Back in 1994 the British government promised to "bring sustainable development to bear in all areas of policy and in all sectors of society". Land-use planning was expected to play a key role in this, and over the intervening years "sustainable development" has been enshrined as the primary objective of the planning system. As readers of this magazine are well aware, the same period has also seen many DIY efforts to build ecologically sustainable lifestyles. But while these have often been promoted as examples of sustainable development, few have been embraced as such by planners. Sadly the planning system still routinely frustrates attempts to devise lifestyles which actually reduce ecological impact at source rather than paying to offset it elsewhere.
'Low impact' projects vary widely in the balance of priority between housing and agriculture, but usually share some version of a permacultural ethos which seeks to integrate humans, dwellings, and food crops with local landscapes and ecosystems. A range of agricultural and construction methods, craft skills and lifestyles cluster around this central principle. Practitioners aim not only to reduce dependence on imported materials but to (re-)create a local ecosystem with an ongoing role for human beings not just as beneficiaries, or even as managers, but as members of what Aldo Leopold famously called a "biotic community". Sustainability is interpreted as the achievement of a 'steady state' in which the necessities of human life can be reproduced indefinitely within the ecological capacity of the local environment1. All this entails a rejection of the view, deeply embedded in planning policy, that human presence in the landscape is necessarily destructive.
Planners' resistance is almost always focussed on on-site residency, which is a core aspect of permacultural land management. In a sense, the roots of this resistance are built into the 'official' definitions of sustainable development. In the canonical words of 1987's Brundtland report, which adorn the front page of so many statements of planning policy:
Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
This definition was a clever diplomatic compromise between new environmental concerns and existing demands for continued economic growth.2 This heroic balancing act was achieved by dodging the crucial question of what constitutes "needs" as opposed to desires or expectations. Rather than looking at what kinds or levels of human activity might actually be ecologically sustainable, it has always been focussed on sustaining development. The question immediately arises, as it does in so many other contexts, what is this thing called 'development'?
Development and dichotomies
Indian writer Debal Deb argues that the powerful modern concept of 'development', as applied internationally, follows seamlessly on from more overt colonialism.3 The idea that human societies 'naturally' evolve or develop in a specific direction, leading from 'primitive' hunter-gatherer cultures towards modern 'civilisation' with its oil-driven industrialisation and profit-driven economic growth, is certainly a strange one. It has murky origins in nineteenth century social Darwinism, and can only be properly understood in the context of colonialist politics and ideology.
For early liberals such as Adam Smith, allowing the famous "invisible hand" to do its mysterious work could ensure that the economic path a society followed would be beneficial for all. For later progressivists such as Marx and Kropotkin, inevitable increases in enlightened rationality enabled a conflict-ridden society to evolve into a mutualistic one. Despite their political differences, both groups believed that human societies would 'develop' spontaneously towards a particular end state, rather as, for instance, an oak 'develops' over its life cycle from an acorn to a mature tree. Societies, and hence their infrastructures, were thought to organically emerge and change, according to more or less inexorable and (for some) teleological forces.
However, Heinz Arndt traces a historical shift from this intransitive sense of the word 'develop' to a transitive sense in which 'backward' or 'uncivilised' places and peoples came to be seen as needing to be actively developed from outside by more 'advanced' colonial powers.4 Development became something that was done to people and places, rather than something that just happened spontaneously. This very different transitive sense of the verb was imported after world war two into the new doctrine of global economic development, and as Deb puts it, "is now universally accepted as a normative goal". This brought with it the powerful notion of 'underdevelopment', and "implie[d] that all the diversity of underdeveloped cultures and traditions must be homogenised and improved through the application of the Western model of industrial growth and Western way of life".
