Walking the talk
CHRIS Vernon and Erica Thompson have known for decades what needs to be done about climate change. Now they have joined a Welsh government programme under which they can circumvent housing planning rules provided they build an ecohome and work the land around it.
In a country where people use three times their share of the world’s resources, a government scheme is encouraging people to live within their ecological means. Max Baring, of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reports from Glandwr.
FIGHTING climate change is much more than a day job for Chris Vernon and Erica Thompson. It is their entire way of life.
They are part of a groundbreaking Welsh government scheme under which people get to circumvent tight planning rules as long as they build an ecohome in the countryside and go back to working the land on which it sits.
The ‘‘One Planet
Development Policy’’ was adopted by the Welsh government in 2011 and so far, 32 households have signed up.
The aim is ambitious: in a small country where people, on average, use three times their fair share of the world’s resources, Wales wants its One Planet people to use only the resources they are due. Which means a simpler smallholding life, spending and travelling less, growing and making more.
A spokesman for the Welsh government said the scheme was an important niche initiative, rather than a model to scale up.
‘‘It is intended to provide an opportunity for those wishing to live a highly sustainable lifestyle, project a light touch on the environment, and who will be largely selfsufficient in terms of income, food and energy,’’ said Matthew Morris.
‘‘Numbers of such developments are likely to remain small.’’
The scheme has mostly attracted digitalera smallholders with a stubborn determination to return to a subsistence lifestyle in the rolling hills and valleys of rural Wales — and not to ruin the planet with a consumerist, throwaway lifestyle.
‘‘We’ve known for 20 or 30 years now what we need to do to address the problem of climate change,’’ Vernon said from his halfbuilt home.
‘‘We don’t need more data. Whilst I was sitting in my office working on the computer I got the feeling I could be doing something that demonstrates how we can address the problems.’’
Vernon and his partner, Thompson, know more about ‘‘the problems’’ than most. She holds a PhD in climate science; he has one in glaciology and is a climate modeller at Britain’s national weather service, the Met office.
They decided it was time for action, not academia.
Eight months pregnant and elbowdeep in local clay plaster, Thompson said their home had to be zero carbon in construction and use to win government goahead.
It sits deep in bucolic Pembrokeshire, a lush, coastal county in the southwest of Wales that pioneered the green approach before it was adopted countrywide. Just up the road lies the Lammas community, a pioneering and collective ecoventure where nine smallholdings nestle in the landscape around a central community hub.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading international group that assesses climate change, estimates that global temperatures could rise 3.4degC by the end of the century.
Amid a European heatwave running from North Africa up to the Arctic Circle, the Welsh initiative is taking root on the Western fringe of the continent in a bid to redress some of the damage.
The policy also aims to address a myriad of problems beyond rising temperatures, from soil degradation to rural depopulation, a housing crisis to wasteful global supply chains.
It offers people with little money, but plenty of determination, a way out of the rat race and back to the land.
With property prices out of reach for many rural workers and tight regulations restricting new builds, the scheme is the only way for many locals to own a home and work nearby, said another One Planet home builder, Cathryn Wyatt.
Dairy farmer Brian Boman sums up the difficulties faced by locals seeking to live and work in the area.
‘‘We have two sons, both in their 30s, both involved in the business. We have more than enough room here to build something on the farm for the pair of them, but of course planning is a huge issue.’’
Housing figures across Wales tell the same story. In the 1980s, it would have taken a typical 20something household about three years to save for an average deposit, according to the Resolution Trust thinktank.
The research shows it would now take 19 years.
Like many of her fellow One Planet builders, Jacqui Banks wanted to jettison her old life and be true to her principles.
‘‘It’s a lot of work, in the early years, but what we’re building is hopefully a resilient system that is going to help us have a positive impact on the world,’’ she said.
‘‘Living in the city I found it extremely difficult — the consumerist lifestyle and the waste involved.’’
The good life
To get permission to build a One Planet Development, three requirements must be satisfied.
First is the overall ecological footprint.
As Vernon explained, each household must only use their global fair share of land. ‘‘If you take the entire global resource
. . . you divide it by the population of the planet, you get a number: 1.88ha. It’s a fairly arbitrary number, but that’s the number that is your fair share.’’
Each applicant must also show that within five years, 65% of their basic needs, including food, water, energy and waste, are covered by their patch of land.
Hence the hodge podge of greenhouses and polytunnels that dot the land, often cobbled together from reclaimed materials and designed to make the most of a grass incline, woodland shelter or powergenerating stream.
Applicants must also come up with a zerocarbon house design using locally sourced and sustainable materials.
The result: a magical landscape dotted with ‘‘hobbit houses’’ straight out of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with mesmerising wooden beams, grass roofs and hemp walls.
Thirdly, everyone must set up a rural business to pay the sort of bills — internet, clothes, council tax — that cannot be met with a subsistenceonly lifestyle. Enterprises range from fruit wine to bees, an exotic tree nursery to sculpture.
DIY . . . Erica Thompson applies locally sourced plaster to the straw bale insulation in her new home in Pembrokeshire.