Steward Community Woodland: part of Dartmoor’s soul killed by an overbearing authority

Why are all forms of alternative living, including canal and gypsies/travellers being actively suppressed by the UK’s Tory government? Sound familiar?

The treatment of an alternative green community saddens Tom Greeves

Sonia "Sonny" Parsons with daughter Asha, and Daniel Thompson-Mills at Steward Community Woodland
Sonia “Sonny” Parsons with daughter Asha, and Daniel Thompson-Mills at Steward Community Woodland

The announcement by Steward Community Woodland, near Moretonhampstead, that most of the 21 residents have now left, and that their homes and other structures are being dismantled, should send a shudder through all of us.

It is the consequence of an enforcement notice issued by Dartmoor National Park Authority following the loss (in August 2016) of an appeal against refusal of planning permission for permanent residency, combined with the refusal of the park authority to countenance a new application for low-impact dwellings in the 32-acre woodland (which is owned by the community).

This is one of the worst environmental outcomes that I am aware of, having studied Dartmoor for more than 50 years. Future generations will be astonished that this has happened in one of our national parks, which are often hailed as leaders in environmental protection.

Sonia "Sonny" Parsons and daughter Asha at Steward Community Woodland
Sonia “Sonny” Parsons and daughter Asha at Steward Community Woodland

After 67 years of existence it is surely not too much to expect Dartmoor National Park to be a beacon of environmental and social awareness, with well thought-out policies on how the resources of Dartmoor can best be used for the communities that live there, as exemplars of what could happen elsewhere? But it seems we are still light years from that happy state.

There was once a call to ban all cars from Dartmoor

The community had lived quietly and gently in Steward Wood since 2000. Their homes had not been built by means of large machines scouring the earth and replacing the habitats of thousands of living creatures with concrete and brick, but had grown organically, through the skill of their builders, in a symbiotic relationship with the other occupants (plants and animals) of the wood.

Despite making it their home since 2000, the Dartmoor National Park Authority refused them permanent planning permission and ordered them to leave
Despite making it their home since 2000, the Dartmoor National Park Authority refused them permanent planning permission and ordered them to leave

Some of us were encouraged by a policy (DMD30) in the Development Management and Delivery Development Plan Document adopted by Dartmoor National Park in July 2013, which specifically allowed low-impact residential development in the “open countryside”.

Anxious to comply with the criteria in this policy, and to address the concerns of the Planning Inspector who refused their Appeal in 2016, in the autumn of 2017 the members of Steward Community Woodland submitted a detailed proposal to the national park for an imaginative new scheme of roundhouses and an “innovation centre”, which would be a base for the study of low-impact living.

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Extraordinarily, the response of Dartmoor National Park Authority has been negative to an extreme (as it has been for the past 17 years).

Sonia "Sonny" Parsons and Daniel Thompson-Mills at Steward Community Woodland
Sonia “Sonny” Parsons and Daniel Thompson-Mills at Steward Community Woodland

Rather than allowing the application to take its course, with opportunity for public comment and debate, they would not even validate it.

They claimed that the roundhouse built by two members of the community from their own wood, straw bales, cob and turf, was not of appropriate design or scale for any other structures, and would not fit policy DMD30, which, on their interpretation, was meant to apply only to tents and yurts.

This is despite Pembrokeshire Coast National Park having given permission for many roundhouses of similar type. No sensitive person could say that the roundhouse in question was not a thing of beauty, to be marvelled at for the skills, craftsmanship and sound environmental criteria used for its construction.

The Steward Woodland Community - made up of 23 people, including nine children and teenagers - live in hand-built huts on a beauty spot in rural Dartmoor with no connection to mains, electricity or water
The Steward Woodland Community – made up of 23 people, including nine children and teenagers – live in hand-built huts on a beauty spot in rural Dartmoor with no connection to mains, electricity or water

This story is, sadly, one of overbearing authority unable to grasp intellectually or practically the benefits to be gained by Dartmoor as a whole from the Steward Wood settlement.

How can a planning authority allow controversial new housing developments on greenfield sites in Chagford and elsewhere, and yet not embrace low-impact dwellings by an established and respected community in their own woodland, hidden from public gaze?

Many people on and beyond Dartmoor have for years recognised and celebrated these contemporary woodland dwellers, for the new and hopeful messages they brought all of us.

Part of Steward Community Woodland on Dartmoor, which was home to 21 people. The site is being cleared after a failed planning appeal
Part of Steward Community Woodland on Dartmoor, which was home to 21 people. The site is being cleared after a failed planning appeal

They are inheritors of a marvellously rich cultural history, millennia old, contained within our Dartmoor woods. Those who know Steward Community Woodland, and what it aspired to, should seek out David Spero’s wonderful book Settlements (2017), which documents photographically Steward Wood and other low-impact communities in Britain.

If Dartmoor National Park Authority had adopted a similar approach, they would now be extolling the virtues of Steward Wood, which would have brought them deserved plaudits.

Their alternative lifestyle includes foraging for food, using solar powered electricity and alternative medicines - and they claim to be virtually self-sufficient
Their alternative lifestyle includes foraging for food, using solar powered electricity and alternative medicines – and they claim to be virtually self-sufficient

Unfortunately the present situation indicates that Dartmoor National Park Authority actually has no deep understanding of the environmental crisis affecting our planet, and no flexible will to allow serious practitioners the opportunity to demonstrate alternative lifestyles.

This is not the sort of cultural behaviour to expect from a national park, which should be open to all new environmental approaches, and it is deeply concerning. We are all diminished, and Dartmoor’s soul has lost a spark of hopefulness for our future relationship with the land.

Dr Tom Greeves is chairman of The Dartmoor Society.

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