Econews West Wales

Economy, environment, sustainability

News: Council Urges Looser Controls on Development in Rural Carmarthenshire

Plans to regenerate rural areas, including the construction of new council houses, were approved by Carmarthenshire County Council on September 11th.

The rural north of the county would have 28 new council homes in the first three years of the scheme, split between land at Alltwalis School and land opposite Llangadog School. These would be followed by 74 more in the second phase of the 10-year plan, which would build 900 new council homes throughout the county, at a cost of £150 million.

Rural and market town locations in the second phase include 27 homes at Pencrug, Llandeilo, including 14 to let at social rents, 12 in Llandovery (6 for social rent), 6 in Llansawel (4 for social rent), and 20 at Llandysul (8 for social rent).  In addition, there would be nine new council houses in assisted living schemes.

In areas of high housing need, the council will continue to buy homes on the open market, councillors were informed. More than 200 new homes have been sourced in this way in the past three years.

The council has a subsidiary company, Cartrefi Croeso, to build homes for rent and for sale. Cartrefi Croeso can raise money from several sources including three from the Welsh Government – the Affordable Housing Grant, providing 58% of new-build costs; Innovative Housing Programme, for super energy-efficient, low carbon homes such as those from Pembrokeshire company Ty Solar destined for Burry Port; and Self-Build Wales, enabling local authorities to provide land for self-builders, who can apply to Welsh Government for two-year 75% interest-free loans.

The council housing plans reinforce new policies for rural regeneration, also approved by the county council on September 11th. The proposals are in the Report and Recommendations of the Carmarthenshire Rural Affairs Task Group, chaired by Cllr Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru, Llanfihangel Aberbythych). The report argues for more flexible planning regulations in rural areas and for small developments in villages to support the rural economy.

“There needs to be a move in local planning policy from larger housing developments in our main towns to an approach which enables a suitable mix and proportion of development in our rural towns and communities to address local housing demand and need,” the report advises. (p.15)

The Task Group urges the council to hold on to its 25 farms and land, including associated fishing rights, and to investigate the feasibility of backing the creation of new smallholdings, outside settlements, on the basis of local need and their potential positive contribution to the economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability of the local community. (p.23)

There is already the Welsh Government policy for One Planet Development smallholdings, allowing new land-based enterprises in the countryside but subject to strict criteria for self-sufficiency and resource use. The Task Group’s recommendation for more smallholdings builds on this precedent.

Other plans include working with Coleg Sir Gâr on Prosiect Slyri, to dewater and purify slurry, a venture of national significance to cut slurry’s damaging impact on watercourse pollution, and to bring milk processing back to Carmarthenshire with a co-operatively owned factory which could “build on the already strong foundations for local cheese”. (p.35)

The Task Group also wants to change the rules determining whether a farming business can construct an additional dwelling on the land. This currently depends largely on whether the farm income will be large enough to support an additional household. The Task Group’s idea is to include income from off-farm as well as farming sources, on the grounds that farm incomes are likely to be under sustained pressure and members of farm households will increasingly have to work in other jobs. There is also a recommendation that an additional dwelling on a farm could be built “a reasonable distance outside of the working farmyard” for reasons of health and safety, biosecurity, and avoidance of zoonotic diseases.

A more flexible approach to development should be “based on local need and opportunities in rural areas so that people working within the agricultural sector and wider community are able to diversify and adjust as appropriate”, the report says. (p.21) The countryside is crucial to Welsh as a living language, and so protection for the language should be strengthened in planning law, the Task Group urges.

The county council will now be pressing for more flexibility in national policies and guidance, for multi-agency and multi-sector working, and for the definition of ‘deprivation’ to be amended to better reflect issues of rurality.

Almost 113,000 people live in Carmarthenshire’s rural areas, 61% of the county total, and half are Welsh speakers. Nearly one person in every four in the county, 23.3% in 2017, was aged 65+, and only 9.4% were aged 16 to 24.

The Task Group had 10 members drawn from across the council’s political groupings.

PDR

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Opinion: Tracking a Tragedy

Whistleblower hell

by Pat Dodd Racher

Why do whistleblowers suffer so much indignity and financial damage?

There is one case I have been following for seven years, but its origins go back 16 years to 2003. Authorities said it was a dispute between neighbours, and so it was, but also so much more.

Maybe there is an assumption by some that newcomers from over the Severn Bridge are more likely to be at fault than local people already living next door. Maybe the police don’t ask enough questions when an aggrieved resident accuses a neighbour of harassment. Maybe organisations are more concerned about damage to their reputations than about harm resulting from their inaction. In the case of retired couple Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts of Pantycastell Fach, Maesybont, Carmarthenshire, failings under all these headings, and more, have led to them experiencing years and years of victimisation.

Evidence has been studiously ignored to the point of asking why amass proof, why not just put Trisha and Eddie into Medieval ducking stools, and tell them if they drown they are innocent and if they survive, they are guilty? Damnation either way!

The ‘fake news’ phenomenon is hugely damaging. Take the crowds, or absence of them, at President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Photographic evidence showed that Trump’s crowd was smaller than the crowd of his predecessor, Barack Obama. “Fake News,” trumpeted Trump, who in this way dismisses facts he doesn’t like, aided by legitimate fears that photographs can so easily be altered. Suspicions grow that all evidence, including evidence obtained by Trisha and Eddie, may be suspect, and that is a big step towards ignoring it.

The adversarial legal system in England and Wales does not help, either. The winners are the lawyers who present their arguments to greatest effect, so the central skill is persuasion, not investigation to illuminate the salient facts.

 

Dream cottage blues

Back in 2003, Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts from Sussex bought Pantycastell Fach, a 6.5-acre smallholding at Maesybont, from Mrs Ann Gifford, who was selling up after only six months. She had purchased from Mr John Lawday, who had alerted Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning department to unauthorised industrial operations at Blaenpant Farm, the next-door property. Arthur Bleasdale, who lived nearby at Ffynnon Goch, had also complained to the council that Blaenpant was the scene of industrial operations, and his concerns were logged. But pre-sale searches did not discover these complaints.

Trisha made a Freedom of Information request for data on complaints relating to Blaenpant which had reached the council’s planning department, and was given a file documenting complaint after complaint. But according to the council, Blaenpant Farm was merely a contact address for a haulage business operated elsewhere.

The pretty setting of Pantycastell Fach.

Trisha had been looking forward to a quiet life on the smallholding with its pretty cottage, and enough land for her elderly Connemara mare Minnie and for the cattery she hoped to establish – and for which she obtained planning permission. The couple paid mostly in cash but also took out a mortgage to fund construction of the cattery.

The cattery was never built, because of problems which emerged about a year after the couple moved in, and which left Trisha feeling too nervous to remain in the cottage on her own. This meant that Eddie, who had been intending to live in Sussex for part of the week and repay the mortgage with earnings from his taxi business there, decided he had to live in the cottage full-time, so that Trisha would not be alone.

Why had Trisha become anxious? She was embroiled in a dispute with their neighbours, a dispute which took over her life, and which diminished the pair’s financial resources so much that the only way they could repay the mortgage is to sell the property — but their long-running history of dispute with the next-door landowner, which would have to be declared to an intending purchaser, depressed the market value. Estate agent Ewan Davies of BJP said on TV in 2006 that the property had lost at least 30% of its market value, and Dewi Price of Roderick Price estimated a value drop of a similar amount.

Blaenpant next door was, since 2001, home to Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas. Karen ran a heavy haulage business, KBHS Ltd, operating without planning permission on what was supposed to be a farm. Andrew Thomas, a scrap metal wholesaler, is the main owner of A J T Recycling Ltd, a company with almost £1.5 million in shareholders’ funds at the end of November 2018.

KBHS Ltd, which was dissolved in 2014, had a website stating the company’s base as Blaenpant Farm, and describing a large contract undertaken in 2002 for the removal of 120,000 cubic metres of material over a 13-week period. The products and services listed included demolition, excavation, groundworks, scrap metal and tipper hire. This was an industrial operation, open seven days a week, Monday to Sunday, and not light industrial either.

