the land. It means that nowhere is there space for people wanting to carry out what the Rio Summit urged - to live more simply, to use local resources, to reduce our impact on the earth. You may think that I'm overdoing it here, but I assure you that although we may all applaud our planners for reducing some monstrosities in the countryside, their system is almost unique in Europe for its refusal to adapt to the need for radical new initiatives towards sustainable living.

Two small examples. The first is from the draft new plan being drawn up by our two local planning authorities, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and Pembrokeshire County Council. They want us to choose between the past decentralised, organic way this landscape has evolved over the centuries with scattered small settlements and single farms and cottages, and a new system that they call "sustainable communities" . The definition of a sustainable community? "Sustainable in this sense means communities that can keep going from one generation to the next, with a reasonable amount of their needs being met from within the local area". This is planner-speak for "bundle them all into towns". What are needs? Is a car a need? Is petrol? What about heating oil? How about electricity? Are we to see changes in policy for our county to go self-sufficient in fuel, energy or even food? What is "reasonable"? No, this is the usual euphemistical talk that clerks have always used for their masters, and makes no practical moves towards sustainability in the least. Business as usual. Contrast this with the second example, from another country in Europe:
"In 1997, a national competition was held in Denmark to find the best sustainable settlement for the 21st century. 53 groups took part and it was supported by 5 government ministries. A wealth of exciting ideas showed that people are ready for change, but the judges in their report pointed to the need for a cross ministerial group to help communities through the legal jungle, and allow up to 100 projects special status as experiments." (Hildur Jackson, from "Conflict Resolution in Community", Gaia Trust, Denmark)

You may be wondering what this has to do with the Roundhouse. Well, about 12 years ago I decided that the rules in this country forbidding people to set up and work in a low impact way were not going to change quickly enough for me to live appropriately before I was too old to do anything practical. No one is going to give me what I need if I don't do all it takes to achieve it as well. I believe that the way back to living in balance with nature involves ecovillages. There are no ecovillages in England or Wales. There are a few intentional communities that come close, and the obvious choice for Jane and me was to join with our friends twenty miles away who had bought a farm with 165 acres in order to set up a community living by earthright principles. Emma and I have been in the same band, Rasalila, since 1989 and since 1995 Jane has been in it too. Every week we practised in the Cone, a wooden tipi that I built for use as a studio and bedroom. the Cone at Erw Deg, Cwm Cych If you would like to hear some music we recorded there click here

As the community began to form Emma often used to remark "Why don't you build something like this down in our woods - you could still do your woodwork and gardening, and I'd save a fortune in travel costs." So that is basically what we did. I took the opportunity to design and build a simple ecohome from scratch. It is not illegal to do this. There is even a last vestige of peasant rights in the Town and Country Planning Act that allows a new dwelling, if unenforced against for four years, to be granted a 'certificate of lawful use' and it is through this clause that many of us voluntary peasants secure our simple homes. So it is here that we moved.

Where?

Brithdir Mawr is just outside Newport in Pembrokeshire, Wales.Here is the farm as it is seen from Carningli, the mountain nearby. Note that the roundhouse is completely invisible.

Brithdir Mawr farm seen from Carningli

Newport is a mile away to the north. Turn round to your left and you see this:

Newport seen from top of Carningli

If you have the patience to download the whole panorama, it looks like this. (Hold pointer over strip until icon appears. Then click on icon). Notice the things that do stand out in the landscape. There are actually five visible low impact structures at Brithdir Mawr that you should be able to see from from Carningli: the goat shed, the straw bale barn, the cycle shed, the compost toilet and the Dome. You can't see them, though, can you? What you can see, much further away, are a great big country house with a caravan park and a farm with an enormous metal cattle shed. Hey ho.

Brithdir Mawr is now a community of twenty people aiming at living and farming with spirit, with simplicity and sustainably. To visit our website where you can get an idea of our life:click here .

UPDATE JUNE 17th 2005:

Here is a rant that formed the basis of our case over the years. Some of it duplicates the above, but I enclose it for keen historians. Hopefully we can establish a more positive way of working with the Park, now they realise they cannot just wipe us off the map.

STRATEGIC SUMMARY

The roundhouse was built by Jane Faith and Tony Wrench, with considerable help from our friends, over the winter 1997/8. It is an original permaculture design incorporating a round wood frame of hand-cut Douglas Fir forest thinnings.
The walls are cobwood with recycled double glazed windows. The roof is 150 bales of straw covered with a rubber pondliner then turfed. Heating is by wood stove. Electricity is solar. Water is piped from the mountain. Toilet wastes are handled by compost toilet, and grey water is handled by reed bed. No cement was used or building waste produced in the construction, and the structure is partly earth sheltered. It cannot be seen from any of the surrounding hills, and has been upheld as a good example of low impact housing. It cost 3,000 all in.