Philipp Lepenies shows how this framing of the world sits securely in a long tradition of "dichotomising" humanity from within dominant groups, dividing the world into 'us' and 'them'. The Ancient Greeks considered everyone outside their Hellenic world to be barbarians, Christians regarded everyone else as heathens, and European imperialists convinced themselves that the inhabitants of their colonies were "uncivilised" peoples. "Underdeveloped countries" are simply the modern equivalent. As Lepenies points out, the move to the more politically correct term "developing countries" just consolidates the dichotomy, by taking it for granted that the 'others' are inevitably yet voluntarily 'developing', and hence aspiring to 'developed' status. The apparent intransitive connotation of this use of the verb is illusory, since it still serves in reality merely to denote membership of the category "requiring development".5
Gustavo Esteva argues that the modern dominance of the development/underdevelopment paradigm can be traced back to the 1949 inaugural speech of US president Harry Truman, which called for "a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas". The end point of human social and economic 'development' was henceforth defined as industrialised, growth-oriented, market-economy societies on the US model, redefining the majority of the world, with its prodigious variety of other social and economic traditions, as 'underdeveloped'. The powerful organic metaphor of development lent an air of irresistible teleology to this influential picture.6
Development: separating people from land
But what Deb calls "developmentality" has always been about 'developing' land, as well as people. Australia, for instance, is identified by Arndt as the place where British colonial administrators first used the verb in its transitive sense. He suggests that the perceived harshness of the Australian landscape, combined with its sheer size and small population, gave rise to the idea that that continent would never 'develop' intransitively on its own, but could only be 'civilised' and made hospitable by being transitively 'developed' by the colonial power. This included not only investment in urbanisation and transport infrastructure, but also the wholesale introduction of European-style farming and American-style ranching, largely to produce surplus for export.
As elsewhere, these physical transformations entailed wholesale suppression of indigenous lifestyles and perspectives, and so brought about equally radical transformations of the human relationship with the land. Throughout the colonial period and into what might be called the development period, these transformations have always involved intensification of agriculture, and an associated promotion of moves away from subsistence-based relationships with land. Today, a prevalence of subsistence agriculture and its associated land-based lifestyles is still widely taken as a major indicator of 'underdevelopment'. In a vivid example of such thinking, the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni recently told the UN General Assembly that subsistence agriculture remained a key "bottleneck" which kept "black Africa wandering in the desert of undervelopment".7
In practice, whether voluntary or (much more commonly) involuntary, the move away from subsistence-based patterns of human habitation has almost always translated into migrations from rural to urban areas. Once land is enclosed and agriculture becomes a capitalist enterprise, 'efficiency' becomes key, and is understood in terms of yield per employee or per dollar, not as yield per hectare. Under these conditions, the inevitable consequence is that the non-landowning majority have to seek their subsistence elsewhere through the intermediary of jobs and money, rather than directly from the land – and this means moving to where the jobs and money are supposedly to be found. Development has always involved separating people from land, and this process has now reached the point where as of 2009, most human beings on the planet now live in urban areas.8
Conservation: protecting land from people
Conservation, now considered a key aspect of sustainable development, has also contributed to this rapid and largely involuntary separation. Beginning in the UK and US in the late nineteenth century, the enforced move away from land-based livelihoods eventually brought with it the new idea of nature conservation. Early environmentalists began arguing that 'nature' should be preserved by a further round of enclosure, to protect it from the destructive impacts of growing and industrialising human populations. When the first national park was established in the US, the Paiute people were forcibly removed from their native Yosemite to create the "wilderness" that city-dwellers wanted to believe in.
Indigenous and other local people continue to be evicted from parks and reserves today, particularly in Africa and Asia. Brockington and Igoe's survey of "eviction for conservation" gives a disturbing list of nearly 250 reported cases, and stresses that many more will inevitably have gone unreported. Ironically, these evictees are often the only people who really understand how humans can live sustainably in such places, which is why they are sometimes referred to as "ecosystem people".9
Planning rural England
It would of course be crass to suggest that the planning problems of permaculturists and low impact dwellers in modern Britain are comparable in seriousness to the life and death struggles of the indigenous peoples being evicted for conservation, or otherwise 'developed' out of existence, in Africa and Asia. Nor can they be equated with the tragic levels of misunderstanding and discrimination suffered by Roma and other nomadic peoples here in Europe, some of whose practices and technologies (such as the bender tent) have been adopted by British low-impact dwellers. Nonetheless, there are strong parallels to be drawn. In all these contexts, the resistance or suppression of people's efforts to "dwell in the land" has been justified by appeal to the alleged detrimental effect of human presence on valued landscapes, and/or to a perceived imperative to make agriculture more "efficient".
