A planning decision that could have an important effect on the future of smallholdings has come about as a result of a battle over land in South Devon, writes Michael Wale.

The dispute arose over land at Greenham Reach, Holcombe, where planning permission was originally granted to develop three “affordable” residential smallholdings for new entrants to ecological agriculture.

Despite Mid Devon District Council’s planning department recommending that the plan should go ahead, councillors turned it down in June last year. Granting the Appeal, Inspector Jessica Graham said the council had failed to have regard for the aims of the Ecological and Land Co-operative, who fought the case, addressing the need to “reduce the negative impacts of conventional farming and globalised food distribution.” She added that there was a need for the workers to live on the land, and therefore need somewhere to live on site.

There are 22 acres divided into three plots and Shaun Chamberlin of the Co-operative told me: “We’re putting infrastructure on the site. Building a wooden barn with solar panels rainwater harvesting, a waste water and filtration centre dealing with grey water. The tenants have to put in their own bungalows. Housing will have to reach Sustainable Building code level 4.”

Campaigner and researcher Rebecca Laughton, who gave evidence at appeal, had earlier in the year warned an audience at the Real Farming Conference in Oxford about the dangers facing would-be smallholders. “I wrote an agricultural appraisal for people trying to get planning permission for people on smallholdings. Convincing the authorities it’s necessary to live on site is unbelievably difficult.”

She said that would-be smallholders must be aware of objectors assumptions. She outlined six in particular. Smallholders are just hobby farmers. Smallholders can’t produce as much food as ‘serious’ farmers. Their aims are naïve. They are too small to be viable. They create unsightly clutter and weeds in the countryside. They won’t engage with the local community. On this last accusation she admitted that this was sometimes so, and that “We really need to engage. First go down the local pub.” This received a loud roar of agreement!

It is interesting to note politically an important factor in the battle was a letter written on behalf of the Co-operative by Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston. He said: “I am heartened to see such a careful and thorough proposal which addresses both the need small scale domestic food infrastructure and the need for a transition to ecological agriculture.”

He explained that: “I am a member of the All Parliamentary Group on Agroecology, and it was for these reasons that our 2011 briefing paper, Key Policies for Agroecology in the UK, argued that planning should support the development of small farms, facilitating small-scale agricultural dwellings and other agricultural buildings on Greenfield sites where appropriate”. The Ecological Land Co-operative is a movement to provide affordable smallholdings for new farmers. The aim is to buy land and lease it at affordable rates. Each of the three sites at Greenham Reach will be leased for £72,000 each. n