The challenges of starting a Low Impact Development

Our planet has always experienced change, whether it be in the form of changes in biodiversity such as extinction, or climate change, yet it is only since the dawn of humanity, (or rather of modern man) that these changes have been translated to imply a degree of risk. However, it has been asserted by many in academia that the risks confronting the global environment today are on a scale and have a degree of uncertainty which is unprecedented (Giddens and Hutton, 2000, 213). Indeed, not only are these risks the product of what is typically thought of as the ‘natural’ world, but are produced and exacerbated by humankind itself, as proposed in Beck’s (1992) theory of the Risk Society and Crutzen’s development of the concept of an Anthropocene. In this perspective, many of the threats which exist today are highly specific and exclusive to the way in which humans organise themselves in modern society.
The prevailing arrangement of society today is often associated with the existing neoliberal paradigm, whose fossil fuel dependent, financially speculative, resource intensive, capitalocentric and inequality-creating nature has led to conclusions that it is deeply unsustainable and highly detrimental to eco-systems and livelihoods (Shiva, 2000, 114). Many supporters of globalisation sing the praises of a business-as-usual approach, proclaiming a need for ‘more of the same’ in order to resolve such socio-ecological problems (Woodin & Lucas, 2004, 49), and that we must simply ‘grow our way’ out of them (Dawson, 2006, 75). However, a significant number of other people around the world are beginning to ‘opt out’ of the global economy in order to restore control over their lives; rejecting the ‘auto-maton’ which constantly ignores or devalues their humanity (Castells, 2000, 71) and searching for alternative systems within and outside of the mainstream paradigm.
The rise of the Low Impact Development
One way in which this movement is manifesting itself is in the establishment of Low Impact Developments (LIDs), a radical new grassroots approach to housing, livelihoods and everyday living (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009, 1515). The term Low Impact Development was coined by Simon Fairlie, who described them as a “development which, by virtue of its low or benign environmental impact, may be allowed in locations where conventional development is not permitted” (in Ibid. 2009a, 2). This is a relatively broad definition, which has allowed LIDs to vary greatly in terms of their approach to sustainable living, some being more radical than others, from squats to cohousing, to rural ecovillages and more mainstream transition towns. Despite their diversity, several key elements may be identified. They tend to be locally adapted, making use of local, natural and recycled materials, be built to an appropriate scale and visually unobtrusive, independent in terms of water, sewage and (renewable) energy with low traffic movements (Maxey, 2012, 3). Distinct incentives can be identified within this movement. Efforts for localisation aim to strengthen the local economy and protect it in the face of global financial instability (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009a, 14), and endeavours for clean renewable energy indicate a response to global ecological issues of climate change and peak oil. By nature it is incredibly low-cost, enabling it to meet needs for adequate and affordable housing, livelihoods (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009, 1518) and often entailing a degree of self-sufficiency through subsistence food production in response to issues of cost but also food security. Together, these are seeking to develop environmental, social and economic sustainability.
Their strategy of trial and error has led them to be dubbed as “a seed bed for experimentation” (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009, 1531), and to the present the movement has achieved many sustainable project successes. However, it nonetheless faces many challenges in circulating its ideas and practices beyond the ‘niche’ and becoming accepted in wider society (Seyfang, 2010, 7632). In the following passages, I will seek to outline some of the key challenges confronting Low Impact Communities in the UK and offer some considerations in how these might be overcome. These challenges will be explored in three sections, respectively looking at challenges posed from the i) general public, ii) from the planning process and iii) from within the low impact developments themselves.

1. Public Opposition
Despite its successes, Low Impact Development as both a concept and a practice has achieved a relatively insignificant amount of attention in the public arena, and it remains marginal to mainstream discourse. This is perhaps due to social perceptions of the idea, which frequently dismiss it as insignificant and powerless. Grassroots approaches such as LIDs are often criticised for being too ‘niche’ and ‘small scale’ (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009, 1516). LIDs are also often dismissed on the basis that they are too idyllic, with a ‘back to the land’ focus (Halfacree, 2007), and people perceive it as a utopic and unrealistic goal. However, as Dawson suggests, rather than aiming for some “idealized past”, LIDs are actually pursuing more of a synthesis of approaches, employing “the best of human expertise in treading lightly on the Earth, community level governance and the application of modern energy efficient technology” (2006, 13). Further beliefs have a disposition to see it as an effort to completely isolate themselves from mainstream society. Yet many LIDs make very conscious efforts to build bridges to more mainstream organisations (Ibid. 8), in terms of collaboration with planning authorities and local communities, and many have succeeded in integrating into local communities through efforts in building local connections and relationships before and during the build (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009a, 74).
