The average age of market gardeners in the UK is around 60, and currently we import around 70% of the fruit and 40% of the veg that could be grown here. We badly need more people growing more fruit and veg – not just my view, but also that of the Fruit and Vegetables Taskforce commissioned by the previous government. Market gardening – and especially any kind of organic or agroecological market gardening – is much more labour intensive than extensive farming, and it doesn’t pay too well. Throw in the fact that many farmhouses have been sold off as residential units separately from their erstwhile farmlands, and many farm outbuildings have likewise been converted to residential use, and you get a situation where many people are buying small lots of agricultural land for market gardening and attempting to get planning permission from their local authorities in support of their businesses, which is how we started Vallis Veg. Unless you’re born into farming or have considerable independent wealth, it’s virtually the only route into farming or growing for the new farmers that we so badly need.
In order to get planning permission for an agricultural dwelling you have to show that there is an ‘essential need’ for you to be on the holding, which despite the implementation of the new National Planning Policy Framework with its supposed ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ still seems to be being interpreted by planning authorities and planning inspectors under the terms of the old Planning Policy Statement 7, which stipulated that the ‘essential need’ referred to the business, and not the individual. Fair enough perhaps, but planning decisions like this one and this one are adopting such restrictive definitions of ‘essential need’ that even when the need for the farmer to be on site from 6am-10pm is accepted, this is still not regarded as constituting essential need since a long working day is “far from unusual in terms of agricultural working patterns”.
Well, it’s far from unusual if you actually live onsite like most farmers who work such hours do. But who can realistically run a business from 6am-10pm if they live elsewhere – especially when they need to be within sight and sound of the holding to deal with unexpected contingencies? Answer: very few. I tried it and did my best to make it work for over four years before succumbing to the inevitable, at least for now. And again, it’s not just me – the proof of the pudding is in the aforementioned figure that we import up to 60% of our indigenous fruit and vegetables, which we could easily grow ourselves if only the planning system and a few other aspects of food policy were sympathetic rather than actively hostile. Where does the dividing line between ‘personal need’ and ‘essential need’ fall? Judging by the crisis in fruit and vegetable production, somewhere much closer to ‘personal need’ than the planning system is currently allowing.
On 29 January I’m going to the planning inquiry into the appeal of the Ecological Land Coop against refusal of planning permission for three low impact, affordable smallholdings by Mid Devon District Council, where all of these issues will be aired. The result will be a very big deal, because it’s hard to imagine a more thorough, professional and safeguarded proposal than the ELC’s. If their appeal is dismissed, then the stark message is that our policymakers prefer to maintain the existing depopulated rural landscape of agro-industry, underutilised pasture and playgrounds for the wealthy rather than a living, working space for producing the country’s food. I gather that ministers at DEFRA are concerned about over-zealous refusals of planning permission for new farming entrants. I hope they’re keeping a close eye on this appeal, because if it’s dismissed their ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ and Secretary of State Owen Patterson’s commitment to ensure that “businesses should…be free from the unnecessary government red tape that has got in the way of rural economic growth in the past” will be revealed as just more worthless political rhetoric.