We built it at the invitation of the owners of the land, who were establishing a community based on environmental sustainability. This community still exists ( www.brithdirmawr.com).
The house was spotted from the air by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, (PCNP) which is the local planning authority. One day in August 1999 Jane was disturbed while undressing by a man in a raincoat peering in the front door. On being spotted, he scuttled off, his little dog on a lead in tow. He turned out to be the chairman of the PCNP planning committee, and has happily now lost his council seat. We received enforcement orders for several community buildings, this being one. The first time we met Catherine Milner (CM), the development control officer, was on walking into the kitchen at the main farmhouse to find her holding court, uninvited, to a television crew.
There followed two years of intense dialogue during which the PCNP dropped their general enforcement order against the whole project (although we are still not meant to show visitors the low impact structures for educational puposes), gave us a certificate of legal use (through clenched teeth) for the Dome, and gave permission for other parts of the project, such as the main compost toilet and the straw bale barn.

When we applied for planning permission for this Roundhouse, however, the opposition of CM was implacable, amounting in several cases to abuse of power, as I shall try to explain.

I applied for planning permission for the roundhouse to be classed as an agricultural worker's cottage, since that is what Jane and I basically were. My livelihood involved coppicing hardwoods on the farm, helping transport the logs by horse and cart up to my workshop near the main house, and turning them into plates and bowls by wind power. These craft products are still our main source of income. Jane milked the goats, made cheese, and worked in the gardens. To assess the case for an agricultural worker's dwelling in the countryside, the PCNP is required to ask the advice of the County Council Estates Dept. An officer duly arrived, spent a morning looking round the project, and wrote a report saying that as this was so far from the normal type of application (usually for a house for a tractor driver on a large industrial farm), and bearing in mind the legal requirements of a House of Lords case called Petter, in which the essemce of the rules was reiterated (the purpose of the rules is to prevent scams), he could not make a normal recommendation. CM baulked at this, telephoning and writing to him to insist that he made a recommendation. He therefore wrote back saying that if she insisted, he recommended giving us a temporary permission for three years, to check if we were really genuine. If this advice had been accepted, none of these subsequent battles would have arisen. Instead, she omitted to tell the committee of this report, and also managed to steer the committee away from making a site visit. (Almost everyone who sees this house likes it, and wonders what the fuss is all about - no doubt a majority of comittee members would have felt the same.)
One member, one of our neighbours across the river who is now the chairman of the planning committee, did visit. He liked the house and farm - looking at our hayfield brimming with wild flowers he referred to his super-fertilised tracts across the way and said "I could never afford to have fields like this" - but said some of his neighbours across the way were worried about our low impact dwelling. He abstained on the vote, but has since been told that under new rules he is not allowed to speak or vote on the roundhouse issue, since, as he has been here, he now has an 'interest' in us. This is, of course, bureaucracy gone mad.
I went to the committee meeting that voted against permission. I was about to speak to a sympathetic member beforehand when CM physically threw herself between us!
I was not allowed to address the committee. This rule has now been changed - too late for us. I have never been allowed to address the committee, and they have never visited the roundhouse.
I appealed against the refusal, and was pleased to hear from the Inspectorate, appointed by the Welsh Office and now continued by the Welsh Assembly Government, that the Assembly would take the final decision on this, as it was a 'novel planning issue'. Low Impact development is, indeed, a novel planning issue and is the subject of heated negotiations behind closed doors and also in the public inquiry into the Joint Unitary Development Plan in Haverfordwest. (March 28th 2005 is the provisional date for the inspector to hear oral representations). One month before the appeal was to be heard by public inquiry, I was informed that the Welsh Assembly would no longer be the final arbiter. CM had rung them up and remonstrated with the inspectorate, saying "What novel planning issue?? This is merely someone trying to get away with putting a cheap house up in the countryside!" And she succeeded! Instead Cardiff sent a dinosaur who rejected the advice of the County Estates officer because he said it went beyond his brief, and rejected the evidence of the Head of the School of Architecture of The University of Wales in Cardiff, choosing instead to call the roundhouse "visually intrusive" and saying that it causes "demonstrable harm", though no harm has ever been demonstrated.

Events have proceeded inexorably from this point, as I have not had the time or the money to take the case up through the courts. The last chance we had was when the report into Low Imact Developments (LIDs) came out, using the case of Brithdir Mawr as one of its case studies. We asked the PCNP for a delay of execution while this new policy was formulated, as this would obviously change the rules. The local Newport Town Council, asked for their comments about this, had now come round to seeing us as ordinary members of the local community, rather than as a problem, so recommended a six months delay. CM 'forgot' to report this to the planning committee, and we now stand beyond the time allowed, facing more prosecutions for not demolishing the house. TV programmes, countless articles in the press, a television vote by 'Country File' of 29,500 for against 2,400 against, emails, phone calls and pressure from the local AM Tamsin Dunwoody-Kneavesey have all made no difference. CM sees it as a matter of 'principle' to stamp out this example of permaculture design that hurts nothing or no-one and would almost certainly come within new guidelines within a year or so. It is partly because of the publicity over this house, in fact, that the issues behind the need for sustainable low impact homes have been so widely discussed and now taken on board by the Assembly and Pembrokeshire County Council.

For a more constructive way forward, please look at Permaculture Land.

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