Many of the LID projects around the world have received significant opposition, particularly from the local community. Due to the lack of space and extortionate costs of urban areas, LIDs have generally been sited in more rural areas (Fairlie, 1996, xii). Here, opposition is often in the form of what is known as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard), a concept used to explain how people may support a development until they are confronted with it directly. Indeed, many Low Impact Settlements in the UK specifically seek out rural areas in which to establish themselves as a direct response to the post-war ‘closure of the commons’ which aimed to restrict rural development in order to protect the ‘rural idyll’ (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009, 1519). Fairlie notes the problems arising from the qualitative nature of the term LID itself, which through seeking to produce a ‘positive impact’, encounters difficulties in agreements of what is positive in terms of its aesthetics and other characteristics (Fairlie, 1996, xiii). Often tied up in hostility to LIDs is a fear of outsiders, possibly due to past experiences of rich commuters invading villages in pursuit of the rural idyll through a process of gentrification (Ibid, 22). Despite social justice and equity being a prime objective of LID, it is difficult to ensure, and can cause feelings of contempt from locals. For example, as Fairlie highlights (1996, 115), why should outsiders be able to establish LIDs while a local villager may not be able to build a house for his son in the same village? This does indeed seem to be a source of contempt for those attempting to build LIDs. However, this hostility could also be explained by the associations of low impact lifestyles with those of hippies and travellers, two groups who unfortunately are often stigmatised with a mixture of fear and intolerance. In more extreme cases, those pursuing a Low Impact lifestyle can often be victimized and suffer threats and even attacks (Fairlie, 1996, 44). For LIDs to achieve recognition, it is crucial that these myths and prejudices are dispelled and an understanding is gained of what they wish to achieve.
2. Planning Process
Challenges posed by planning authorities have perhaps been in the forefront of the LID debate, and communities wishing to obtain planning permission are often “enforced against, fined, refused planning permission several times” (Lewinsohn, 2008). Many problems arise from the term LID itself, which can be seen to be insufficiently robust and rigorous in its definition (Fairlie, 1996, xiii) producing a rather “fuzzy logic” (Baker Associates, 2004, 3), thus there is perhaps a need to produce a more precise meaning.
In the UK, the national planning policy PPS7 clearly supports sustainable development, and states that its key principles should be based on social inclusion, effective protection and enhancement of the environment, wise use of natural resources and supporting high and stable levels of economic growth and employment (PPS7, 2004, 7). Evidently, the economic priorities involved in the proposed principles of sustainable development are , and presenting a considerable barrier to the successful implementation of LIDs which, as we have outlined already, often rely on low cost lifestyles and self-sufficiency- not exactly promoting economic growth. This idea of sustainable development clearly adheres more to the business-as-usual approach mentioned in the introduction.
The PPS7 simultaneously argues that the building of new homes and especially single dwellings in the countryside should be strictly controlled by local planning authorities, and reserved for areas designated for housing development plans (PPS7, 2004, 10). This is in keeping with ideas ‘rural idyll’, the idea of a pristine countryside which Britain has fought so hard to protect. The planning system in Britain is entirely specific on the historical circumstances of the rural economy, marked by enclosure and industrialisation. Fairlie examines this phenomenon to explain the present difficulties experienced within the planning process, which goes a little like this: After the second world war, a number of initiatives were put in place to protect the British countryside from what was termed “the urban octopus”, which described the tentacle-like growth of urban sprawl with the advent of suburbia and the automobile (1996, 4). This led to the infamous ‘closing of the commons’, the exclusion of people from the countryside and strict prohibitions of any building other than that involved with agriculture- which was deemed the only form of development suitable for the rural environment. Agriculture, which has since become significantly industrialised and thus heavily dependent on fossil fuels and subsequently inherently unsustainable has had a hugely detrimental effect on the rural environment today, turning it into a cross between a “factory and a drive-in museum” (Fairlie, 1996, xi). Fairlie argues that LIDs should, by default, be exempt from traditional restrictions on rural developments for a number of reasons. First, such low impact developments do not pose conventional risks of suburban sprawl, secondly because conventional rural housing is too expensive for the people who work in said regions, and finally because eventually we will all be forced from living such conventional lifestyles and therefore should support pioneers seeking to develop more sustainable lifestyles (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009a, 2).