After World War Two, the new land use planning system in England and (to a lesser extent) Wales inherited a very British combination of both these ideas. People should be concentrated in built-up areas designed for the purpose, and the precious rural landscape conserved as what later came to be termed 'natural heritage'. Only farmers, who really needed to be there to produce food for everyone else, should be allowed to live in the "open countryside" outside defined towns and villages. But as farming became industrialised and food markets became global, the number of agricultural workers fell dramatically, leaving the picturesque (to some) but radically depopulated countryside we see today. Estimates of the decline in the numbers employed in UK agriculture vary widely, but one recent study suggests a drop from around a million in 1950 to less than 300,000 in 1990.10
From Trojan horse to apple pie
In the early 1990s the language of sustainable development began to appear first in legislation, and then in local plans. The adoption of Agenda 21 consolidated this change, and the objective of land use planning began to be redefined as the achievement of sustainable development. Geographer Susan Owens noted at the time that "rhetoric is moving rapidly ahead of theory", pointing out prophetically that
[T]he new rhetoric in planning policy guidance is accompanied by reiteration of the necessity and desirability of economic growth, exhibiting a confusion which will inevitably manifest itself in the planning process.11 In embracing sustainability, she argued, planners were being drawn into the new and challenging territory of "postmaterial values", value theory and bioethics. She suggested optimistically that "sustainability, eagerly endorsed by governments and at least partially encoded in legislation, may yet prove to be a Trojan Horse admitting radical environmental values".
Unfortunately, the Trojan Horse has turned out to be largely empty. Current guidance obliges planners to pursue the following "four aims of sustainable development":
1) social progress which recognises the needs of everyone;
2) effective protection of the environment;
3) the prudent use of natural resources; and,
4) the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.12
This remains a far cry from "admitting radical environmental values". The "desirability of economic growth" is still not to be compromised, and 'sustainable development' has become an aspirational apple-pie concept which effectively includes all politically desirable objectives of planning. This goes some way toward explaining the current lamentable rhetoric of rural planning, in which almost anything can be (and is) presented as a contribution to sustainable development. Some examples, with the "aims of sustainable development" they are said to contribute to, include building new houses and settlements in the countryside (aim 1), or not building them (aim 3); making it easier for farms to diversify into non-agricultural business or light industry (aims 4 & 1), or making this harder (aims 2 & 3); constructing new roads (aim 4) or not doing so (aims 3 & 4); strengthening planning controls in parks and reserves (aim 3) or loosening them (aims 4 & 1). This zero-sum game also applies to cases involving permaculture and low impact dwellings. Planning policies, and the arguments brought forward by the promoters and the opponents of each project, are framed in terms of achieving sustainable development. But both sides claim to be the ones who are achieving it, and hence the concept becomes largely redundant.
Is development sustainable?
Here the story becomes even more complicated. Confusingly, unlike 'sustainable development', 'development' does have a very specific meaning in planning law. For planning purposes, development is defined as "the carrying out of building, engineering, mining or other operations in, on, over, or under land, or the making of any material change in the use of any buildings or other land"13 This form of words was no doubt intended by its drafters as neutral terminology, unrelated to the conceptual and political minefields of wider 'development' discourses. Hopefully, the discussion above has shown that any such neutrality is impossible. Firstly this understanding and usage of 'development' clearly arises within an overarching paradigm of transitive development. Preplanned things are done to inert land by humans, in order to 'improve' it. ('Improvement', as applied to land, is of course another highly emotive and history-laden concept.) Though the bias is often subtle, the concept is not designed to facilitate organic 'bottom-up' emergence of practices and land uses.