 

Lots of planning applications, but none for industrial operations

Seventeen planning applications relating to Blaenpant, between 1998 and 2011, are recorded in Carmarthenshire’s planning department. Not one of them applies for any industrial activity. All but one are ‘agricultural’ or ‘agricultural/equestrian’ in nature. The first application (E/01257), dated August 21st 1998 and from Mr R Jones, was to convert a farm building into a dwelling. This was refused. The next application (TG/01947), on July 26th 2002 and by Karen Bowen Thomas, was a prior notification of permitted agricultural or forestry development, and the planning department decided that the work, to level the land on top of an old quarry, could go ahead without any planning permission.

A few days later, on July 31st 2002, another quite small application (TG/02011) was received, for a new access from the public road, and was approved. After a gap of 18 months, on January 23rd 2004, Karen Bowen Thomas submitted a further notification of permitted development for agriculture or forestry (E/05992), this time to import about 500 tons of subsoil and topsoil. Planning officers agreed that this was indeed permitted development.

In April 2004 came another notification (E/06708) for intended permitted development, for an agricultural implement store and hay shed, 99 feet by 50 feet. This did not get the go-ahead, and Karen Bowen Thomas was told to submit a formal planning application. She did so in July, asking (E/07519) for a store for farm machinery and hay, but the planning committee said no. Refusal was recommended to the committee by planning officer Ceri Davies, who explained that there was “insufficient justification for the proposed development at this location due to the lack of agricultural activity at the farm unit” and also because the applicant had failed to demonstrate that the shed was reasonably necessary for agriculture.

So back in 2004 the council was well aware of a lack of agricultural activity at Blaenpant.

Karen Bowen Thomas appealed, and probably to the annoyance of the county council, the appeal was upheld. The shed was built, with the help of another permitted development (E/09576) from the council, for the excavation of quarry overburden and rock and the use of the material for levelling the ground on which the building would be constructed.

Next, in October 2005, Mr and Mrs Thomas applied (E/11544) to convert a former cowshed to a farm office and tack room, and received permission. In August 2006, they applied (E/14109) for a detached garage, which was allowed. They were not so fortunate with a much larger application (E/14145) the same month, for a cow shed 97 feet by 30 feet, which was refused for lack of agricultural activity and no demonstrable need for a large cow shed.

After a minor application (E/14648) for roof alterations on another building, which was approved, the cow shed application was resubmitted in all but name, this time (E/17981) as a notification of permitted development and in the guise of a hay and implement shed, a little smaller at 78 feet by 30 feet but on the same site as the proposed building in application E/14145. This would be the second large implement and hay store, on a farm where there was a “lack of agricultural activity”.  The planning department agreed that this was indeed permitted agricultural development not requiring any planning permission, and the building was constructed.

The first and second hay and implement storage buildings had a total length of 177 feet, and sufficient indoor space to store a substantial number of tractors or other vehicles. The complex would be far less noticeable if it were screened with trees, and if attractively landscaped could look smart on an industrial estate, but it is not located on a business park. The home of Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts is immediately to the south, accessed by a track which crosses Blaenpant land.

The applications continued. In January 2008 Mr and Mrs Thomas requested permitted development rights (E/18176) for a new road, opening into the access track to Trisha Breckman’s and Eddie Roberts’ home. Planners told them that formal permission would be necessary, and the road was not constructed.

Later the same year, in September, Mr and Mrs Thomas asked (E/19928) for a replacement agricultural building, which was allowed as the footprint was only slightly larger than the existing structure. In July 2009 Mr Thomas, who by then was a widower, applied retrospectively (E/21494) for a hardstanding area adjoining the Carmel Transmitter Mast, for the “parking and storage of agricultural vehicles and implements”, but this was turned down and the subsequent appeal was dismissed.

In rejecting the application, the planning team revealed  some knowledge about the nature of activities at Blaenpant, stating “It is acknowledged that the farm complex is occasionally utilised to park some of the applicant’s haulage vehicles”, but justified this as “permitted under the provisions of the General Permitted Development Order”. This is a long document but Part 4, Class B, states that “the use of any land for any purpose for not more than 28 days in total in any calendar year” is permitted. The applicant’s undoing was the fact that the storage area by the mast had already been hard-surfaced, and was being used for parking  vehicles, storage containers and a “considerable amount of deposited materials”, and so planners concluded the development was “excessive in scale particularly due to the lack of existing agricultural activity currently taking place on the land”.

Finally, in November 2011, Mr Thomas received permission (E/25234) for changing the use of one building from agriculture to mixed equine stabling and agriculture, and for the parking of equestrian vehicles, and (E/25246) also for resurfacing an access to fields with clean stone.

Trisha Breckman: sixteen stressful years.

Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts are victims of the council’s initial belief that Blaenpant was an ordinary farm, and of the determination to cling on to that belief in public when officers’ responses to the applications for big new buildings show their awareness that Blaenpant was definitely not an ordinary farm.  They are also victims of the very common shoot-the-messenger syndrome. When you don’t want to deal with bad news, you might yell at the messenger, even land a right hook and floor him, because doing that seems a whole lot easier, and more immediately satisfying, than resolving the underlying issue.

 

Threats and bullying

There are videos about the Breckman/Roberts case on You Tube. They include five broadcasts of the TV news programme Wales This Week, between February 2006 and March 2008, which show in horrible detail the harassment suffered by Trisha and Eddie. That harassment, emanating from the ‘farm’ next door, included using motorway crash barriers to narrow the access track from 14 feet to nine, so narrow that the Fire Brigade complained that it was too narrow for a fire engine. Trisha and Eddie had a legal right of way over the track, which was part of the property of Blaenpant Farm. Two solid gates with locks were erected across the track, making it difficult for Trisha and Eddie to leave their cottage. An old, dilapidated removal-van type lorry was parked on the boundary close to the cottage and not removed until 2017; a large board on stilts blocked the view from a bedroom; two pigs called Eddie and Trisha were put in a pen directly under human Trisha and Eddie’s bedroom window. The TV programme in February 2006 showed Karen Bowen Thomas telling Trisha pig not to poke her nose in where it wasn’t wanted.

An old heavy goods vehicle loomed above Trisha’s and Eddie’s home. It has been removed.

“I didn’t have any cross words with neighbours in the first year,” said Trisha. “The arguments with them only began once they had altered our right of way. That happened after Adam Price, then our MP, wrote to the county council in November 2004 about the complaints over unlawful, noisy industrial operations such as quarrying and heavy haulage at Blaenpant, when there was no planning permission for such activities. The Thomases appear to have been told that Adam had written and took offence. They began the harassment immediately, and narrowed our right of way in January 2005.

“The quarrying was within the Cernydd Carmel Special Area of Conservation, and should not have been done without permission from both the county council and the then-Countryside Council for Wales, which since 2013 has been part of Natural Resources Wales.”

Special Areas of Conservation are approved by the European Union and are supposed to be protected and preserved. Cernydd Carmel is a limestone ridge with important topographical and biological features, “but at Blaenpant the limestone was quarried unlawfully and stone was removed,” said Trisha.

 

Authorities turned on the victims

What to do? “The council advised us to collect evidence of the unauthorised activities,” said Trisha. “So we started to film the haulage lorries, including lorries carrying quarried stone, and sent this evidence to planning enforcement.” The film evidence convinced ITV Wales’ current affairs programme Wales This Week, which reported on the dispute multiple times between June 2005 and March 2008, and also persuaded BBC1 Wales, which broadcast The Good Life Gone Bad in October 2012. The programmes are on You Tube for anyone to watch.

But the council did nothing.

Andrew and Karen, stepping up their campaign, complained that Trisha’s and Eddie’s filming was harassment against them. They took their accusation to the police, and soon two officers were knocking on the door at Pantycastell Fach, asking for the films, arresting Trisha and removing her to a police cell. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided that the filming showed Trisha and Eddie harassing Andrew and Karen, which suggests that either they did not view the films or did not understand them, because the opposite was clear to the Wales This Week team. In the end, the CPS realised their mistake, but not before heaping more pressure on beleaguered Eddie and Trisha.

