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Last Updated: Monday, 12 March 2007, 15:11 GMT
Battle-lines drawn on settlement
by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Allaleigh, a hamlet of about 40 people at the top of a pretty south Devon valley, appears to be the epitome of the rural idyll.

You can even buy home-made jam by putting money into an honesty box next to a community noticeboard.

But beyond the facade there is a battle looming to evict some newcomers to the area.

Just outside the hamlet are 42 acres of farmland bought and occupied by an 18-strong "permaculture" group.

The Landmatters Co-Op has been on the site for about two years and will soon be fighting for its future at a planning appeal due to go ahead next month.

It is a community of 18 people who bought the land for 3,000 each after an appeal in 2002 for like-minded people by Totnes teacher Dr Christian Taylor.

Three acres is set aside for living accommodation and the rest is woodland and farmland, some of which is rented out to local farmers.

Landmatters says that planning officials should allow what it calls "low environmental impact" developments which have a low consumption of natural resources.

Landmatters bender

South Hams District Council is taking enforcement action against Landmatters, which has refused to quit the land after a retrospective planning application was rejected.

Landmatters says that through permaculture - environmentally-sensitive husbandry of the land and its wildlife - it is actually benefiting the land and its presence enhances the area.

But many locals disagree and have called for them to up sticks.

Resident Sally Jaine, who manages a smallholding in the hamlet, said: "We have no quarrel with the agricultural side of their activities.

"It's the habitation and the doubling of the size of the hamlet at a stroke which we object to."

The origins of the site go back to 2002 when Dr Christian Taylor, a Totnes-based teacher with a PhD in ecology, posted an email to friends asking if they would be interested in buying land for a permaculture development.

He told BBC News: "I wanted to put my PhD into practice and I wanted a project in Devon."

Each area of the land could have a particular theme... and thought-provoking installations (including the many types of low impact/semi permanent or temporary structures which can be used for sleeping in)
Dr Christian Taylor in a letter inviting participants to buy land
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As a result of a series of meetings the Landmatters Co-Op was created and 18 people agreed to pool resources and buy the land, each putting in about 3,000 according to Dr Taylor.

After a year letting the land lie uncultivated, the co-op started planting fruit bushes and growing vegetables.

In 2005 some members of the co-op started living on the land.

Dr Taylor insisted that despite suggesting sleeping accommodation in his e-mail, living on the site had not been his idea.

He said: "A community was not the intention from the outset.

"But it soon became clear that there were those in the group that could not be part of the project unless they were able to live on the farm."

Sally Jaine
Permaculture is a fine way to manage land, but it does not give you more moral rights
Sally Jaine
He added: "There needs to be an allowance in the planning system to enable farmers to farm land and build structures and live on the land.

"Organic farming is labour intensive and it makes sense from an environmental point of view to have people on the land rather than having to commute every day."

Landmatters acknowledges assistance from Chapter 7, part of The Land is Ours group, which supports "low impact dwellers" who take direct action by moving onto land.

Chapter 7 has had success in the past, at Tinker's Bubble, a woodland camp in Somerset since 1994, which has been granted temporary planning permission in return for a woodland management plan.

There is also a similar "low impact" community at Steward Wood near Moretonhampstead in Devon which won temporary planning permission after moving onto the land in 2000.

Mrs Jaine said: "The permaculture seems a screen for their residential ambitions.

"If it was Bovis or another big developer that had put up 11 houses without planning permission there would be no question about them staying."

She added: "Permaculture is a fine way to manage land, but it does not give you more moral rights.

"Plants grow in much the same way under their regime as for the rest of us."



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