Faceless bureaucrats? Cumbersome regulation? Welcome to rural England.

fern shotImagine finding an opportunity to make a long held dream come true. It would require determination, sacrifice and a hell of a lot of work, but, given the chance, most of us would dive in and devote every waking hour to manifesting our vision.

In 2007 Doug King Smith dreamt of finding a small woodland to take care of and grow into a resource for his community. Not only to develop a sustainable wood business, but also to create a place where people could learn rural skills, celebrate community and connect with nature. He began working as a volunteer on a piece of land in Dartmoor National Park, located between the villages of South Brent and Buckfastleigh. It was a plantation on an ancient woodland site, which had been largely neglected over the years: it was run-down, over-run with invasive species and over-crowded with untended trees. Nevertheless Doug fell in love with what he calls ‘the magic of the place’ – a river running through a hidden valley, deep dark woods and steep valleys with springs popping up here and there. Two years later, through working as a wood sculptor, drawing on his savings, and with help from a friend, he managed to buy it. He named this 45 acre upland farm The Hillyfield (after the original ‘Hillyfield Plantation’) and the hard work began.

Now, in 2016, the overgrown and neglected woodland is a thriving small-scale timber and firewood business, providing timber to build local homes, schools and playgrounds as well as being a supplier to The National Trust and companies such as Terra Perma.

With help from a team of volunteers, Doug has planted over 7000 trees, grown willow beds for weaving baskets, created a tree nursery, an orchard, and a medicinal herb garden, as well as breeding chickens and looking after bees. He has protected riverbanks, made tracks to sustainably manage the woods, and maintained the organic pasture by grazing the sheep and cattle of a neighbouring farmer. The 26000 hours of volunteer support offered to the project since 2012, at minimum wage, equate to £187,200 invested in regenerating this ancient woodland.

The Hillyfield has become a place of learning and celebration for hundreds of people: forestry students and volunteers hail from all four corners of the earth to learn rural skills, young and old come to enjoy the land on open days and during the bi-annual Woodland Olympics the land is blessed with much laughter and merriment as the community tries their hand at such delights as ‘the pole-stripping dance off’.

The ‘magical woodland’ that Doug has regenerated is not only the manifestation of his own dream, but the embodiment of a vision for Britain’s woodlands set out in a report published by the Independent Panel on Forestry in 2012.

In his foreword to the report the Reverend James Jones describes the need for the economic and social regeneration of one of our most neglected assets:

There is a huge opportunity for England’s woodlands to drive a sustainable economic revival, to improve the health and well-being of the nation, and to provide better and more connected places for nature. We need a new culture of thinking and action around wood and woodlands, and a new way of valuing and managing the natural and social capital of our woodland resource, alongside the timber they contain. (…) Our forests and woods are nature’s playground for the adventurous, museum for the curious, hospital for the stressed, cathedral for the spiritual, and a livelihood for the entrepreneur. ”

IMG_0272Considering everything Doug has achieved under current regulation and the many boxes The Hillyfield ticks in terms of both the above quoted vision for Britain as a whole and Dartmoor National Park Authority’s core strategy, one would expect the planning department to be reaching out to shake his hand. Instead it continues to slap his wrist.

Since 2012, upon expert advice, Doug has submitted three applications for planning for farm buildings to store wood and machinery. Each one has been refused, adapted, re-submitted and once again refused. The final refusal, in May this year, came with a nasty surprise: The Hillyfield was served with an enforcement notice demanding them to cease all educational activities on the land and, worst of all, dismantle all temporary structures they had built for storing wood and machinery, or even making a cup of tea. In other words: the project was given a death sentence. The wood is starting to rot as we speak.

‘Why would the planners do this?’, you may ask. Doug has been asking the same question. During the entire process there has been no rhyme or reason to the planning department’s decisions. All Doug’s attempts to adapt his proposals have been a waste of time. His communications with DNPA officers over the last 6 years were mostly met with ‘No Response’ – even when requesting advice on the structures and activities now being threatened with enforcement.

His final attempt to speak to the planners has been refused and instead he has been told to file an appeal for which the legal fees alone will likely cost in excess of £30,000. A small woodland project does not have this kind of money lying around, so it will be down to the community to support The Hillyfield or watch the woodland fall back into neglect. After investing many years in becoming a working example of small woodland regeneration, the most disturbing outcome for Doug is the negative impact the planning decision could have on the future of sustainable and socially inclusive woodland regeneration throughout the UK.

Unfortunately this is not an isolated case. Enforcement notices are served on a regular basis to small rural businesses in Devon, forcing them to engage with an expensive and soul destroying system rigged towards big business with enough money and legal expertise to either keep fighting or find the loopholes.

A small woodland owner from North Devon had an enforcement notice served against keeping tools in his caravan. The DNPA had questioned the need for such storage referencing a case brought by Harrods where permission for a helicopter landing pad was refused. The local case was quashed at appeal.

Michael Baggs, a Bideford smallholder, faced court action for having chairs and a cooker in his barn which he used to have his food during the working day. He won at appeal and was awarded costs. The total cost to North Devon Council was more than £30,000.

Chagfood, a Community Supported Agriculture scheme (CSA) based in Chagford, is currently facing enforcement against a packing shed, which is essential for providing their organic veg box scheme to the local community.

Whether or not they win their cases and costs are awarded, however, the process of appeal puts an enormous strain on people’s lives, while wasting valuable public resources. All this creates a nice funnel of cash from the public into the hands of the law establishment, but has no benefits for small local businesses and rural communities.

One can only guess at the ignorance, indifference or ill will, that may be behind these decisions, but one thing is for sure: it must stop. We can no longer stand by and watch as planners wear down small businesses, destroy sustainable rural livelihoods and dismantle joyous and resilient communities.

We must make a stand and protect our dreams.

~~~

You can support the Hillyfield’s crowdfunding campaign here.

To find out more about the great stuff they do, go to www.thehillyfield.co.uk

 

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