home exhibitions | interviewsfeatures profileswebprojects archive

Planning Matters Pt1: statement

Paul Chaney



My first home away from the childhood nest was a static caravan in the corner of a farmer’s field in deepest Somerset. This was also my first experience of living without planning permission. For the following twenty
years I lived in an assortment of caravans, self made shacks, small yachts on muddy creeks, and wrecked boats on dry land.

This unusual and inconvenient mode of living stemmed from self-imposed poverty. Being from a relatively poor family, and wanting to dedicate my life to artistic practice, I had to find ways to live as cheaply as possible to follow the threads of my research. Luckily this combined well with a desire to live a bit of a wild-life, among the wildlife, as it were.

After years of living in a caravan in windy farmyard corners, as a lone resident of empty campsites in wintertime, or under canvas in hazel pole benders hidden among the meadows of friendly landowners, I was able to borrow a sum of money and buy a small piece of land myself.

There I explored self-sufficiency and off-grid living for eight years. I built myself a large bender using an old army tarpaulin, and grew most of my own food. Living with no electricity or piped hot water gave me a certain amount of economic breathing space.

According to British Planning Law a person in England is allowed to use a piece of land they might own for so called ‘alternative uses’ for no more than 28 days of the year. This means if you own a piece of land without residential planning permission, you are only allowed to sleep there for four weeks of the year, and for no more than two consecutive nights at a time.

This fact had come as a suprise to me years previously when I was researching methodologies for achieving a low-impact life. Now as a small time land-owner myself, I began to dance the merry jig one does with the planning system, to either submit and conform to its logic, or duck under its radar and avoid it’s scrutiny. At any moment I could have been served with a notice to evict from my own home on my own land. The more I prepared for that day, the more I began to perceive planning law as a legal instrument designed to fundamentally outlaw unconventional lives like mine.

Sitting on the wrong side of the fence that demarcates the establishment, planning law looks very much like an instrument of control. It is an instrument whose roots can be traced back to the politics of the English Civil war, and the wide-scale enclosure of the commons – which we all know coincided with the rapid rise of capitalism and the development of the industrial model of urbanity.

On the one hand planning law preserves what is called in the planning trade the ’visual amenity’ of the countryside – the bucolic chocolate box fantasy of pastoral idyll to which we, the British, seem so attached – and on the other hand it enshrines in law the alienating relationship between capital and labour that forces human subjects to work for ‘the man’, rather than being able to exist on the land and simply live to provide for themselves.

The capacity to live on the land and grow your own food is as close to emancipation from capitalism as is possible for the modern human to achieve. To exist on the land surviving from its fruits is to exist within the economy of the benevolent glowing orb – our contemporary Sun, rather than an economy engineered by the extraction and capitalisation of a stratified and toxic Solar past, a retrograde economy cynically based on the peddling of extravagant, addictive, and ultimately ecocidal products.

With access to land a person can be free from the alienating grind of capitalist techno-production. However, to avoid the rose-tinted glass here, we must admit that refusing the tyranny of capital reveals other long-forgotten tyrannies: The tyranny of corporeal fragility, the tyranny of climate, weather, insect, air-borne pathogen, and the tyranny of the soil itself. But we will ignore these other tyrannies for now, because our focus here is planning law.

Planning law props up time immemorial separations between the landed and the landless, to make sure that the ‘have not’s’ never regain the means for self-provision and whose labours therefore remain fodder for Baronial estate, Tyneside mill, or Amazon warehouse. Planning law point-blank rejects the individual’s choice to live akin to a traditional peasant in the UK.

Those who might want to live an ecologically sustainable life on the land simply cannot unless they are substantially wealthy.

As an artist constantly battling to ring fence sections of my time for creative thought and practice, these questions of labour sovereignty concerned me greatly. As an ardent horticulturalist and naturephile, I was more than happy to personally remove the tyranny of capitalism from my life and replace it with the tyranny of the soil.

