Walk on the wild side

Nine committed families are self-building a true eco village in Wales. It’s pioneering stuff, says Paul Wimbush

The concept of the Lammas eco village was born around a campfire at a summer festival in 2005. From that moment on the project has grown and evolved in an independent, serendipitous and steadfast manner. At its heart is the idea that human beings form an intrinsic part of the landscape. Toward this end we have set about designing and building sustainable infrastructure sufficient to support a new settlement on 31ha; transforming degraded pasture and neglected woodland into a mosaic of diverse abundant ecosystems interwoven with a network of renewable services.

The settlement operates as a collective of nine eco-smallholdings in which people develop their own solutions to the challenge of sustainable living. We are about half-way through the set-up phase, and all the indicators suggest we are making good progress towards our goal.

Our residents come from all over the UK and from all walks of life. Some had experience of natural building and growing food while others had none. The smallholdings are all self-build and self-funded, and on the surface appear diverse in form and style. However the primary focus for the project concerns the energetic and resource patterns that underpin the development. Where does the energy come from? Where does the waste flow? Where do the construction materials originate? What will we do with the materials when they reach their end-of-life? How can we create self-supporting systems? Can we redefine our relationship with the land-base? 

‘One Planet Development allows for eco-smallholdings to be built in the open countryside so long as the applicants demonstrate a commitment to sustainable living, land-based productivity and zero carbon energy’

Through planning and beyond

While the project benefited from an innovative local planning initiative, the journey through the planning system was not easy. It took three years and an appeal to the Welsh Government to win planning permission. Since Lammas’ success, planning policy has been updated and adopted across the whole of Wales. Called ‘One Planet Development’, it allows for eco-smallholdings to be built in the open countryside so long as the applicants demonstrate a commitment to sustainable living, land-based productivity and zero carbon energy. The bar for such applications is set high and in addition to compiling a comprehensive management plan, developments are required to report annually on a range of performance indicators that include productivity, traffic generation and renewable energy. 

Relations with local people have also undergone quite a journey. During the height of the planning controversy there was massive local opposition. Many in the group found that very difficult. Following planning permission we reached out to the local community and have been very open about sharing our progress on the land. For the most part this seems to have precipitated a turn-around in local opinion. Now that we are setting down our roots we see ourselves very much a part of the local community. For while we are a community in ourselves, Lammas is structured to be as liberal as possible. Residents have bought 999 year leaseholds from the Lammas organisation and are free to sell these on the open market when they leave. These leaseholds are intrinsically tied to both the planning conditions and a management plan which ensure the core principles are adhered to. The arrangement also lays out what we refer to as the ‘hermit principle’ which ensures that all residents are free to choose whether or not to involve themselves in community affairs and gatherings.

The development is very much a grass-roots affair. None of us had any previous experience of housing development, farming or planning and, in line with our pioneering approach, we are learning as we go. 

 

More ups than downs

In some areas we have been very successful. We managed to obtain funding for a Community Hub building which provides an interface with the wider world. We run a multitude of courses and offer weekly guided tours throughout the summer. We have installed a 27kW hydro generator that supplies electricity to the project. We support research activities and offer practical and planning guidance for emerging projects. The land-based businesses within the project are looking strong and the increase in biodiversity across the site is remarkable. 

In some things we have met with significant obstacles. Fitting within a building regulations framework designed for conventional developers has not been easy. For the most part our structures are built using either natural or recycled materials.

On balance we are making good progress. Our third annual monitoring report indicates that we are generating approximately a third of the traffic that would be expected from a similar scale conventional development, that we have achieved a one-planet ecological footprint, and that we are on track to meet our land-based productivity targets. 

Similarly, of the nine households that have bought into the project, none has left. There is no denying that it has been hard work, but the benefits of a self-built dwelling tied into an interdependent ecosystem infrastructure include empowerment, affordability, security and a beautiful environment. Reward enough, it seems, for the commitment to playing a key role in the transition to a low-carbon future.


Paul Wimbush is a co-founder of the Lammas ecovillage in Pembrokeshire, and author of the book The Birth of an Ecovillage. 

More information available at www.lammas.org.uk