Was it sloppy assessment? Deliberate bias? Reluctance to confront the aggressors? Andrew Thomas was convicted in 2007 of assaulting two women the previous year, two women who were trying to stop him from insulting Eddie Roberts as Eddie sat in his taxi in Carmarthen. Andrew Thomas pushed over witness Katy Griffiths, and Carey Worthy, a passer-by, said it was “hideous behaviour”.

Accusations from Andrew and Karen resulted in Trisha being arrested six times. Almost ten years on in 2016, the-then Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys Police, Christopher Salmon, made a full, unreserved apology – an apology which Trisha and Eddie said went far beyond any statement made by Carmarthenshire County Council, the local planning authority in the case.

The police apology, signed by Simon Prince, the Chief Constable, and Christopher Salmon, the Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed Powys, includes these words:

“It is quite clear that you have been severely let down by the authorities (my emphasis) and for the part played by Dyfed Powys Police in this we apologise whole heartedly.”

 In addition to the apology from Dyfed Powys Police, Trisha Breckman received a further apology from Christopher Salmon, as follows:

“We are apologising for all the hurt and pain caused throughout your experience, including any implied attack on your integrity.

“I do not want to lose the force of an unbounded apology. However it absolutely applies to any unsubstantiated comment or accusation, implied or otherwise, against your integrity. We acknowledge they are hurtful, embarrassing and deeply personal. For that we are sorry.

“Officers will continue to do all they can to help you with any ongoing issues. You are not accused of anything and your integrity is not in doubt.”

Despite this apology, the repercussions of officialdom’s hostility remain, and include financial problems which the couple cannot easily resolve because Trisha and Eddie have advanced in age, Trisha to 75 and Eddie to 82.

Although Carmarthenshire County Council refused to accept officially that planning regulations were being flouted at Blaenpant, Rhodri Glyn Thomas (Plaid Cymru), the former Welsh Assembly member for Carmarthen East & Dinefwr, and current county councillor Cefin Campbell (Plaid Cymru), both accepted that Trisha and Eddie have suffered because of intransigence by the county council, and supported them through difficult times.

 

What lorries?

The haulage business at Blaenpant, operating when Trisha and Eddie moved in to Pantycastell Fach in 2003, did not exist in the eyes of the county council. The then-Planning Enforcement Manager, Brian Canning, and the then-Head of Planning Services, Eifion Bowen, said there was no breach of planning regulations. Therefore there was no industrial business operating without the need to pay business rates (because farms are exempt). Instead, officers in the planning department accused Trisha and Eddie of making baseless complaints. Eventually the pensioner couple were put on a list of persistent complainants and for a time were stopped from contacting council staff and councillors, with the exception of one designated person, the then-Director of Regeneration and Leisure, Dave Gilbert.

The council’s verdict that the scale of industrial activity on the yard at Blaenpant was acceptable for a farm meant that the council, and for a time the police, took the side of Andrew Thomas and the late Karen Bowen Thomas when they, enraged that Trisha and Eddie had complained about industrial operations on Blaenpant, embarked upon their well-documented campaign of harassment.

 

“Unlawful” – verdict of Planning Inspector

In 2010 a planning inquiry by inspector Clive Cochrane determined that an area of land on Blaenpant Farm, away from the yard and adjacent to the Carmel telecommunications mast, was being used unlawfully to store a long list of non-agricultural equipment – industrial skips, lorries, lorry engines and parts, container body shells, excavator and bulldozer plant, a fire engine, tarmacadam planings and more. Mr Cochrane said the land must be returned to agriculture. Later Mr Cochrane, after retirement, told the BBC that he could confirm everything that Trisha and Eddie had said about operations at Blaenpant lacking planning permission.

Commenting on the main farmyard of Blaenpant, near Pantycastell Fach, Mr Cochrane said in his inquiry report:

“During the inquiry, copies of two VOSA (Vehicle and Operator Services Agency, since replaced by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) licences were produced to show that Blaenpant Farm is an operational base for six lorries and five trailers owned by two different haulage companies. I understand that the appellant also operates haulage and scrap metal businesses at other licensed vehicle operating centres in the Swansea area.

“The licensed operations and the use of the yard and buildings as a haulage depot, storage of related items and HGV maintenance area, combined with the keeping of horses, is not an agricultural use of the existing buildings and open yard. This appears to be in contravention of the conditional planning permissions for the buildings and may be unlawful without further planning permission for an apparent change of use.

“It demonstrates to me that there is very little genuine farming activity at Blaenpant and that other, possibly unauthorised, commercial activities are occupying the land and the buildings reserved by planning conditions for agricultural use.”

 

“Maladministration” – Public Services Ombudsman

This contradiction of the ‘Blaenpant is a farm’ position, which Carmarthenshire’s planning department maintained in public, was reinforced in 2012 when a verdict of maladministration from the then-Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Peter Tyndall, had to be accepted by the county council, but to Eddie and Trisha it seemed that acceptance was grudging, and they did not notice any change in the council’s attitude to them.

The 188-page anonymised report from the Ombudsman contains, as Appendix 3, comments from the former Planning Enforcement Manager for Carmarthenshire County Council. The officer in the role in the early 2000s was Brian Canning. ITV’s Wales This Week, in June 2005, got hold of an internal email from Brian Canning, who had written: “Someone is going to get injured or worse if this carries on…. I am not sure if at present they are operating from the site wholly to the letter of the law…”

The Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman, in his reply to the draft report, that

“I consider the contents of your report in relation to my involvement in this very long-running and difficult case to be biased and lacking in any evidential basis. You insult my professionalism [and that of the Head of Planning] in stating that our ‘dislike’ of this woman (Trisha Breckman) would influence the manner with which we dealt with her many and varied complaints over the years.”

His reply maintained that “we acted with integrity in not being intimidated by this woman, who would seek to move heaven and earth to get her way”.

He went on to challenge the  validity of the Ombudsman’s findings, and said “It is my fervent hope that Carmarthenshire County Council seeks counsel’s advice in order to vigorously challenge your recommendations in this matter”, concluding “I did not want to get involved in this matter from the outset. I have absolutely no interest in your final conclusions so would be grateful if you would refrain from contacting me again.”

The Planning Enforcement Manager had told the Ombudsman’s enquiry that he could not recall earlier complaints made by the previous occupiers of Pantycastell Fach, he could not recall seeing a log of HGV-related activity completed at the end of 2001, he could not recall if he had been aware that former occupiers had said they were threatened by Mr Thomas after complaining about the extent of haulage activities at Blaenpant. He did not recall if Blaenpant was licensed as an operating base for one HGV, but he did recall that the operating centre for the lorries was elsewhere. He never saw anything to suggest that a change of use from farming to industry had occurred. He did not recall being shown photographs of lorries, he could not recall if he was offered video footage of HGV activity during a meeting with Eddie Roberts and his surveyor. He could not recall a planning report of September 2006 which referred to the primary uses of the site as being equine and a lorry base, and he believed that statement to be incorrect, based on a snapshot assessment of the planning officer and going beyond what the officer was in a position to say.

Andrew Thomas had said under oath during the 2010 planning inquiry that for ten years he had been using the farm as a base for five or six lorries, but the Planning Enforcement Manager did not think that any weight should be attached to this statement. In his view, the late Karen Bowen Thomas, who died at the end of 2008, would have had a clearer idea of what had been going on.

In fact, Karen had already admitted in court, in 2006, that she ran a haulage business at Blaenpant without planning permission.

Solicitor’s note reveals that the late Karen Bowen had admitted, in a court case in which she accused Trisha Breckman of assault, that she ran a haulage business at Blaenpant without permission. 

 

In what seems a revealing statement, the Planning Enforcement Manager told the Ombudsman that he was extremely principled and would never desist from taking action on the basis of some other ulterior motive, for example, because an officer was being intimidated.

He also claimed, falsely, that Trisha had been convicted of assaulting Karen Bowen Thomas.

In his view, Trisha was a “complete nutcase”, and the Ombudsman’s investigation was “a worthless process”.

The Head of Planning Services was the immediate superior of the Planning Enforcement Manager, and he did not consider that the council had failed to do something it should have done. He did, though, suggest to the Ombudsman that planning enforcement was not the best process for mediation, and therefore it could be helpful to have a more formal mediation service.

But there was no mediation.

