Why are Hockertons so rare?

Simon Fairlie on planning issues for sustainable development projects…

Hockerton Housing Project

In 1998 construction minister Nick Raynsford formally opened Hockerton Housing co-operative, a terrace of five earth-sheltered eco-homes, with all the right on features: renewable energy generation, water-harvesting, car-sharing and on- site employment opportunities through a workers co-op. Even though it was outside the development area, the project had been given planning permission in 1994, partly through the enlightened outlook of the Newark and Sherwood Council's chief architect, David Pickles. The planning authority recommendation for approval stated:

"If this was a simple application for a housing scheme in the countryside it would not be at all acceptable… In this exceptional case there is a justification because the applicants have outlined in some detail how the whole development would interact and go some way towards creating a sustainable development."

A decade later Hockerton is still going strong. Meanwhile, national planning policy has almost caught up with Hockerton, embracing sustainable development with open arms and describing it as the core principle underpinning land use planning: policies have been introduced to promote micro-generation of renewable energy and there is a target to make all new buildings zero carbon by 2016. Yet the Hockerton experiment has never been replicated. In the last ten years, to my knowledge, there is not a single example of any multiple, permanent, housing development in the countryside which can boast that it is highly sustainable. There are one-off examples of eco-homes. There are multiple urban developments, notably BedZED. There are bender and yurt encampments like King's Hill and Tinker's Bubble, but Hockerton remains the only one of its kind.

This is not for lack of demand or for lack of trying. At Chapter 7 we have been approached numerous times by groups of prospective self-builders asking how they should go about securing land and permission for a cluster of affordable rural eco-homes with a measure of land-based self-sufficiency. Nor is it because planning policy is implacably opposed to such developments: the Rural Exception Sites policy, in Planning Policy Statement 3, allows for small affordable housing developments on the edge of villages, even when they are outside the development zone.

The main reason is that the planning process is so ponderous and so beset with obstacles that the aspirations and enthusiasm of ordinary people are worn away before the project can get off the ground. David Michael spent ten years steering through his acclaimed Springhill co-housing project, and that was on urban development land in Stroud. Hockerton which benefited from already owning the land, and from a good fairy in the council, took only two years to get permission, but its wind turbine was delayed a further 18 months: the cost of putting in the applications was one of the main reasons why the homes were much less affordable than originally intended.

Two projects currently in the pipeline, an affordable housing project proposed by the parish council at High Bickington in Devon, and Alan Heeks' co-housing project at Gillingham, Dorset, have both met refusal or resistance on the grounds that there is already sufficient market housing in the area -in other words house-building firms have got in there first and used up all the ‘quota’.

Part of the problem is that the planning system is so slow that only corporations can cope with it. Commercial developers, who amass landbanks and portfolios by placing options on potentially developable land, are used to waiting five, ten or fifteen years before a plot becomes ripe for development. When, over the course of time, a project's architect or planner retires or leaves for another job. the company simply hires someone else to carry it forward.

But hiring a replacement is not an option for community groups seeking to build their own dwellings. They have to locate land, find people, draw in capital, map out a business plan, secure loans, agree upon the design, hire consultants and run it all past the planners, who as likely as not are going to tell them to go back to the drawing board, or locate another site. People in need of housing do not have the time to let this process run its interminable course. Key partners in the project drift away as other opportunities arise, or give up in disgust and emigrate. Enthusiasm dwindles, money that was pledged is withdrawn, and the project totters and dies.

The frequency with which this happens suggests that community groups seeking to build affordable eco-homes are unlikely ever to succeed unless they become more daring and adopt strategies which bring returns within a year or two. Here are some suggestions, based on the principle that the safest course of action is the boldest:

  1. Locate a suitable plot of land for sale at hopefully not a great deal more than agricultural prices. It should be on the edge of a village with some facilities, in particular a shop and a primary school; it should conform, as far as possible, to other general development policies in the local plan; and it should provide potential sites for housing that are not going to aggravate neighbours.
  2. Buy the land in advance, by auction or tender. You can't lose by buying land. Buying outright is preferable to securing an option contingent on getting planning permission, for two reasons: firstly, it provides an immediate focus for the project -you can go there the day after purchase and plant daffodils, dig your garden, or stake out the plots; and secondly, if you secure an option you are likely to have to pay the seller some of the enhanced development value of the land.
  3. Contact the planners, tell them that you will shortly be putting in an application on the site and ask them what they want to see. Work up the design, the management plan, a means of securing affordability, a green travel plan, the sustainability audit, and lodge a planning application.
  4. Allow the planners a predefined amount of time to respond positively, no more than a year. If they are constructive, so much the better; if they refuse you, put in an amended application addressing their objections. At the end of the year, if they persist in refusing you, or keep messing you around, move onto the site.
  5. To move onto the site effectively you need to erect houses quickly; to minimize the risk you need to be able to remove them quickly. Everything speaks in favour of portable wood-framed buildings that can be moved on and off site and stored or sold if necessary.
  6. But, of course it won't be necessary to move them off, not if you've done your homework properly. If the site is in a sensible location close to a village, if you can demonstrate a need for the development (and what better way than by moving on?), if you have properly secured the affordability of the dwellings, and if the development is a shining example of sustainability, then I can't see many enforcement appeal Inspectors turning it down and ordering the eviction of families who have provided such model accommodation for themselves. This is the way that bender and yurt dwellers managed to get the planning system to acknowledge and accept their existence.

This is the way that travellers and gypsies persuaded the Labour government that the policies introduced by Michael Howard needed repealing. And I suspect it may be the only way that we will ever get self-built, affordable eco-homes onto the map.

About the author
Simon Fairlie is editor of The Land, an independent publication and essential reading for anyone interested in land access and its use, www.tlio.org.uk. He is also founder of Chapter 7, an organization which lobbies government for policies which provide for low income people seeking low impact opportunities in the countryside.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of the Green Building Press. It first appeared (2007) in the Green Building Magazine (formerly Building for a Future). The Green Building Press is dedicated to promoting sustainable and environmentally responsible construction. Copyright © Green Building Press / Simon Fairlie