Secondly, the description of human dwelling as a 'change in the use of land' is rooted in the idea that human presence is qualitatively different from the presence of other living things. Closely connected is the related idea that this presence is bound to be detrimental to other (often unspecified) desirable attributes of land. As discussed above, this idea has long been an important flipside of the "developmentality" mindset, particularly as applied to 'nature conservation'. This underlying mindset is revealed in the way the system structures the framing of applications for permission. Permaculture and low impact projects tend to happen on land zoned for agriculture, so their planning issues revolve around getting permission to change the use of at least part of the land to 'residential'. This brings them into conflict with the strong presumption against "new residential development in the open countryside" mandated by rural planning guidance and reflected in all local development frameworks.14
In most such cases, the only realistically possible way to justify residence on site is to present the project as a commercially viable agricultural business. There is some limited provision (under Annex A of PPS7) for permitting new residences needed for agricultural or forestry workers. But this provision is based on a view of an agricultural holding as a conventional business, that exists to produce surplus to be sold into the cash economy, and thereby pay the wages of its workers. Stringent 'functional and financial tests' have to be passed in order to gain permission by this route. The functional test requires applicants to show that their farming 'enterprise' needs someone to live on site in order to operate: the classic example is the need to tend to livestock at short notice. The financial test requires detailed business plans showing convincingly that the proposed 'enterprise' will produce sufficient clear profit to fully support however many people are to live there.
Both tests, but especially the latter, are hard to pass for permaculturists and others seeking to subsist on land in more or less informal ways. Even where a project does have the potential to produce substantial surplus, it may not be possible to predict in advance exactly how or when this may be achieved. It is also not uncommon for the income of such projects to come largely from educational activities, which do not always sit easily in this framework. The essence of these projects is that they are to a large extent experimental, since the most sustainable and efficient land management practices tend to be those which result from painstaking site-specific observation and experimentation over time. Last but not least, few applicants can muster the sheer amounts of time, money, expertise, cunning and determination required to present an attempt to live simply on a piece of land as a well-planned business enterprise.
Even once a business case is made, there are still arguments to be made addressing the presumption that human habitation will cause 'harm' to the local environment, particularly if 'unspoilt' countryside is involved. All in all, while applicants must tick the ill-defined box marked 'sustainable development', they must also show that the proposed 'development' itself will be 'sustainable', in economic rather than ecological terms. The two are judged by different, though sometimes overlapping, sets of highly demanding criteria. This leads to confusion and ambiguity, which while often rhetorically exploited by both sides in low impact planning cases, has tended overall to support refusals rather than grants of permission. It has also contributed to the emergence of a misleading distinction between 'site-specific' and 'wider' sustainability.
To be fair, the outlook is not by any means all bleak. Several recent appeal decisions, particularly the grants of permission to Landmatters and the Lammas project, have shown that some planning inspectors are now willing to consider the broader merits of low impact projects. But the latest round of planning guidance in England has taken a big step backwards by reinterpreting sustainability explicitly in terms of economic growth.15 Moreover as discussed elsewhere in this issue, the new government's intentions to outlaw retrospective applications and downgrade the powers of the Planning Inspectorate seem, if implemented, sure to make matters worse still.
People involved with permaculture and low impact projects tend to have a vision of sustainability spreading from the bottom up, rather than from the top down. This is often a vision of a future with many more people living on the land, and is frequently associated with an entirely understandable view that government in general, and planners in particular, are the problem rather than the solution. After all, the main current outcome of rural planning is the promotion of ecologically damaging growth-based patterns of capitalist land use. The alternative bottom-up perspective shows an understanding of the extent to which a "transitive" concept of development (as driven and controlled by government) can work against the organic emergence or "intransitive" development of more ecologically sensitive land uses and lifestyles.
But facilitating sustainability from the top down is also important. The concept of ecological sustainability implies deliberate control of many aspects of local and global economies. Even if a radically decentralised low-carbon society is the long term aim, plenty of co-ordinated large-scale action will be needed to get there. Land-use planning is likely to remain a key element of this co-ordinated action for the foreseeable future, helping to ensure that activities like housebuilding, power generation and agriculture are sensibly located and serve the common good rather than short-term profit.