In 2015, on Friday October 9th, I contacted the county council’s press office with these three questions:

  1. Will Carmarthenshire County Council issue a complete apology to acquit Mrs Breckman from blame for the breakdown in relations with Mrs and Mrs Thomas which resulted in Mrs Breckman’s arrests? (The Ombudsman required the county council to issue an apology, but in Mrs Breckman’s view it was very restricted and failed to absolve her from all blame.)
  2. Will all councillors be given access to the Ombudsman’s full report? (The Ombudsman required this to happen, but I have been informed that only an edited version was offered, and then only to members of the planning committee.)
  3. Has the county council amended the procedures around planning enforcement, so that when there is a profound disagreement between a complainant and an enforcement officer, an independent arbitrator is brought in at an early stage? (This was a suggestion made by Mr Eifion Bowen, former Head of Planning Services, and reported by the Ombudsman.)

A reply came at 1pm on Monday October 12th 2015, in the form of a statement by Mark James, who was the county council’s Chief Executive between March 2002 and June 2019, when he retired. The statement did not, in my view, respond to any of the questions I had asked. Mr James said:

“The most recent outcome of an investigation (August 2015) by the Ombudsman on a complaint by Mrs Breckman concluded: ‘I believe that the Council has taken the appropriate steps in investigating the breaches of planning control reported and identified and issuing proceedings to either restore the land to its former condition or, in the case of the unauthorised track, consider its planning merits through the submission of an application. Again, I cannot identify any evidence of maladministration in the way in which the Council has acted.”

I had not asked about an unauthorised track. On the matters of events leading to Mrs Breckman’s arrests (for which the police have now apologised); of the 2012 Ombudsman’s report being withheld from the full council; and of any plans to bring in independent arbitration — silence.

Carmarthenshire’s planning department, then headed by now-retired Eifion Bowen, refused to take seriously Trisha and Eddie’s concerns about unlicensed haulage operations, illegal quarrying, and a long series of ‘agricultural’ planning applications for industrial uses. At least, they made no admissions of concern in public. The council were also fully informed of the Thomases’ unlawful industrial activities by John Lawday, a former owner of Pantycastell Fach who moved out in 2002 after 26 years, and whose complaints about noisy unauthorised operations in 2001 and 2002 were on file in the planning department.

 

Council has power but not duty to investigate breaches of planning law – so no compensation

Trisha and Eddie applied to the county council for compensation, but not a penny has been offered.

“We are sorry to inform you that liability is denied,” said the letter to them from Weightmans, specialist lawyers engaged by the county council, in 2016 – 13 years down the line.

Denial of liability, in a letter received by Trisha Breckman on Wednesday October 26 2016, was because “the law of England and Wales does not allow an individual to recover compensation from a public body where the statutory duty or power involved did not itself confer a private law cause of action for a failure to exercise it”.

In Weightman’s stated view, the county council has the power to act to stop breaches of planning regulations, but does not have a legal duty to do so, and as there is no legal duty to act, no compensation is payable.

Weightmans also said that “the law states that damages in negligence for economic loss are not recoverable when unaccompanied by physical property damage or personal injury”, and also “we believe that your claims are statute barred. The law says that any claims for loss (other than personal injuries) must be brought within six years of the actions causing any loss. The actions which you complain about took place more than six years ago.”

The letter warns against any further action, with the words “Should you commence proceedings, we will ask the court to strike them out immediately.”

So the only avenue which Mrs Breckman and Mr Roberts thought was open to them, to seek compensation for being unable to launch and run their proposed cattery business because of harassment and intimidation from the people next door, now has locked gates across it – just like the lane to their cottage when Mr and Mrs Thomas put gates across that.

One implication of this ‘power not duty’ is lack of fairness. It’s easy to imagine a situation in which a planning authority forces a stop to unpermitted quarrying, for example, next door to a Mr X, but allows similar activity next door to Mrs Y.

 

Gap in legal obligations

The ‘power’ but not the obligation to stop unlawful activities is a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card for public bodies which want to avoid paying any compensation, but it also means that the victims of the unlawful activities can suffer severe financial loss with no opportunity of any recompense.

In this case, Trisha Breckman and Eddie Roberts spent more than £20,000 on legal fees and their health deteriorated. Trisha and Eddie are now threatened with eviction because they do not have the money to repay the mortgage they took out in 2003 to build the cattery that they did not construct because Andrew Thomas made it so difficult for them, and therefore for future clients, to enter and exit the smallholding. It does not matter that the active harassment stopped a decade ago, the damage was done. The county council and its Chief Executive, the recently retired Mark James CBE, labelled Trisha a persistent complainant and prevented her from contacting councillors, thus closing another door to redress. Both Trisha and Eddie are well over state pension age and can no longer earn as much as was possible in the past.

On Christmas Eve 2018, what might have been a Christmas card was in fact a letter from a firm called Mortgage Agency Services, asking for more than £80,000 before the end of January, to clear the mortgage. Trisha and Eddie did not have that money.

Blaenpant next door came up for sale in September 2019, marketed as an equestrian unit.

Advert for Blaenpant, September 2019. The large limestone quarry in the background, from which stone was removed without authorisation, according to Trisha Breckman’s evidence, is in a Special Area of Conservation of European significance which is supposed to be fully protected.

The harassment stopped, and the track to Pantycastell Fach is back to its former width, but that cannot wipe out the years of aggravation. Surely the fact that the Ombudsman found Carmarthenshire County Council guilty of maladministration means that the council has a moral, even if not a legal, obligation to compensate Trisha and Eddie, who were victimised for whistleblowing.

A voluntary settlement by Carmarthenshire County Council would polish the council’s reputation as well as compensating Trisha and Eddie for years of suffering from the council’s indifference to the evidence with which they were provided.

The two pensioners can never have the lost years back.

I would have liked to speak to county council personnel about possible resolutions to the difficult situation in which Trisha and Eddie find themselves, but was informed by the Press Office earlier in 2019 that no member of staff will communicate with me professionally unless and until Econews West Wales belongs to an official media regulation scheme.

 

News: Liquidators’ Tough Task to Track Millions Lost in Unregulated Corran Investment Scheme

The BBC’s Rip Off Britain programme warns viewers to beware of unregulated investments — unless they can afford to lose everything they put in.

Hundreds of investors in hotel rooms at The Corran Hotel, Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, are unlikely to see their money back. Liquidators  Robert Dymond and Lisa Hogg, of Wilson Field Ltd in Sheffield, in their progress report dated May 20th 2019 and lodged with Companies House, have received claims from 439 unsecured creditors totalling £14,429,005 (and 09p).

Robert Dymond reported that he had yet to receive claims from 162 creditors whose debts total £3,413,315 “as per the company’s statement of affairs”. ‘The company’ in this case is property firm Kayboo Ltd, in liquidation alongside East Marsh Operational Co Ltd, which ran the hotel business.

The liquidators discovered “a number of issues which required further review, including the pre-packaged sale of the business, the dissemination of funds, potential mis-selling of the investments and failure to register the property titles at the Land Registry as well as a number of payments to connected and unconnected parties”.

Claims of £1,371,589.74 and £520,700 have been submitted by the liquidators to the bankruptcy proceedings of “connected individuals” who received payments “that were deemed not legitimate business expenditure”.

“A number of connected parties and individuals” explained that the reason they received funds was “because the Companies [Kayboo and East Marsh Operational Co] were experiencing difficulties with their bank due to anti-money laundering regulations and the account being frozen. In order for the business to continue operating the directors claim that they had to transfer the funds either to themselves or connected parties to process the funds on behalf of the company.”

Will any monies will be recovered? “At the present moment it is uncertain whether there will be sufficient funds to make a distribution to any class of creditors,” the liquidators state.

The BBC1 programme Rip Off Britain (broadcast on January 9th 2019, repeated July 17th 2019) featured Dexter Jeffrey, a disappointed investor in The Corran, and emphasized the risks of this and other unregulated investments.

The Corran Hotel, trading as The Corran Resort and Spa, is under new ownership.

 

 

 

 

News: Open Week is Chance to See One Planet Development in Action

In the week starting Monday July 22nd 2019, to Sunday July 28th, a selection of One Planet Developments in Wales will open up to visitors.

