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Respected Devon eco-village threatened with eviction

A highly respected eco-community is facing eviction from the land it owns on the edge of Dartmoor National Park.

The 12 adults and nine children will have to leave Steward Community Woodland, where they have lived for 17 years, unless they can reach a compromise deal with park planning officials.

The group has delivered a petition, signed by more than 5,300 supporters, to the Dartmoor National Park headquarters, calling for permission to stay permanently.

“We have created a far more sustainable way of living on this planet and are sharing the knowledge we have gained with the many hundreds of visitors we receive every year,” it says.

Many nearby residents support the group’s campaign to remain on 32 acres of woodland it owns in the Wray Valley, saying it has built valuable links with the local community.

The Dartmoor Society, the parish council of nearby Moretonhampstead and the village’s vicar are all supporting the group.

Speaking in support of the eco-village in a YouTube film created by the Off Grid channel, vicar Simon Franklin says the vast majority of people would like to see the project succeed.

“I think it’s showing us as a community and wider than us, an example of sustainable living, which most of us aspire to but find it quite difficult to do at the level they are doing,” he said.

“They are very heavily involved in the town. Members of that community add a lot as individuals to our community.”

The Steward Wood Community has been experimenting with a number of environmental techniques, including permaculture food growing and land use, renewable energy, building homes using low-impact materials and small scale woodland management.

The Devon community is featured in Settlements, a new book by David Spero. The photographic record shows the evolution of a small group of British-based eco-communities building and exploring alternative land-based, low impact ways of living, over a decade.

The photographer joined residents of the Steward Community Woodland on a march to the headquarters of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, which has turned down the group’s application for permanent planning permission.

"Despite the park introducing a policy specifically for low impact developments such as Steward Wood, the planning inspector rejected their dwellings by questionably defining them as cabins which, for no given reason, are excluded under the policy," said Mr Spero.

The marchers met with James McInnes, the chairman of the authority’s development management committee in April and gave him a copy of the Settlements book, along with their petition.

A delegation from the community met with officials from the park authority as part of their effort to try and find a compromise deal, before planning enforcement notices forcing eviction come into effect in December.  

Park authority planners say the community must stop using the land for anything other than agriculture or forestry. A planning appeal against their ruling failed last year, along with a judicial review.

While acknowledging that leaving the site would cause significant upheaval and distress to the children who live at Steward Wood, planning inspector Paul Freer dismissed the community’s appeal.

Mr Freer said in his report that his decision balanced the community’s human rights and the best interests of the children, against the opportunities for others to enjoy and understand the special qualities of the national park.

A successful crowdfunding campaign managed to raise more than £40,000 to cover the community’s legal costs and the it is now fundraising to pay off a further £13,000.

A resident who lives next door to the eco-village, David Cannon, also expresses his concerns in the YouTube film. He says he doesn’t want the community to stay. “It could cause developers to develop any part of a national park, presumably, any place of any English national park,” he said.

Daniel Thompson-Mills, a Steward Wood resident, said the group is trying to work with the park authority to find some way to maintain a smaller community of environmentally low impact projects.

“We are a tiny blip in terms of scale compared to housing developments being built right across the country, often on green field sites. Many of these have no ecological features and are putting additional traffic on the roads,” he said.


Photo caption:  Community Portrait, Steward Community Woodland, Devon. May 2016.

"I think it’s showing us as a community and wider than us, an example of sustainable living, which most of us aspire to but find it quite difficult to do at the level they are doing."

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