What can off-grid communities teach us about sustainable living?

Once dismissed as hippy hangouts, self-sufficient off-grid communities are starting to gain acceptance: some are even getting planning permission as appreciation of their lifestyle choice grows.

Permanent planning permission has been granted in some cases as councils recognise that there’s less opposition to such initiatives from their neighbours. However, while they may no longer be regarded as places for dreamers, off-grid communities are few and far between, despite the growing realisation that we need to live in sympathy with the land.

We find out about three communities that are living off the grid in the UK.

Off-grid living: horse logging at Tinkers Bubble. Picture credit: Tinkers Bubble.

Tinkers Bubble

Founded in 1994, this off-grid woodland community in Somerset aims to provide residents with a living from the land. It’s made up of 16 hectares including eight hectares of evergreen forest. Residents are drawn to it by their belief in low-impact living: they manage the woodland using horses and hand saws and cut timber to order by using a steam-powered sawmill. They also sell apple juice and cider from their apple orchard. The produce is organically grown, horses plough the land and residents keep a cow, chickens, and bees and grow vegetables in polytunnels for themselves and to sell to local shops.

Describing itself as a flagship project within the UK off-grid and `intentional community’ sectors, Tinkers Bubble has developed sustainable practices over the years and believes that it has a role in influencing local and national policies attempting to mitigate the effects of climate change and reliance on unsustainable resources.

Off-grid home: Thatching the communal Roundhouse (c2000). Picture credit: Tinkers Bubble.

Planning permission

Tinkers Bubble was first granted a five-year temporary permission in 1998: this was extended by 10 years in 2004, and for a further 10 years in 2016, allowing up to 16 residents on site, up to 20 low-impact buildings and ancillary agricultural buildings including polytunnels and field shelters. It also has permanent planning consent for a barn, sawmill, and apple pressing and processing facility.

In what was considered a landmark decision in off-grid communities’ attempts to gain acceptance in planning terms, Tinkers Bubble was granted permanent planning consent from South Somerset Council in March 2023. The application sought `permanent permission of existing development of and residential status for low-impact off-grid community and associated agricultural enterprises’. Permission was granted for self-built houses on condition that the occupiers make a living from the land. The `permanency’ refers to residency and livelihood: the buildings are considered temporary structures. The planning consent has a condition attached to thin the tall North American conifers on the site to encourage the regeneration of forest understorey plants.

The Planning Officer’s report stated that:

…it was clear when visiting the site that (Tinkers Bubble) continues to operate based on the same ethos as that on which it was originally founded, incorporating low-impact agriculture and forestry activities with an emphasis on self-sufficiency. On this basis, it is accepted that the special circumstances for which this use was originally granted continue and the principle of permitting a permanent permission is acceptable.

Tinkers Bubble resident Alex Toogood said the most significant thing about being granted full planning consent is the support received locally and from within the council. He commented:

In the early days, there was quite some vehement resistance to us being here (along with some local support too). More recently, our good relationships with the local villages have shown that we are not people to be scared of but are actually a positive thing to have around! So, this application received 30+ comments of support, and no objections.

I think our approach, which includes running open days, working with the local council, engaging with schools, as well as selling produce locally, has done a lot to build up positive relationships and image. Projects like this are no longer (only) seen as oddballs pushing against ‘the system’ but are now more able to be seen as important experiments and alternatives in the face of ecological collapse, social pressures, and economic failures.

We have to explore alternatives as our national/global systems of housing, economics, politics, etc. show their limitations. I hope that others can take inspiration as we make tangible the possibilities that we aspire to.

The greenhouse gas emissions and the resources used by the site are well below the national average for a Western style of living, and the lifestyle can move close to net zero carbon emissions, added Mr Toogood. In terms of current numbers at the site, he said:

We have a maximum of 16 residents, but currently there are only seven of us here. We are open to new residents, but they would have to spend a while getting to know us first by volunteering.

The sustainable way: scything in the orchards. Picture credit: Tinkers Bubble.

Can life off-grid be cost-effective?

Tinkers Bubble has not really been affected by the cost-of-living crisis and organisers estimate that the annual income of £1,500-£2,500 per person is sufficient. Most of the food consumed is produced on-site and residents are fully self-sufficient in terms of fuel for cooking, heating and power.

The site has a reuse and repair policy and the apple juice and sawmill enterprises bring in enough money to cover most expenses. The cider, apple and vinegar businesses have an annual turnover of £6,000-£8,000 while the forestry business turns over £6,500-£10,800 annually.

Resident numbers have been low for the past few years – between five and 12 people, so less income has been generated. While the current seven residents are supported by the apple, cider and vinegar production businesses, Mr Toogood commented that all these businesses are scalable and capable of meeting the needs of a community of 16.