In 2018 a similar Open Week familiarised members of the public with One Planet Development, a policy of the Welsh Government.  Although a decade old, the policy still draws criticism from some as a back-door way of building a new home in the countryside.

One Planet Developments (OPDs) are smallholdings from which the occupants have to draw at least 65% of their basic household needs. The policy, explained in One Wales: One Planet – the sustainable development scheme of the Welsh Government, published in 2009, superseded the earlier and even more stringent Policy 52 of Pembrokeshire County Council and the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.  The nine smallholdings in the televised Lammas eco village at Tir y Gafel, Glandŵr, Pembrokeshire, were given permission under Policy 52.

By late May 2019, Wales had more than 40 smallholdings given planning permission under either Policy 52 or One Planet Development.  The majority are in Pembrokeshire, with rising numbers in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire and a scattering elsewhere in Wales.

One Planet Developments like this one in Pembrokeshire benefit biodiversity and generally improve the soil, so that fertility increases year on year. 

Pembrokeshire’s Cllr Huw George called in April[i] for a halt to new One Planet permissions, so that Welsh Government can properly monitor and assess whether the smallholdings are being managed fully in accordance with the requirements of the policy. He felt it unfair that applicants could receive permission for eco homes but farmers could not build homes for their children.

This view is not uncommon. The policy was introduced not to spite farmers but to assist Wales’ transition to a One Planet world. The Welsh Government decided that current levels of resource use and the consequent environmental damage are unsustainable given that there is only one Earth and not multiple others. One Planet Developments are off-grid, produce their own energy and much of their own food, and organise their own water supply and drainage. Vehicle use is restricted. Buildings are constructed of local renewable materials. Running a One Planet venture is hard work, the outputs and inputs have to be carefully recorded and sent off to the local planning authority for annual monitoring.

Monitoring, the concern raised by Cllr George, is difficult for local authorities which have been forced by funding shortfalls to cut services every year since 2010. The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned in September 2016 that departmental expenditure limits in Wales in 2019-20 would be 11.6% lower than in 2010-11. The monitoring of One Planet Developments is a task that did not exist in 2010, and as the number of permissions rises, will become more onerous. Between 2010 and 2020 councils in England and Wales will have lost almost 60p in every £1 previously received from the Westminster government, leaving them increasingly reliant on council tax, business rates, and grants from anywhere and everywhere, as well as monies that councils raise themselves from rents, charges, interest and dividends. So Cllr George has a point – when planning departments have less money, how can they monitor growing numbers of OPDs?

This is just one of the difficulties associated with the policy. In theory, if occupants fail to produce 65% of their basic needs from the land, or otherwise contravene the conditions of their permission, that permission can be withdrawn and they would have to leave. This is a harsh outcome if the failures are due to factors beyond their control, such as terrible weather, flood or drought, illness or accident, or advancing old age, and indicates that the policy still needs several tweaks.

Two more OPDs received permission from Pembrokeshire County Council on May 21st. Both are in the area of Mynachlog-ddu Community Council, which objected to both.  Hywel Vaughan, chair of the community council, was critical of the planning officer’s recommendation to approve the ventures, and he wrote about the second: “Although it is difficult to oppose the application because several specialists representing different organisations support the application, residents of the community are worried about the adverse damage this development will have on the area’s beauty.”

Cllr David Howlett said “the policy is being used to plonk properties in rural areas”, and Cllr Michael Williams called the policy “fundamentally flawed”.  Despite these reservations, one application was approved unanimously and the other by a majority of eight to one.

The first application approved, 18/0934/PA, is on 2.7 hectares (almost 7 acres) at Parc y Dderwen, formerly part of Pencraig Farm, Llangolman, for Lauren Simpson’s and Phil Moore’s fermented foods enterprise. Launched in 2018, the business already supplies 16 shops with foods including sauerkrauts, pickles and kimchi. Michael Ritchie of Bryngolman Farm, Llangolman, representing “a number of objectors”, said the business was already established, so there was no need to live on the land. The proposed site for the house was on top of a ridge, he said, and other buildings were too large and strung out over the site with “all the visual appeal of an urban allotment”. “It’s an elaborate attempt to get a smallholding on the cheap,” he said. But the objection did not succeed.

Parc y Dderwen will include an orchard, market garden, polytunnel, workshop and cold store, with bees, poultry, new woodland, hedgerows and ponds contributing to biodiversity. The house would be a design by Mark Waghorn[ii] of Llandeilo, who specialises in One Planet, ultra-low-impact structures.

Lauren Simpson and Phil Moore have both worked for the Ecological Land Co-operative[iii]. This co-op provides land for smallholdings in England, where demand is high but there is no similar policy to One Planet Development.

The second application approved, 18/1126/PA, by Rory Horton and Etta Happe, was for Baradwys, formerly known as Rhosfach, a larger area of 9 hectares (22 acres) near Llangolman. The original idea for a herd of alpacas was broadened to include Angora rabbits when part of the land was revealed as a habitat for the rare Marsh Fritillary butterfly. This habitat will be managed in co-operation with Natural Resources Wales and cannot be fully utilised for alpacas. Angora rabbits need less space than alpacas and also provide quality fibres for natural textiles.

The land will accommodate two polytunnels, a caravan until a permanent home is built, a barn, studio, and agricultural buildings including one for the rabbits and two field shelters for alpacas.

These two enterprises are in their very early stages, but for people keen to visit established OPDs, the Open Week will be a good opportunity. More information about the Open Week, organised through the One Planet Council, will be available before July 22nd.

The One Planet Council / Cyngor Un Blaned, representing enterprises established under the policy, has an informative website at http://www.oneplanetcouncil.org.uk/ and a Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/groups/oneplanetcouncil/.

PDR

 

[i] ‘Put a stop to eco-homes being built, says councillor’, BBC News online, April 29th 2019.

[ii] https://www.mwd.wales/studio

[iii] Ecological Land Cooperative: Our Team https://ecologicalland.coop/contact .

News: VAT Ruling Means Tax Rise for Many Renewable Energy Installations

The UK Government’s plans to raise VAT on renewable energy installations from 5% to 20% in October 2019 are due to a 2015 judgement from the European Court of Justice.

The judgment, in Case C-161/14, upheld the position of the European Commission, which had opposed the UK’s practice of applying a reduced rate of VAT (Value Added Tax) to renewable energy technologies installed in ‘residential accommodation’, mainly people’s homes.

The European Union has not yet revised the list of goods and services eligible for reduced rate VAT, which remain as they were in the 1990s before climate disruption became a widely accepted global challenge.

Permission to apply lower VAT than the general rate adopted by each member state is confined to:

  • Food
  • Water supplies
  • Pharmaceutical products
  • Medical equipment for disabled persons
  • Children’s car seats
  • Transport of passengers
  • Books, printed and in other media
  • Newspapers and periodicals
  • Admission to ‘cultural services’ such as films, plays, exhibitions, museums and amusement parks, and to sporting events
  • Use of sporting facilities
  • TV licences and subscriptions
  • The work of authors, artists, composers and others contributing to ‘culture’
  • Social housing
  • Renovation and repair of private dwellings, excluding materials which form a significant part of the cost of supply
  • Cleaning and window cleaning in private households
  • Specific waste collection and street cleaning services
  • Supplies for agriculture, such as animal feeds, seeds, plants, fertilisers
  • Hotel accommodation and restaurant and catering services
  • Minor repairing of bicycles, shoes and leather goods, clothes and household linen
  • Specific social services
  • Specific medical and dental services
  • Domestic care services for the young, elderly, sick and disabled
  • Hairdressing
  • Undertakers’ and cremation services

The list focuses on goods and services for personal health, welfare, cleanliness, leisure and cultural enrichment, but makes no mention at all of measures to help cope with either climate change or depletion of non-renewable resources.

The UK Government had argued that renewable energy installations in, on and serving people’s homes qualified for lower VAT under the category, numbered 10a by the EU, ‘Renovation and repair of private dwellings’ (highlighted in the list above).