Central to the problem of planning permission is that in the past, planning law has not made any statutory distinctions between different kinds of building, i.e. sustainable or unsustainable (Fairlie, 1996, 114), and thus LIDs are treated in the same way and assumed to have the same environmental impacts as conventional housing. This has, however, changed significantly in recent years, with local planning authorities beginning to recognise LIDs as a viable form of development and route to sustainability, such as Pembrokeshire’s Low Impact Development Policy (Policy 52), and on a wider scale in the One Planet Policy in Wales, with guidance on how the planning system could support such developments in the corresponding TAN 6 advice note.
In practice, there is a wealth of further challenges for those applying for planning permission. The LID Lammas in Pembrokeshire was initially refused planning permission on several official grounds, including the perceived unviability of their proposed businesses, the entailing transport issues and concerns over management plans (Lewinsohn, 2008, 27) but also according to the applicants local opposition, fear involved in the planning process and factual errors in the submitted report were also factors contributing to the refusal. A belief that planners have a lack of understanding about LIDs is widespread among those attempting to gain planning permission, who feel that they are regarded a “weirdoes…totally off the wall” (Lewinsohn, 2008, 24), insinuating that prejudices active in public perceptions of LIDs are also present in the planning process.

3. Challenges from within LIDs
With challenges involved in the planning process and local opposition being so frequently voiced, problems that arise from within the LID itself are often overlooked and underestimated. Jackson even names it as the greatest problem facing some LIDs, and highlights the importance of social sustainability (1999, xiv), involving issues of conflict resolution. The emotional aspects of Low Impact Developments have also been noted by Pickerill and Maxey as a key challenge faced by those involved. Communities are often working under a lot of pressure, living in what are often very basic conditions whilst having to simultaneously establish livelihoods often from scratch, build their infrastructure, and support a family all whilst accommodating and abiding to the strict planning agreements and sustainable commitments. Indeed, it is multitasking at its highest, and due to this experimental and demanding nature of the projects, LIDs often involve risks in terms of exhaustion, burnout and frustration, and it is crucial that suitable communication procedures are developed to deal with conflict resolution (Pickerill and Maxey, 2009a, 74). In a low impact community, negotiations of what is needed in a community are very important in terms of reducing waste and consumption, and thus it is important that the decision-making process is sufficiently democratic and remains faithful to principles of social justice.
In this essay, I have highlighted the challenges faced by low impact communities in Britain from three sources: from the public domain, from the planning process, and from within the community. It is not the purpose of this essay to profess that one challenge is greater than the other, as the challenges are no doubt equally as diverse as the LIDs themselves. It is, however, reasonable to conclude that the latter challenge is significantly exacerbated by the former two.
As we have seen, the wider economic imperatives of the neoliberal paradigm have certainly been incorporated into the concept of sustainable development within the planning process, and are seriously hampering efforts made by various communities to live a low impact life. A recognition for alternative, subsistence living is needed in this respect, in order that LID livelihoods may be understood as viable. There exist many misunderstandings and misconceptions of the LID objective within both the public domain and the planning process which would benefit substantially from more collaboration between local communities, applicants for planning permission and planners themselves, as well as local authorities and policy makers at a wider level. Reduced pressures and increased support from the planning system and general public should alleviate some troubles experiences within the LIDs themselves, but they would also benefit from more established management structures and robust decision making processes monitored to ensure social justice remains priority. With regards to the low impact movement on a more general level, I agree with Lewinsohn in that it is crucial that it should be addressed on a more national level, which would facilitate in speeding up the planning process (which is currently extremely time-consuming) and providing the foundations from which local authorities could work (2008, 42).


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