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Mon 28 September 2020
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How Wales’ nature-led smallholdings came of age during the COVID-19 crisis and point to a new way of living in a planet under threat

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It’s a few weeks into lockdown. Over a patchy Skype call, I watch as Matthew Watkinson trudges up the slopes of his off-the-grid property in Pembrokeshire, West Wales.

On most days, the windswept hillside above Newport Beach feels wild and rugged – a sea of green hues punctuated by craggy ridges. At this time, while city dwellers remain cooped up in cul-de-sacs and apartment blocks, it appears like a Celtic Shangri-La.

“We didn’t really trust the rest of the world to look after us properly,” Matthew says about why he and his family left their suburban home in Essex for Pembrokeshire. “We weren’t really predicting a viral pandemic like this, but we were concerned.”

The 2008 financial crisis was a wake-up call. He and his wife were worried about species decline and climate change. But they felt further unease as the global economy faltered.

“I’m not really a prepping, conspiracy theorist type person, but mainstream science was telling us there’s a big problem environmentally,” he says. “It just struck me that I didn’t want to be that reliant on all these massive corporations when there’s a different way.”

Today, his mostly timber home – built from a recycled horse lorry – a camper van and two flat bed trailers, blend into the landscape. But, amid the fern and gorse, the family of four have enough resources to satisfy their basic requirements.

Photo: Matthew Watkinson

Solar panels, a wind turbine, firewood and a biogas digestor provide their energy. A spring supplies them with fresh water, and honey and egg sales generate income. Within a few years, the land should also provide most of their food. 

“I don’t think we could have done a better job of making sure the family was in the best position for something like this,” Matthew says, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic and looming UK recession, likely to be the worst for 300 years.

“We don’t have a mortgage, we don’t have utility bills, so we’re not worrying about electricity or water or losing our house through repossession or anything like that. We’re not totally separate from society… but we’re more insulated than most.”


The Green Deal

While this might seem like an exercise in individualism, Matthew’s living situation in fact stems from a radical Welsh planning policy, which set a new precedent for rural existence.

His property is a One Planet Development (OPD), a subsistence-based smallholding built in open countryside. In total, there are 42 dotted throughout Wales. But this planning status comes with conditions.

A household’s ecological footprint must be a fraction of what most produce. Its occupants must also meet 65% of their minimum needs after five years – taking account of food, water, energy and waste. Additionally, their premises must be carbon neutral and allow for an on-site business.

“If people were going to have access to purchase land at agricultural prices in the countryside, they had to give back big time in terms of their stewardship functions of that land,” says Dr Jane Davidson, the ex-Welsh Minister responsible for the policy.

OPDs sprang from ‘One Wales: One Planet’, a sustainable development scheme launched in 2009. This tied factors such as national prosperity and public health to citizens living within their ‘environmental limits’ and later inspired Wales’ landmark Well-Being of Future Generations Act.

“For me, this was about a different form of governance,” Jane explains. “Environmentalism, [viewed] by traditional economists, is seen as preventive and stopping actions. I don’t see this at all in that way. For me, it’s about… changing to new actions.”

This nature-led approach sits at odds with Boris Johnson’s ‘Build Back Greener‘ policy to boost economic growth after the pandemic. Groups such as Greenpeace and the National Trust say that the Prime Minister’s proposal for re-launching the economy in this way is ineffective and poses risks to wildlife habitats. Action group Plan B has gone a step further, taking legal action against the recovery measures, which they say will contribute to a “climate breakdown”. 

But, by allowing people to live on agricultural land, covering three-quarters of Wales, the OPD concept wasn’t without controversy.

“It flew in the face of conventional planning wisdom – ever since the Second World War and the attempt to preserve greenbelt around cities,” says David Thorpe, a writer and journalist.

His book, One Planet Life, argues that mass job creation, food security and the replenishment of soils would result from “recolonising the countryside” with labour-intensive OPD farms. But he also suggests small settlements, and even cities, could adopt their principles.

“There’s two different kinds of community,” he says. “One is a cluster of houses, where they’re all still responsible for their own management plan and they live fairly separate lives… [another], where it’s a genuine village, where a lot of the services are combined.”


A New Way of Living

Tucked away amid Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills, Lammas ecovillage shows how this could work in practice.

The community formed in 2009, obtaining permission to do so under a council-led initiative.

“In a sense, we were a continuation of the low-impact development movement that has been evolving in this country for decades and decades,” says Tao Wimbush, a founder of the village. “But we were pioneers in that… instead of acting outside the planning system, we were attempting to create a niche and operate within it.”

Back then, he believed self-sustaining communities were essential for the future of human existence. Today, he sees this as beyond doubt.

“On one level, it’s just a kind of game – patience and waiting,” Tao says. “The current social, political status quo has to transform. And it can either choose to embrace that transformation or it will be forced upon it. Why? Because the ecology will require it.”