The European Commission and the European Court of Justice disagreed with the UK. The ECJ ruled that the concession was not available across the board, “irrespective of the housing concerned and with no differentiation among people living in that housing, in particular with no regard to levels of income, age or other criteria designed to give an advantage to those who have more difficulty in meeting the energy needs of their accommodation”.

The EU’s VAT laws apply to UK law and will do so all the time the UK is within the EU or leaving under the terms of a withdrawal agreement.

A guidance document from HMRC, ‘VAT: guidance on changes to energy-saving materials’, says the 5% rate will no longer be available for the installation of wind or water turbines. For other renewable energy systems, called ‘Energy Saving Materials’, the 5% rate will be available only to

  • Occupants over 60 or receiving certain benefits, or to housing associations for buildings used solely for residential purposes, or
  • For installations where the open-market value of the Energy Saving Materials is no more than 60% of the total cost, including labour, to the customer. If the materials and equipment cost over 60% of the final bill, only the labour element will qualify for the lower rate of VAT.

VAT is a regressive tax, levied on the purchase of goods and services without any regard to ability to pay. The Office for Budget Responsibility says that in 2019-20 VAT is expected to bring in 16.8% of all UK Government income, or more than £1 in every £6. The importance of the tax in the national budget means that the Treasury would, in all probability, be reluctant to sanction an overall reduction from the current general rate of 20% to the 15% minimum permitted by the EU.

Opinion

The EU’s VAT regulations need urgent updating to allow member governments to back climate policy objectives by helping the public to fund essential improvements to the energy efficiency of their homes. For many people the capital cost is the main barrier. A £10,000 cost with 5% VAT is £10,500, with 20% VAT it is £12,000.

The rule that equipment and materials used in renewable energy installations must not exceed 60% of the final cost to the customer is unhelpful to small businesses which lack negotiating power with major suppliers. One reaction would be to increase labour charges to at least 40% of the total, but there would be consumer resistance to this.

A petition currently doing the rounds online asks the Westminster government to abandon the VAT rise, but it is impossible for ministers to do so unless they openly rebel against the judgement in Case C-161/14.

If the UK left the EU, even without a ‘deal’, fiscal room for manoeuvre would be limited. The Westminster government could not cut taxation significantly without, at least in the short term, further reducing monies available to the austerity-hit public sector.

PDR

News: Talley Targets Climate Change with Ambitious Green Scheme

The award of more than half a million pounds to the neighbouring small Carmarthenshire villages of Talley and Cwmdu promises to enable major environmental improvements and to help a new green economy to take root.

Community woodland owned by Talley village, at the heart of an environmental scheme which has attracted EU funding

 

The £520,000 grant, announced in late April 2019, is from the EU-funded Rural Development Programme for 2014-2020. This programme, not yet closed, is the final opportunity for the UK to participate unless Brexit is reversed.

Talley Community Amenity Association (TCAA) submitted a carefully researched and detailed application for the funds, which are administered by the Welsh Government and dedicated to rural viability, sustainability and resilience.

The entrance to Talley Woodlands

The grant will largely fund a £560,000  sustainable management project called Local LAND (Live Actively, Nurture Diversity), and includes two part-time jobs for a Project Co-ordinator and an Engagement Officer, for three years between July 2019 and July 2022.

The TCAA, a charitable company limited by guarantee, has nine trustees drawn from Talley and the nearby village of Cwmdu, who have put a huge effort into attaining the grant. The talented group includes Linda Tame as chair and Angela Hastilow as treasurer.

Linda Tame is a smallholder who, with husband Ian, raises Llanwenog sheep and Shetland cattle, and welcomes visitors to a holiday cottage. Linda has a background as a college lecturer in agricultural and countryside topics, and in rural and out-of-school education for disaffected teenagers. Angela Hastilow runs a saddlery firm and is also a trainee saddle maker. Two Talley-based advisers, Catherine Nakielny and Rhian Corcoran, are in the team. Catherine works with Farming Connect, and as a Nuffield scholar studied methane emissions from sheep production. Rhian is an environmental manager now specialising in sustainable rural and community development.

The ruined Talley Abbey, near the entrance to the land managed by TCAA

The multiple aims of the project should interact with each other, to create a countryside more resilient to climate change and kinder to wildlife, while also making public access easier, and teaching country craft skills. A 24-hectare (59-acre) expanse of land called Talley Woodlands, owned by Talley village and managed by TCAA, is at the heart of the plans. This land, on a slope rising to the west of the village, would have better public access and an education and community centre. On this land, and on 800 hectares (nearly 2,000 acres) of surrounding land owned mainly by farmers, water storage and new planting will slow run-off during downpours, helping to prevent flooding. Wildflower meadows, variegated grassland leys, managed woodland and newly planted trees, would create more diverse habitats for wildlife and protect soils. Watercourses would become wildlife corridors.

A new green brand for local businesses, and increased public awareness of Talley and Cwmdu and their importance in climate change adaptations, should reinforce each other. There would be a focus on bilingualism, better signage for walking routes, a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, benches sited to suit older walkers, a programme for education in traditional skills like hedge-laying, coppicing, orchard management and basket making, a compost toilet, and other changes to bring Talley to the forefront of planning for ecological resilience. A boost in visitors and students should drive increased revenues for local food, craft and tourism businesses especially.

This terrace in Cwmdu, owned by the National Trust, includes an inn and a shop with Post Office

Around half of the expenditure would be devoted to land management. Community facilities would take a quarter, with technical support, professional surveys and monitoring, staff costs and administration accounting for the remaining quarter.

Several organisations, including Natural Resources Wales and the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, are already collaborating on this scheme. Talley School, a fortunate survivor of decades of rural school closures and with more pupils now than five years ago, is also participating.

PDR

News: Lammas Ecovillage Ten Years On: Revitalised Land, Some Rocky Relationships

Lammas, the 76-acre ecovillage at Tir y Gafel, Glandwr, Pembrokeshire, now has richly flourishing productive smallholdings, but no longer functions as a fully united, collaborative community venture.

The original nine leasehold smallholdings are now individually-owned freeholds. The original landlord, the not-for-profit industrial and provident society Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, is defunct.

At the beginning hopes were high for a long-term co-operative venture. It took more than two and a half years, from December 2006 until August 2009, for planning permission to be granted. The application was under Policy 52 of Pembrokeshire County Council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, for low-impact development. This was the rather less stringent forerunner, in terms of management and reporting requirements, of the Welsh Government’s One Planet Development policy. The long and painful process was documented  by Tao Wimbush,[i] who with spouse Hoppi was – is — one of the Lammas pioneers. Tao also told the story (as Paul Wimbush) in this 2012 book The Birth of an Ecovillage.

Hoppi and Tao Wimbush’s productive smallholding at the Lammas ecovillage. The photos were taken in summer 2014

 

Once planning permission was granted, nine sets of leaseholders worked hard and creatively to start their low-impact land-based businesses and to build their carbon-neutral homes and buildings of natural materials. Every year, Lammas Low Impact Initiatives submitted a report to Pembrokeshire County Council to show they were meeting the Policy 52 criteria for living from the land and minimising vehicle use.

But by 2017 cracks had split the harmony. Residents on two of the nine smallholdings, who sat on the management committee of Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, wanted to alter their leases. They engaged a solicitor and applied to the Land Registry to register the new leases they desired — but it appears no one else knew until the society received a solicitor’s bill for £2,529.[ii]

The falling out continued. In January 2018 one of the change-seekers wrote to Peter Horton, Head of Planning at Pembrokeshire County Council, accusing unnamed others at Lammas of “bullying and harassment, a total absence of co-operation over the whole site, singling out people and using positions of power to put pressure on individuals to leave and sell up, using public meetings and a wider membership to name and shame individuals, holding large parties without seeking consent of those living close by and bringing in people to drum outside through the night in some cases with large fires and fireworks, allowing damage to properties without liability”.

The letter-writer continued “At times I feel as if others are working to make me leave, while attracting people in with offers of help to find plots”.

The emphasis is on edible plants

 

The conflict meant that Lammas Low Impact Initiatives could no longer publish an annual monitoring report covering all nine smallholdings. The society had published six annual reports between 2010 and 2015, as required by Policy 52 to show how much income their activities both replaced and earned. Since 2016 individuals have compiled their own reports.