Moreover, agriculture cannot be entirely divorced from commerce. In a densely populated country like Britain, there will always be a need for commercial agriculture, especially if imports are to be reduced. To this limited extent, John Gummer's dismissive comments about subsistence were right16: subsistence level agricultural production would not be a practical pattern of land use for the whole country. Unpalatable as it might be to some, there is also an urgent need to scale up, to apply the lessons of permaculture and other more sustainable land management practices to the formidable challenges of larger-scale food production.
This, though, makes it all the more important to nurture and learn from existing smaller-scale experiments. New land-based lifestyles – and reinvigorated older ones - can grow from tiny beginnings. There is little to lose and plenty to gain: some will not succeed, certainly, but even 'failure' can bring benefits rather than harm to 'the countryside', as well as to people. Forward-looking land-use planning is an essential part of managing the transition away from unsustainable oil-based agriculture, which will surely require encouraging experimental solutions. Even though planning is a top-down activity based on a transitive vision of development, it somehow needs to recognise that sustainability can also develop intransitively from the bottom up.
- 1. Bill Mollison described permaculture as "the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way." (Permaculture 1990). The Aldo Leopold quote is from The Land Ethic, in A Sand County Almanac, 1949. For more on steady state concepts of sustainability, see Herman Daly's Steady State Economics, 1992, Earthscan.
- 2. For discussion of "sustainable development" and the compromises that led to the Brundtland definition, see Dresner, Simon (2008) The Principles of Sustainability, Earthscan
- 3. Deb, Debal (2009) Beyond Developmentality: Constructing Inclusive Freedom and Sustainability, Earthscan
- 4. Arndt, H.W. (1981) Economic Development: a Semantic History Economic Development and Cultural Change 29 (3)
- 5. Lepenies, Philipp (2008) An Inquiry into the Roots of the Modern Concept of Development Contributions to the History of Concepts 4
- 6. Esteva, Gustavo 'Development' in Sachs (ed.) 1992 The Development Dictionary Zed Books
- 7. United Nations (2009) African States need to move faster on development, Uganda tells UN debate online at www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=32174&Cr=africa&Cr1=development
- 8. United Nations (2008) World Urbanization Prospects: the 2007 Revision
- 9. Brockington, D. & Igoe, J. (2006) Eviction for Conservation: A Global Overview Conservation and Society 4. See also Sian Sullivan's recent work on conservation and displacement, much of which is available at http://siansullivan.wordpress.com/. Barbier et al. (in Paradise lost? The Ecological Economics of Biodiversity, 1994, Earthscan) describe "ecosystem people" as those who "subsist largely on resources produced or gathered from their immediate vicinity, [and] often develop a strong social culture that reflects their close interaction and interdependence on the environment, both within and across generations." In this sense, permaculture practitioners worldwide are perhaps seeking ways of being 'ecosystem people' in a modern context.
- 10. Ogaji, Joy (2005) Sustainable Agriculture in the UK Environment Development and Sustainability 7. See Simon Fairlie's Low Impact Development (2009, Jon Carpenter) for more on the history of English rural planning.
- 11. Owens, Susan (1994) Land, Limits and Sustainability Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 19
- 12. ODPM (2005) Planning Policy Statement 1: Delivering Sustainable Development (PPS1)
- 13. 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, section 55
- 14. DEFRA (2004) Planning Policy Statement 7: Sustainable Development in Rural Areas (PPS7)
- 15. The 2009 guidance PPS4, Planning for Sustainable Economic Growth (the title says it all) removes many parts of PPS7, and sends a strong message that the sustainability that matters is economic, not ecological. See discussion in The Land issue 7.
- 16. Refusing an early appeal by Tinker's Bubble, the then Secretary of State John Gummer commented in 1995 that "the provision of groups of tents or similar residential accommodation in the open countryside merely to provide a subsistence living for the occupants, is not a practical pattern of long term land use".