In 2010, Doug King-Smith bought Hillyfield Plantation and Tom’s Brake, a 45-acre site of ancient broadleaf woodland and pasture on the southeast edge of Dartmoor. It’s a small, intimate site, quietly beautiful, and an exciting prospect for anyone keen to work the land. King-Smith has begun to manage the site as a sustainable forestry operation, felling mature trees and replanting with broadleafs. His tree nurseries are now thriving. Much time, however, has been spent removing diseased Japanese larch—a hugely time-consuming task involving much more than simply wielding a chainsaw—but King-Smith is now free to focus on his wider plans.
King-Smith is a canny operator. He has rebranded the site The Hillyfield, giving the whole thing a certain hokey charm, and has a strong social media presence and significant expert supporters (www.thehillyfield.co.uk). He’s an articulate defender of his project and makes a good case for how encouraging community engagement in Dartmoor forestry brings palpable social benefit. Volunteers have proven keen to attend forestry workshops, stay on the site and do some of the heavy lifting essential to progress so far. So yes, it’s all very du jour, tapping into the current felt need to get closer to nature and learn traditional skills while answering our desire to see more ecologically rich uplands—only a more extensive mix of broadleaf trees is going to bring this about and, right now, it’s hard to imagine how this will happen but through growing a timber crop. With the initial work of regeneration complete and a contract to supply timber to the National Trust, The Hillyfield is on the brink of economic viability. As a business supplying timber and firewood to the local market, it might well sustain two or three jobs in the years to come.
King-Smith’s ambition, his vision if you like, is in danger of running aground because the Dartmoor National Park Authority has refused planning permission for a wood drying shed and a storage shed for tools. Pretty modest requirements, one might think. The authority has quickly followed up with an enforcement order requiring King-Smith to remove a number of structures from the land. These include a caravan tucked away in the woodland, a simple shelter on pasture ground containing a couple of tables and old sofas for use by volunteer workers, two open sheds situated in the disused quarry on the site and a compost toilet.
None of these structures have significant foundations and, from a layman’s point of view, it is difficult to see why they are objectionable. There is no right of way through the site, so they are not going to trouble the enjoyment of any hikers—and only the most pietistic could be troubled by these structures anyway—while the sheds in the quarry are on hard stony ground and have little effect on the natural environment.
The exact planning objections to these structures are pretty technical and I’m not questioning the fact that the refusal of planning permission or the enforcement order is in line with the DNPA’s statutory powers. They are the planning authority and they do have the right to refuse planning applications and enforce existing planning regulations. What seems more problematic are a) the fundamentals of the decision and b) how the DNP has handled The Hillyfield question.
Let’s start with the second of these objections. By all accounts the DNPA has been complicit in King-Smith’s plans since he got to work on the site in 2010. Officials have visited the site on a number of occasions and, to my knowledge, did not raise objections to the structures. Why, then, in 2016 has the enforcement order been issued? It is hard not to conclude that it is a punitive response to King-Smith’s decision to appeal against the planning decision. Despite attention from the media and public pressure, the park authority has refused to explain these decisions. Until they do so, people are going to think the worst. If I were more cynical, I would think that now King-Smith has dealt with the diseased trees, the DNPA feels able to move against his operation.
Moreover, the DNPA’s decision to subject the appeal to a public inquiry means King-Smith needs to hire a barrister at a cost of £35,000. It not clear why the park authority thinks the appeal needs to be heard at this level, unless their hope is the prohibitive cost will make the problem go away. King-Smith has taken to crowd-funding to help meet the costs and has made a good start, but he has some way to go. The effect of this has only been to generate negative publicity for the park authority. If he succeeds, the DNPA will face greater costs, both in terms of staff time and the good will of the public. That’s a high price to pay for a couple of sheds, a caravan and a compost loo…
More fundamentally, it needs to be asked why the DNPA has withdrawn its support for The Hillyfield operation. Does anyone seriously doubt that developing sustainable upland forestry based on broadleaf planting is of benefit to Dartmoor’s flora and fauna? It is thus striking that the DNPA is yet to raise public objections to the Forestry Commission’s plan to largely replant its mature plantations on the high moor with conifers, but it has decided to take on the owner of a 45-acre broadleaf site on the edge of the National Park.
That just doesn’t make sense.
If the official line of the DNPA is that the Hillyfield Plantation and Tom’s Brake requires no management or should not be managed as a broadleaf timber crop they should state this clearly and unambiguously. That would have serious implications for the future of broadleaf forestry throughout the moorscape. If the DNPA has some kind of principled objection to how King-Smith is running the site, particularly his public engagement activities, then this too should be made clear. At the moment, it is all too easy to accuse the authority of behaving like a faceless bureaucracy, peopled by jobsworths who are refusing to account for themselves in the face of public pressure.
I know enough about the past management of the park to recognise that this kind of explanation is rarely adequate. The authority is generally under great pressure from all sides and is not properly resourced, and this is especially so right now. All public servants know the reality of austerity, though it doesn’t hurt to remind the general public of the immensely straitened circumstances under which they currently work, but austerity does not justify draconian responses to reasonable requests. And it certainly does not justify anything that smacks of vindictiveness.
I recognise the importance of planning law and I don’t for a moment think landowners should be able to do what they want with their land, whether it is inside or outside a national park. Regulations must be applied in the country, just as they are in the city. And King-Smith may not thank me for this, but the planning situation at The Hillyfield probably needs tidying up, which is likely to mean more paperwork. But it is incumbent on the park authority to interpret regulations according to the public interest and there is a subjective dimension to these decisions. Their job is to protect and enhance the natural environment of the park and to enhance the social and economic wellbeing of the park’s inhabitants. The authority should be sufficiently empowered to do this, but I cannot see how King-Smith’s plans for The Hillyfield are in any sense at odds with these purposes.
At the time of writing, 303 people have backed King-Smith’s appeal, raising almost £14,500. That’s a lot of people and a good deal of money. He has further plans to raise the profile of the case over the summer and he is likely to succeed. I urge the DNPA to think again. It should null the existing judgement and suspend the current process, entering into constructive discussions with King-Smith and his expert supporters. It needs to be made made clear that this will not mark a precedent—nor should any friend of Dartmoor consider a rethink a defeat or a humiliation.
What people want from the park is changing. I think The Hillyfield reflects this shift in sensibility. The park authority should aim to do the same.
The Hillyfield hosts an Appeal Crowd-Funder on 28 August. It wouldn’t take much for this to be a celebration, with a representative of the DNPA the guest of honour.