Tao Wimbush wrote to Pembrokeshire County Council in March 2018 to explain the developments at Lammas:

“The plots are due to become freehold (rather than leasehold as specified in the planning application), and the common land (including the trackways and Community Hub) is to be transferred to a private company. Lammas will no longer have any role at Tir y Gafel and the Society [Lammas Low Impact Initiatives] will almost certainly be dissolved.”

In January 2018, after featuring on the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs, the nearly-completed home of Simon and Jasmine Dale burned down, and the devastated couple — who were not in the minority group seeking to change the ownership structure — opted to sell up. Simon’s website, simondale.net, carries this news:

“After nearly ten years establishing our low impact smallholding at the Lammas ecovillage in West Wales, we have decided that the time has come for us to sell the holding and have a fresh start. We are now looking for people who would be interested in the opportunity to buy our smallholding which includes:

  • Earth-sheltered roundhouse
  • Workshop
  • Barn
  • Planning permission for 3-4 bedroom eco-home
  • Large, horticultural glasshouses
  • 9 acres in total freehold ownership
  • Includes 1.5 acres rewilded forest garden and plant nursery stock
  • Renewable hydro-electric supply
  • Spring water supply
  • 5 acres of private woodland and joint ownership of common woodland
  • Community ownership of hub building, surrounds and millpond”

As the advertisement makes clear, ownership of the smallholdings has transferred from Lammas Low Impact Initiatives to the individual former leaseholders. Also the communal woodland, owned at the beginning by Lammas Low Impact Initiatives, is now owned jointly by the new freeholders.

The cost of the Dales’ holding is not revealed in the advert, it is a case of ‘offers invited’.  During 2018 fellow Lammas pioneer Jane Wells ran a Just Giving campaign to raise money for the Dales to rebuild their house, and donors offered £35,270.23. The Dales, though, have decided not to rebuild on the Tir y Gafel site.

Lammas was an ‘intentional community’, a group of people who got together to lead low-impact, living-off-the-land lifestyles. During the initial planning and land improvement phases, the participants pulled together, as they needed to because Policy 52 required a project involving members of more than one family to be controlled by a trust, co-operative or other similar structure in which the occupiers had an interest.

But people’s health, family circumstances and income needs change over time, leading to divergent views about future directions.

Manon Bertrand, of Ghent University, has studied the issue at Lammas. In Conflict and Group Development in a Young Alternative Community: Ethnographic Research in a Welsh Village, translated from the original Dutch and dated 2016-17, Manon writes in the conclusion:

“The findings show conflicts at Lammas originate in external structural features and different values and ideals. Because no clear visions, procedures and guidelines were agreed upon from the start, there aren’t shared meanings and collective goals. This led to different groups with a strong hostility and distrust towards one another. There are a few distinguishable positions among the residents which form a typology based on two dimensions; compromise and investment in conflicts: the invariables, reconcilers and mediators. At Lammas, these are respectively reformists, middle ground people and conventionalists. There’s a strong in-group/out-group thinking between these different groups. Conflict at Lammas is a dynamic process in which recurrent patterns in the group lead on the one hand to consolidation of positions, but on the other hand also to withdrawal and formation of subgroups. This conflict seems to be stuck because no positive, productive group culture was created. Thus conflict isn’t functional in this case because it led to a standstill of the group. Furthermore mediation is difficult because the original conflicts grew into relationship conflicts and there are no procedures or mechanisms to attain a constructive solution.”

“Procedures or mechanisms to attain a constructive solution”: these were not high on the priority list at the start, when a heady sense of pioneer excitement prevailed. By the time their absence was apparent, it was too late to repair the damage to relationships.

The original members of the community invested huge amounts of time and energy in obtaining planning permission. As Paul (Tao) Wimbush wrote in The Birth of an Eco Village (p.151): “The news that we had won planning permission came as a massive, massive relief. In the end it had all been worth it; the anguish, the despair, the long wait had all paid off. We had set a new planning precedent”. For him, it was time to “step back and for others to step forwards” (p.154).

Those steps forwards have followed a different path, towards individual enterprises and away from the initial ideal of a collaborating community, highlighting a weakness of Policy 52 and the current all-Wales One Planet Development policy. The policies assume that people who choose to live off the land will always be able to abide by their management plans and maintain a steady-state rural economy. In reality, over time some One Planet participants will become very successful and want to expand beyond the confines of their smallholding, others will reach peak self-sufficiency and happily stay there, but a number will probably be unable to reach their targets because of accident, illness, infirmity, or even prolonged bad weather.

Pembrokeshire councillor Huw George was on the BBC’s Wales Today TV news programme on April 29th 2019, worrying that One Planet Developments are not being properly monitored and calling for a halt to new applications. Cllr Phil Baker complained about the workload for planning officers.  The issue appears to be lack of capacity in austerity-hit planning departments, and this is not the fault of people trying to provide their own sustenance and livelihood and doing their best to live within the resources of planet Earth – as will be essential if Wales is to comply with its own Environment Act, which mandates a fall of at least 80% between 1990-1995 and 2050 in net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Dr Erica Thomson, chair of the One Planet Council, commented on Wales Today that One Planet Developments are opportunities for diversification of the rural economy, bringing in different forms of income, and she hoped that more applications would come from existing farmers. “It’s not some green hippy policy,” she said.

Despite the relationship conflicts that hit Lammas, the overall impact on the land has been entirely beneficial. The 76 acres of Tir y Gafel have been transformed from sheep pasture to ecologically diverse production on improved soils, with the emphasis on fruit, vegetables and forest gardens. The holdings are off-grid, with electricity from hydro and solar power. These are big, continuing positives, no matter what has happened to the ownership structure.

Array of panels for solar power

 

Tao and Hoppi Wimbush and their two children, whose Maes Melangell smallholding covers 7.2 acres, produced 68% of their food from it in 2017, plus produce sales of £3,494, and £4,164 from land-based education and consultancy. That was more than enough to live on. They have a private water supply, private drainage, generate their own electricity, and use their own wood for fuel much of the year. If everyone lived as they do, we would need only 0.79 of a planet.

Looking ahead, Tao says he expects the eco village to continue to grow in biodiversity, productivity and wellbeing. “We have already played an important role in exploring and demonstrating the viability of a one-planet lifestyle on marginal agricultural land,” he said. “After 10 years the change in landscape, microclimate and ecology is astounding. The feedback that we get from our guided tours and courses is that Lammas inspires hope that we, as human beings, can transform our relationship with the natural world for the better.

“Having said that, it has not been without its challenges and struggles. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Whilst the majority of residents are very settled and happy here some people have still to move out of temporary accommodation into their final dwellings. It takes courage, stamina and resources to build the infrastructure necessary to support a sustainable land-based lifestyle from scratch.”

Lammas has shown that it is “possible to transform depleted upland pasture into a biodiverse ecology that supports a small community in meeting all their basic needs from the land base”, Tao added. “We are not perfect, and we still have a long way to go, and we are walking our talk,” he said.

 

[i] http://lammas.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/The-Process.pdf

[ii] Affordable Homes and Sustainable Livelihoods in Rural Wales, Calon Cymru Community Interest Company, 2017, p.92

PDR

Opinion: Council in Clampdown on Recycling

A startling clampdown on recycling household waste has been announced by Carmarthenshire County Council.

The council is setting up a bureaucratic system to check identities of drivers and vehicles entering recycling sites, and to limit a wide range of vehicles to 12 visits a year.

The whole scheme seems an over-reaction to prevent businesses from taking commercial items to the county’s four recycling centres, at Nantycaws, Carmarthen; Wernddu, near Ammanford; Trostre, Llanelli; and Whitland.

The new identity check rules start on April 1st – I did for a moment wonder if this was an elaborate April Fool – and require every driver entering a council waste/recycling site to show their driving licence, council tax bill or recent utility bill, to prove they live in Carmarthenshire.

Permits will be introduced from June 1st. Cars, SUVs and people carriers, with or without a single-axle trailer, will not need a permit. Nor will compact pick-ups with rear side windows and a second row of seats, or car-type vans also with rear side windows and a second row of seats.