For me, the issue of achieving personal autonomy from capital has now been surpassed by the more pressing issue of climate catastrophe, and the mutual task of inventing a future that circumvents total anthropogenic ecocide. The same set of rules and laws that restrict access to personal land-based autonomy, also restrict the possibilities for wide-scale transition to a functioning low-carbon/low-impact civilisation.
Strict zoning rules enforce the division between urban and rural. A red line is drawn around each town and city keeping the rural as an empty zone patrolled by 400 bhp tractors and wealthy downshifters, while poorer working class urban populations buckle under the intense pressure of property speculation and buy-to-let schemes. This policy, while currently mascerading as a device to keep the British hinterlands green and pretty, stems from the historical necessity of industry to have access to a disenfranchised and landless workforce. With the commons suitably enclosed, entire populations could be moved off the hills and be put to work in the mill towns of Victorian England.

This system of rigid separation of rural and urban requires a continual flow of intensely farmed products into the city centers. Zoning rules exist completely at odds to recent recommendations from the United Nations, the EU, and our own ministry of agriculture, who state that our food systems should be allowed to return to a more ecologically sound, and economically robust system of decentralised small family-run farms, diverse agricultural micro-businesses, and localised supply chains. Supply chains that would require an increased rural population to provide a diversely skilled local workforce.

In the face of our desperately uncertain future, the legal instrument used to define the practical relationships between the urban and the rural needs to be called up for review. At the very least to allow more experimentation with alternative models of master planning, to encourage localised food sovereignty, and economic systems based on small scale local production and consumption of natural goods.

The Planning Matters programme I have been asked to curate at Kestle Barton gallery here in Cornwall has been an opportunity for me to pull together a dream team of thinkers, activists, and artists who have all been concerned with these themes.

Together we will try and draw out some important questions. For example:
Who is planning law actually for?
What are its origins, and how was it written into law in the first place?
How does it affect how we occupy the landscape, how rural communities are formed, and how they interact with each other?
What is the psychology behind nimbyism?
How are people on the one hand able to advocate for ecological ideals, but on the other hand write stiff letters of complaint when a windmill is proposed nearby?
What is visual amenity?
Why do we protect the rights of those who gaze on landscape over the rights of people who would try and make a living in the landscape?
Is the way the countryside looks more important that how people function within it?

We know that the planning system is a postcode lottery, classist, and optimised for big business. If Quadrilla want to drill, they will eventually drill. If Amazon want to build a five hectare warehouse they will build it. If global corporations want to build hypermarkets outside every market town destroying localised agricultural production, food sovereignty, and local distinctiveness forever, they will be allowed to do it – oh look – they already did. Whereas a young couple wanting to live sustainably on the land to provide a livelihood for themselves and build themselves an ecological cabin to live in won’t be allowed.

This triggers further questions:
What is the relationship between planning law and power?
What is betterment, and how does it generate capital from development?
How does planning law function to deny the working classes access to land?
And even more broadly – what does ‘development’ mean in the context of the climate catastrophe?

Taking David Spero’s exhibition of photographs as a starting point we will try and imagine what would happen if low-impact living principles were to be regularised and scaled up. We will try and think speculatively about what happens when the current model of urbanity becomes so pressurised by the climate catastrophe that it ruptures, and urban populations flood out into the rural. Already the notion of moving out of the city to make new sustainable lives on the land is becoming more and more popular. Shouldn’t the planning system be pre-empting that and supporting the way people want to live, while actually taking real measures to protect ecological systems and the vitality of the landscape?

For me, planning law represents a blunt instrument wielded in the hands of a chosen few. The ecologically minded precariat depicted in Spero’s photographs, who attempted to live in mutualism with the planetary biota and its metabolic systems, not only sit on the frontline of planning law, but also on the frontline of a potentially sustainable future for us all.


Written as an opening statement to introduce the 'Planning Matters' programme at Kestle Barton in 2019.

Taking place between 20 July - 4 August 2019, 'Planning Matters' was a programme of talks and events curated by Kestle Barton associate artist Paul Chaney to coincide with David Spero’s exhibition Settlements (see 'exhibitions')

Taking Spero’s photographic exhibition as a starting point, and against the background of Chaney’s previous work based at Kestle Barton ('Lizard Exit Plan' and 'Critical Camps'), Planning Matters explored the complexity of issues arising around themes of low-impact development, land ownership, planning law, and sustainable urban planning in these times of housing crisis, societal collapse, mass extinction, and potential transformation.

Contributors included: Dr Tom Greeves, Simon Fairlie, Dr Mike Hannis, London Fieldworks, Ian Nesbitt, Layla Curtis, Jonathan Hopkins & Marcy Saude.