As is my wont I attend and then produce a blog about the Oxford Real Farming Conference. This year the conference grew to over 4000 delegates with 1300 in Oxford and the remainder joining online from around the world. My purpose is gauge where real farming is heading and whether the planning system could help. Nothing I heard dented my conviction that the potential of the planning system continues to be ignored. The failure of the agroecology movement to engage with the planning system handicaps its growth and prevents those operating the system from learning whet agroecology has to offer and how it could be supported and encouraged - a true double whammy. When one of the few (I think that there was one other) chartered planners could not even name the Minister for Planning (Lucy Frazer?) it is clear that some steeled status is needed before normal people can be expected to spend time on plan-making or decision-taking. It is almost impossible to understand the impact of existing plans and policies before trying to keep up with proposed changes. The latest consultation to the National Planning Policy Framework actually signposts further changes scheduled for next year, and then wonders why people find better things to do.
Unfortunately when discussing what the land use planning system could do I also need to recommend changes to the system as well as challenging officers, councillors and inspectors to do what is already possible with existing controls to privilege applications that advance the cause of agroecology. This includes the allocation of land for smallholding around settlements where there would be a presumption in favour of approving agricultural workers dwellings. This would complement a practice of requiring all development proposals on the edge of settlements to place land for smallholding purposes into a local community land trust (through the use of s106 undertakings). One or more of the houses being proposed would be transferred to a housing association as part of the social housing quota but with the occupation limited to somebody working all or some of the smallholding land being secured.
It has become increasingly clear that agroecology has a materially different impact on land and soils that industrial farming in ways that can be measured; nutrient density of crops, soil depth and fertility, biodiversity etc. In these circumstances there are grounds for changing the planning legislation to require permission to be sought than granted for material change of use. It would be permitted development for farming practices to improve soil depth and fertility but planning permission would be needed for any operations that would harm soils; deep cultivations; applications of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Industrial farmers would not approve but that is the point. The expertise in planning offices would have to grow but the distinctions being drawn would be no more detailed than in the change of use of buildings that can be extremely tricky to investigate, measure and enforce.
This change would excite those who are doing their own thing and to form a critical mass of 'real farmers'.