Restrictive permits

But vans of any size without rear side windows, and single-cab pick-ups, will have to carry a permit. The permits will be registered to vehicles rather than to drivers, and will allow up to 12 visits in one year.

Vans or pick-ups drawing trailers, and any vehicle towing a trailer with more than one axle, will be completely banned from recycling centres. Unless, it appears, the vehicle has been adapted for use by a disabled person.

Drivers will not be able to exceed 12 annual visits by travelling to another waste site in the county, because the permits will have 12 tabs, one of which will be removed at every visit. No one will be able to apply for a new permit until 12 months have elapsed since the last one was issued.  If you lose your permit, that’s it, you will not be able to obtain another until the lost one has expired after a year.

The permits themselves will not be issued unless applicants provide their personal information and vehicle details including a copy or scan of the VSC vehicle log book and proof of their address. That address must be the same as the one on the log book.

More fly-tipping likely

This severe, over-zealous new set of rules will, I argue, lead to more and more serious episodes of fly-tipping in quiet country locations where there are no cameras.  That’s a real shame in a county with a large tourism industry, not to mention diverse flora and fauna which could be damaged.

People living outside Carmarthenshire will be excluded from the country’s recycling centres, even if their own council’s centres are further away.  This needlessly increases vehicle miles and thus fossil fuel emissions, unless the vehicle is electric. Even so, we all need to travel less, not more. Why not have an all-Wales policy for residents and visitors to access their nearest recycling centre?

People feel strongly about recycling — this demonstration was outside the Llangadog household waste/recycling site in 2014. The county council wanted to shut the site. It is now closed.

 

Suppose you don’t own a vehicle but still have items to take to a household waste/recycling centre? You can hire a car, but the hire period must be for no more than three days, and the vehicle must have the hire company’s name written on it. You could ask a neighbour to take items for you, but if their vehicle is one requiring a permit, that good deed would use up one of the 12 visits allowed annually. You have a relative in another county who offers to transport your recycling load? Would they be allowed entry?

I put this latter query to the council’s press office, only to be told that they could not answer it because in their view West Wales News Review is not a ‘regulated media outlet’, and they respond only to ‘regulated media outlets’. By ‘regulated’ they mean belonging to a voluntary body such as Impress or IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.

The full list of questions put to the county council was as follows:

  1. How much will the scheme cost to introduce?
  2. How much will the scheme cost to run in its first year?
  3. Is there an impact assessment for the scheme (particularly on whether fly tipping is expected to increase and if so, by how much)?
  4. If a friend or relative of a Carmarthenshire resident offers to take items to a recycling centre in the county but himself or herself lives outside the county, would that be allowed?
  5. Households where the only vehicle is a van, even a small van, will require a permit and be limited to 12 visits a year, and barred if pulling a single-axle trailer, but other households with vehicles offering as much or more space for items to recycle or dispose of, such as a 4×4 with rear seats folded and drawing a trailer — will be allowed to visit as often as they wish. Could this be open to legal challenge?
  6. Why has a 3-day hire limit been imposed for hired vehicles?

The press office declined to answer any of these questions, but did say they would pass the queries on to the council’s customer contact centre, which has not yet replied.

Is it surprising that I got the impression the county council is not too keen to talk about these changes, which make recycling more difficult? Surely we need to make recycling simpler, so that we protect our environment and reuse as many resources as possible? Carmarthenshire’s decision to impose a restrictive and certainly not cost-free bureaucracy on the county’s households is, I fear, a backwards step.

PDR

Opinion: Supplier Wanted for a Citizens’ Assembly in Wales

A Citizens’ Assembly is to be set up in Wales.

The National Assembly for Wales Commission is currently seeking a supplier to help organise a Citizens’ Assembly with about 60 participants. The closing date for tenders is noon on April 3rd, the award should be made on April 18th, the contract would run for five months, and the indicative budget is £85,000.

The supplier would be involved in recruiting the membership, and arranging payments including travel and accommodation. Liaising with speakers, transcription of the assembly, and writing reports would all be part of the contract.

The information notice outlining this business opportunity suggests that this “innovative public engagement” will be part of the National Assembly’s 20th anniversary celebratons.

Citizens’ Assemblies are not unknown in other parts of the world. Ireland has one, established in 2016, and others are reported in Canada and, newly, in Belgium.

Kofi Annan, general secretary of the United Nations from January 1997 to December 2006, was an enthusiast. “We need to make our democracies more inclusive.” he said. “This requires bold and innovative reforms, such as selecting parliaments by lot instead of election, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes.”

The drawbacks of self-perpetuating political classes have been only too obvious during the Westminster Parliament’s interminable Brexit deliberations, informed by loyalties to the dominant parties as much as by clear vision for the future of the four nations of the UK (or five, including Cornwall). Would Citizens’ Assembly members drawn at random  bring finely developed problem-solving skills to their new role?  They would all bring their past experiences and predelictions, and some might be members of political parties, unless membership was a bar to participation, but they would probably be focused more on the tasks before them than on the advancement of one or other political party.

The cost of a small Citizens’ Assembly might be hundreds of thousands of £s, rather than £ millions, but given the shocking cuts in social care and now in education too, is it really a top priority right now? There could be a Citizens’ Assembly composed entirely of unpaid volunteers, but that would exclude on the bases of income and wealth.

Would an even more important option now be to switch to proportional representation for all government elections? Diverse points of view would be better represented than they are at present. A proportional system does not solve the problem of excessive party partisanship, but a Citizens’ Assembly, with members appointed for fixed terms, might in time replace the House of Lords as an advising and revising chamber for the UK, and augment the elected governments in Wales, Scotland and, when it is rescussitated, in Northern Ireland.

The House of Lords costs around £68 million* a year just in allowances paid to peers, without adding in the costs of running the premises, paying the staff, and supplying the services. That would fund several Citizens’ Assemblies, ensuring that a more representative democracy would not syphon money from our stressed public services.

 

 

PDR

Feature: Damaging Digital Divide

Former Lloyds Bank, Llandovery, closed in 2017.

The digital economy is damaging our small towns and dividing rural areas from the cities.

Withdrawal of services from the towns damages the quality of life in the surrounding villages and countryside, which are not exactly on the front page of governments’ policy books. It often appears that they are not anywhere in anyone’s policy book.

Nobody seems to have a plan to restore vitality to towns from which schools, banks, post offices, bus services and shops have departed. Young people move out, accelerating the decline.

Llandovery, a market town in the Upper Tywi Valley loses its final bank on June 7th when Barclays closes, following HSBC in 2012, NatWest in 2015, and Lloyds in 2017. The 11-18 comprehensive school shut early in 2016. The whole Upper Tywi Valley is also disadvantaged by slow broadband and very patchy mobile phone coverage. These drawbacks limit participation in the digital economy, which is being imposed on us whether we like it or not.

The rapidity of the transition to digital makes no allowances for people without broadband, or a computer, or a mobile phone, or the knowledge to navigate the online world. They are shut out.

Former NatWest Bank in Llandovery, closed in 2015. 

Even if you can access online banking, you are still going to need some notes and coins, but they are ever harder to obtain, even if your bank current account is in credit.

Barclays has an ATM (automated teller machine), the only one in Llandovery town centre. When there is no bank, there will almost certainly be no ATM and therefore no cash. Yet cash is so important for everyday transactions, whether in the newsagents, butchers, bakers, convenience store or local market.

There was an ATM outside the Co-op supermarket on the Brecon Road but on February 7th smash-and-grab criminals smashed the wall it was in, grabbed the whole ATM and made off with the loot. Of course, nowadays there is no regular police presence in the town. Another step backwards.

There are gleams of light in this dismal landscape, shining from the invaluable Youth and Community Centre in Market Square, and from the old HSBC bank also in Market Square. After months without a Post Office, a new one opened in the bank building in late November 2018, thanks to the team from the Ystrad garden centre and café outside the town. The Post Office, which during its opening hours enables customers to access many mail and financial services, including withdrawal of cash from most UK banks, is a real boost for a town sorely in need of one.

What’s needed as well, and urgently, is government recognition — in both Cardiff and Westminster — that people living in rural areas are just as important as city dwellers to our collective future.

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