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Post by Adrian 12th July 2011, 10:54 pm

ONE consequence of the economic downturn is a reduction in the number of planning applications – but that does not mean councils' planning departments are standing idle.

Officers are finding themselves busy dealing with enforcement of planning laws, and one reason for this might also be attributed to Britain's lacklustre economy.

As urbanites find themselves with grim job prospects and, in some case, even grimmer social housing options, many are choosing to seek a new life in the country, with or without planning consent.

Caravans, static homes, cabins, sheds and lorries are springing up all over the countryside, with their residents often incurring the wrath of locals as they pitch up in fields, places of outstanding natural beauty and even the county's national parks.

Their inhabitants argue it is better to provide your own shelter on a patch of land where food can be grown, the crime rate is low and the view beats the one from a city centre council flat.

Also, where's the harm in freeing up social housing at a time of great need?

This week saw interesting cases reach very different climaxes for two groups of people seeking "alternative" lifestyles in Devon's green and pleasant land.

The Mason family – mum Dinah in work, husband Stig working the land and sons Yosse and Dahli happily involved in primary school – were booted off an orchard in Willand which Dinah bought with a lump sum left to her by an aunt.

Despite having a petition signed by many villagers in support of their bid to live on the property in a converted horse lorry, the Masons were living on agricultural land without planning permission, had a failed appeal behind them and at least one complaint from a Willand resident who thought the rules should be upheld. A judge agreed with Mid Devon District Council last month and gave them until Tuesday to quit the site.

There was more bad news for the Masons. Since the family, who moved from a council house in Hertfordshire, had an asset – the orchard, bought for £47,000 two years ago – they would not be eligible for social housing and would have to rent privately.

They are now living in a tent in a private location not far from the site and considering their options.

The case contrasts significantly with that of Carol Huxter and Sandra Carter. The friends, a former IT expert and a Barclays Bank worker, decided to chuck it all in for a more peaceful, rural existence. When residents of Yeoford, near Crediton, objected to them living in a caravan on 17 acres they bought just outside the village, the council once again upheld the complaints and ordered them off. Carol, who likes to be known as Cass, is a self-taught expert on Britain's planning laws and appealed, and after a "tense and stressful" hearing in Tiverton and a visit to the site, which they have named Middle Moor Farm, the inspector found in their favour.

The difference in outcome is down to 21 fellow residents of the farm of South American origin.

Cass and Sandra have set themselves up as alpaca farmers, and successfully argued that they needed to be on the land around the clock to care for their animals.

Although generally hardy, alpacas are sensitive to a combination of cold and damp, and their condition can go downhill rapidly once they are ill.

And planning law dictates that land designated as agricultural can be lived on if two criteria are met – there is a proven need for someone to be on site 24 hours a day and the land is being used for a viable business.

For some travellers looking for a way around the law, alpacas have provided the perfect cover story.

But planning inspector Clive Kirkbride was satisfied that Cass and Sandra were for real, and anyone visiting the site might agree.

To say Middle Moor Farm is discreet is an understatement. The static caravan which the couple call home is hidden behind a large hedge, and only accessible via a remote and rutted farm track.

Cass and Sandra seem bemused that anyone should object to their presence. "We just want to be left to run our farm and look after our animals," said Cass.

"Perhaps people feared that we were going to set up a huge traveller camp, but that is certainly not the case.

"Although this is a stunning and very tranquil place to live, in the winter it has been brutal. We have no electricity and at one stage were having to melt snow for water for the alpacas."

Cass and Sandra are particularly proud of Millie, an alpaca they hand reared, and point to her as evidence that they need to be on the site. She was bottle fed from birth and required attention at all hours.

And they are critical of anyone trying to buy alpacas to prove a need to live on land.

"It is a hard life and you have to put your animals first," said Cass. "And the planning process is serious. You have to be committed and honest. We told the truth and because there was a site visit he could see we were for real."

Mr Kirkbride, who last week issued a lengthy statement overturning the council's enforcement notice, was clearly convinced that their business was viable.

But anyone considering buying alpacas to beat the planning system should think twice.

As part of the conditions that allow them to stay on site Cass and Sandra must more than double the number of alpacas they keep within three years and complete a barn.

With pressure on housing and jobs showing no sign of going away, it is likely the alpaca appeal is something Devon's planning officers are likely to see again, and it is unlikely they will allow the wool to be pulled over their eyes.

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