It has been a decade since Tony Wrench built the timber, straw and turf roundhouse that he calls home, but it is only now that he feels truly secure. "It's taken ten years, but I certainly feel more solid in the house," he says.
Two months ago, Wrench and other members of the Brithdir Mawr eco-community finally won planning permission for a low-impact settlement in the Pembrokeshire Coast national park (Planning, 19 September, p4). The victory comes after a hard-fought battle of hearings, court cases and inquiries that has seen Wrench denied permission for his home on countless occasions and come close to disaster when the authority ordered him to demolish the structure.
Brithdir Mawr represents the first application to be granted permission under a pioneering low-impact planning policy introduced by the park authority and Pembrokeshire County Council in 2006. Under policy 52, the authorities' joint unitary development plan allows self-built homes such as Wrench's to be located outside normal settlement boundaries, provided that they fulfil stringent environmental criteria.
Until September, none of the three schemes pursued under the policy had been successful, prompting complaints that the policy was little more than a paper exercise. For Wrench, gaining consent represents an important milestone for others seeking a more sustainable lifestyle in the countryside. "It is really exciting," he says. "It opens the tiniest gap in the door for people to build their own low-impact settlements."
However, Wrench's victory could yet turn out to be only a half-step forward for the low-impact movement. Only a week before Brithdir Mawr was given the final green light, the council turned down another similar scheme under exactly the same rules because it was unable to satisfy the policy's strict green criteria.
Lammas is a proposed eco-community of nine carbon-neutral homes on a 30ha site of pasture and woodland. According to co-ordinator Paul Wimbush, the community would set new standards in environmental sustainability, being entirely independent of mains services and carefully costed to show how its inhabitants would be able to sustain themselves largely from produce derived from the land.
The Design Commission for Wales has backed the proposal as a benchmark for rural regeneration. But this is not good enough for the council. A report by rural development specialist ADAS says the application is unable to demonstrate that the community would be able to meet 75 per cent of its needs from the land, one of the main conditions of policy 52.
Wimbush says the Lammas scheme's failure shows that the battle to convince planners of the benefits of low-impact development is far from won. "I am pleased that the precedent has been set at Brithdir Mawr. However, what we need now is to get a project through prospectively rather than retrospectively to open up low-impact development to the mainstream."
A growing number of people want to build environmentally sustainable homes in the countryside according to Chapter 7, which offers a free planning advisory service for prospective self-builders. "There's no doubt that there is a large demand. We are getting more and more calls for help," says co-ordinator Simon Fairlie.
Fairlie describes the Brithdir Mawr decision as a positive step forward but believes that the planners may have been too harsh when considering Lammas. "You can go on picking holes endlessly in something as complex as this," he says. "At some point they have to let people get on and make experiments."
One glimmer of hope is that the Welsh Assembly is currently consulting on a countrywide low-impact policy as part of a broader review of affordable housing in Wales. But while Pembrokeshire's policy 52 is geared mainly towards people who want to make a living from the land, the majority of would-be self-builders are not necessarily interested in this.
"Probably only about a third of people who contact us actually want to make money from the land," Fairlie says. "Another two-thirds just want to build their own affordable home and the planning system is not catering for them. The assembly's consultation needs to look at low-impact development not just for agricultural workers but also for people who want to self-build an affordable home."
Wrench sees no alternative but for the planning system to change and urges ministers to act decisively. "With peak oil and global warming, planning cannot go on as normal," he insists. "It has to start to look at low-impact, zero carbon living and try to gear the whole of our society to move that way. For planning to be looking seriously at the future, it has to take this tiny opportunity to say 'here's a policy that works' and run with it."
1997-98: Tony Wrench builds roundhouse at Brithdir Mawr.
1999: Roundhouse spotted by surveillance plane.
2001: Planning inspector orders house to be demolished by following
2002: A temporary permission allowing the home elapses.
2003: Roundhouse scheduled for demolition once again.
2004: Squatters occupy house in direct action to prevent demolition.
2005: Roundhouse reprieved to reapply for permission under new policy
2007: Proposal fails to secure planning approval. Refusal appealed and
2008: Roundhouse granted three-year temporary permission.