Ownership of this off-grid site

Tinkers Bubble, which gets its name from a bubbling spring on the site, is owned by Tinkers Bubble Lane Ltd (TBLL) a community benefit society that holds the land in trust; this protects it from any potential change in outlook. Residents are tenants and the turnover of residents allows it to act as an educational project for new entrants. Potential new residents must spend three months on-site to see if they fit the group ethos before they can join.

Teaching about off-grid living

The site hosts around 70 short-stay volunteers per year who learn land management skills. It also hosts day visits and educational events, teaching ecology and ecological stewardship, and it hosts fortnightly volunteer afternoons through the summer. People choose to join for a two or three-week stay and volunteer.

Engagement with the local community

Residents attend local markets and supply local businesses in the area with produce as well as volunteering in the local shop. Alex Toogood added that this integration and cooperation is believed to be beneficial in building links and communicating an understanding of the aims of self-sufficiency and living off-grid.

Off-grid home: the main house at Brithdir Mawr. Picture credit: Brithdir Mawr.

Brithdir Mawr

Occupying 34 hectares including eight hectares of ancient woodland and pasture, Brithdir Mawr in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, was granted planning consent in 2008. Wales launched its One Planet Development policy in 2011, which grants permission to projects like this with a low carbon footprint.

It’s currently home to 10 adults and seven children and hosts up to 100 volunteers a year, who camp or stay in accommodation on site and help with woodland work and general duties. Residents have jobs outside the community, including as nurses and teachers, and work part-time in the community.

Brithdir Mawr aims to work in harmony with nature, and residents keep goats, chickens, bees, and ducks and grow organic vegetables and fruit. Woodland is coppiced for fuel as most homes have a wood burning stove. The group makes craft objects from willow, oak gates and hazel chairs and generates its own electricity from renewable energy sources via the river, solar panels using direct sunlight and wind turbines. It operates on the principles of sustainability, community, collective living and education: there’s a big focus on sharing skills and knowledge and it runs courses on environmentally sustainable living.

Living off the grid

The woodland management involves around 34 hectares, including eight hectares of mature woodland and eight hectares of coppice. Horses are kept for working and extracting fallen timber, along with dairy goats, chickens, ducks and geese and there’s a plan to keep sheep in the future. The land is all organically farmed and includes areas for growing potatoes, onions, beans and peas, four polytunnels where tomatoes, grapes and apricots are grown, and orchards. Residents aim to grow all their own food: fruit and vegetables are bottled and preserved in the summer months to cater to the `hungry gap’ months early in the year. Some vegetables are grown specifically for seed to sell.

Landmatters Permaculture Community

Devon-based Landmatters is a rural permaculture project that promotes land-based communal living: permaculture means self-sufficiency and an environmentally sustainable approach to living on the land, based on understanding nature. The permaculture concept originated in Australia and means care of the earth, people and fair shares for everyone. Used around the world to regenerate land and encourage healthy ecosystems, it combines these aims with science of ecology, design and technology.

Off-grid lifestyle

The Landmatters cooperative bought the 16 hectares of land near Totnes in 2003. It was granted temporary planning approval in 2007 for five years by South Hams District Council. In 2016 it gained permanent planning permission for temporary housing structures after a 10-year campaign: the application received no letters of objection and 23 letters of support.

The 16 hectares of land was bought collectively by the Landmatters cooperative and includes six hectares of semi-natural ancient woodland, eight hectares of pasture and the rest are naturally regenerating scrub and hedgerows.  

Year round energy independence

With the aim of creating a low-impact community, residents work out what can be done to the land with minimal impact by collective decision-making. The woodland is maintained for fuel, and residents grow fruit and vegetables, keep poultry, horses, sheep and goats, and have their own garden as well as communal gardens. Water comes from a borehole and power generation to enable off-grid living comes from renewable energy technology such as solar panels which harness solar energy and wind turbines which convert wind energy. The site produces no waste by operating compost toilets and composting garden and food waste.

The site is currently home to 10 adults and seven children living off-grid in hand-built wooden cabins, yurts and benders – shelters made from branches covered in tarpaulins. The members of this cooperative come from varied backgrounds, and most are trained in permaculture design. Their skills include organic horticulture, sustainable land use, woodland management conservation, and education.

Landmatters is a Permaculture Association LAND demonstration site that runs educational events, hosts open days and offers visitor accommodation.

The future for off-grid living

The times are changing: we know that we can no longer rely on fossil fuels and climate change means we need to adopt a new outlook. Perhaps part of this involves asking ourselves should – and could – planning policy adapt to encourage people to live on and work with the land sustainably?

At the time of writing, there are 18 off-grid communities across the UK looking for new members. Of course, it’s a very niche thing to do and there’s probably little demand for it, but maybe these off-grid experiments in sustainability have something to teach us about respecting the soil and working with nature rather than pillaging it.

Of course, not everyone will consider living off the grid to be a viable option, but perhaps its advocates have been ahead of the rest of us in realising that our survival is dependent on working alongside the natural world. This, after all, is the big question of our times.

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