Photo: Matthew Watkinson

Lammas began as a collaborative enterprise, whereby stakeholders made joint decisions about community needs. Over the years, this system evolved. Today, families tend plots for their own requirements.

Like on most OPDs, Tao cultivates indigenous crops that flourish without the need for fertilisers. Proponents say that this model, known as permaculture farming, yields up to five times the produce of industrial practices, while increasing biodiversity. But volatile weather remains a challenge.

“It’s a constant dance,” Tao says about working in this way. “Last year we had ‘the beast from the east’, which brought in some really heavy frosts in late March, beginning of April. That had a knock-on effect right through the growing season.”

Tao doesn’t just rely on plant-based protein, however. From his window, he motions to a “wether”, a castrated male goat, in a nearby paddock. “It’s walking around at the moment,” he says, “[but] I’m just waiting for the right time to kill him and chop him up.”

For city-slickers, bred on a diet of cellophane-wrapped meat, this may sound alien. But Tao insists that OPD life isn’t about disavowing society altogether.

“Most of us do a bit of part-time work in the mainstream… whether it’s nursing, a bit of mechanics, a bit of planning consultancy,” he says. “We drive vehicles. We use a bit of fossil fuel. But by and large… our lifestyles are balanced, and in a way, that’s what the planning policy does.”


Veggie Experts

On the border of Caerphilly and Cardiff, close to the capital’s smartest suburb, lies Dan and Sarah Moody’s OPD.

As teens, they felt inspired by John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, a bible for those wanting to live off-the-grid. 

“We just used to browse it and kind of dream of maybe… having a little smallholding of five acres, and having sheep and chickens, and growing vegetables,” Sarah says.

Photo: Matthew Watkinson

Advocates suggest that networks of OPD farms in locations such as this could supply major hubs. But Sarah and Dan had a more practical reason for moving off-the-grid.

“We couldn’t afford to live in the house that we were in,” says Dan. “So we just moved onto the land, with like five home-educated kids, and lived in a Mongolian Yurt and a gypsy caravan and an old lorry that was set up as a living space.”

Photo: Matthew Watkinson

Over time, they added a barn and shipping container, along with a wooden cabin, the basis of their current home. But, in 2012, their off-the-grid dream was threatened. “The planners walked down the drive,” says Dan, the dread still lingering in his voice.

No Welsh council had accepted an OPD proposal at this point. The policy had effectively stalled, with applicants unable to prove their viability to sceptical local authorities. In 2014, after a lengthy process, the Moodys became the first to be approved.

“Once we managed to get planning permission, it seemed to just open it up for everyone else,” says Sarah. “Now, I think it’s much easier to go through the process.”

Like most of those living on OPDs, Dan and Sarah learned to optimise their land’s resources over many years, without any formal training.

Photo: Matthew Watkinson

“We started growing our own food, and then, the kind of realisation of how important organic and good food is, and looking after the environment, and looking after the soil, and looking after all that sort of stuff [took place],” Dan says.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) there was a 147% rise in gardening and DIY activities during the start of lockdown in March. As their neighbours saw the value of growing crops, Dan and Sarah’s knowledge became indispensable.

“Now, it’s that whole thing of ‘how much do you charge for that?’” Sarah says, chuckling at the twist of fortune. “We’re experts… vegetable experts!”


We Only Have One Planet

As more people work remotely, the idea of swapping clogged cities for palatial eco-homes may sound appealing.

Ryan Anderson (not their real name) was someone who made this trade.

“Basically, we were looking for a different way of life,” he says. “We weren’t on the housing ladder. We didn’t want to get into mortgage debt. So we were looking for gaps, possibilities.”

This began when he moved with his family to Wales in 2013 and put down roots in a community. Three years later, they found a site that fit the planning criteria. But, since moving onto the land last May to build their home, it hasn’t been easy.

“We’ve been living in sheds over winter, and it’s been freezing and quite challenging with all these big storms,” he says. “We’ve got two kids, [and] we really want to get in our house by next winter.”

His land will also require a lot of work to bear fruit. Unlike others living on OPDs, who are now managing a multi-layered ecosystem, Ryan and his family are just beginning this journey.

“We’ve been working the land, planting apple trees, which take a good five years to really be quite productive, so there’s a time factor,” he says. 

In the eyes of those pursuing this route, however, the hardship is worth bearing. Ryan is not part of the ‘cottagecore’ trend of romanticised country living. He views this action as essential in preserving the world’s resources.

“Everybody really needs to be doing ‘one planet living’,” he says. “Because if we’re going to sustain ourselves, we’ve only got one planet. We haven’t got two.”

Yet, despite the support offered by the Welsh Government, there hasn’t been an explosion in OPD properties and the concept still fills a minor role in the country’s environmental policy agenda. 

Despite this, those beating this path today believe that they are setting a precedent for the future. And, as the Coronavirus pandemic uproots economic orthodoxy, a social security net arising from nature, not capital, may be the only way forward.


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