At the recent Future Homes conference (Feb 6-7th), held at Dartington Hall, Rob Hopkins was one of the invited speakers, inviting us to travel forward to 2025 and imagine how Dartington will be, inspired by new models of development...
"Many thanks for the invitation to address this conference, an event I hope will come to be seen as marking an historic shift for this community. I applaud the creative way we are approaching the thorny question of development in the future. I am only sorry that I have to leave before the end of the morning as I am due in Penzance at 4 for a Transition event there bringing people together from across the Penwith region who are reimagining their local economies and communities.
In my work supporting Transition initiatives around the world I see an incredible flowering of vision and ideas in a time that is desperate for them. I also see what I call a “crisis of imagination”. It seems that in a time of challenges that demand a bold response, we see that the higher we go in the organisations that should be responding there is less and less creativity, less and less imagination. With that in mind, rather than show you slides, graphs or facts, what I want to do here is to take you on a journey of imagination. David Holmgren, the co-founder of permaculture, once wrote “Vision is not seeing things as they are but as they will be”.
In that spirit, I would like to invite you to join me on an imaginary journey around the Dartington estate and its surroundings, in 2025. I did something similar 5 years ago at an event at Schumacher College about rethinking land use on the estate, and now many of the elements of that tour are starting to appear here. While I don’t claim any credit for that at all, my experience has been, again and again, that telling stories of how things could be can be very powerful. If your imagination is aided by closing your eyes, you might like to do that now. While this isn’t something I’d risk if I were the first speaker after lunch, I am assuming you are all fresh enough that we might give it a go!
Our tour starts on a beautiful summer’s day in July 2025, at the Atmos Totnes site adjoining Totnes station. This former milk factory was, after a community campaign back in 2012, developed as a partnership between the site’s owners, a community developer and, on one part of the site, a mainstream developer. It is now a lively mix of homes, workshops, live/work spaces, training organisations, cafes, arts venues and edible landscapes which is both loved by locals and by visitors who flock to the site, mostly by train.
In 2015, following a deep and rich community consultation, (which you’ll hear more about from Frances shortly), planning consent was granted via a Community Right to Build Order. 80% of those who came out to vote voted in favour of the development. It is now mostly built. Atmos has shown that buildings can be low carbon, beautiful, and affordable. Totnes Community Development Society, who ran the Atmos Totnes project, pioneered the idea, new at the time, but now commonplace, that development can regenerate local economies.
The last 10 years have seen a move nationally from the idea of economic growth needing to be driven by high carbon, debt-generating house building booms, to one which focuses on development’s role in stimulating circular local economies which build wellbeing and happiness. New housing is now seen as much as a public health strategy, as a wellbeing strategy and as a key catalyst for enterprise creation as it is about meeting housing targets.
Central to this was the idea of looking at budgets for housing schemes differently. Rather than the 50% of a development budget that is spent on materials just going to builders’ providers, for Atmos this was seen as a community regeneration budget. The Local Enterprise Partnership, in 2016, designated Atmos a ‘Special Enterprise Zone’. Timber frames were built on site using local timber milled and dried there. Clay bricks were made on site, as were clay plasters. Straw clay panels were assembled and plastered. Hundreds of local people apprenticed at Atmos, and new businesses created. There are now marriages, even children, that came about as a result of the coming together of people that created these buildings.
The site is now a national showcase of what local materials and community enthusiasm can achieve. From Atmos we head out past KEVICC, our local secondary school, parts of which were recently rebuilt in the same way, partly by students from the school who still, several years later, recall the days they spent building a strawbale classroom and plastering it with clay as the happiest of their years at school. We pass Transition Homes, completed in 2019, a development of 25 houses sat amid an emerging food forest, which pioneered the role of local materials in the creation of genuinely affordable housing. Many students at the school now learn about food growing and natural building in their pioneering neighbour’s Study Centre, as indeed do many others.
From there we turn onto the Dartington Estate. Dartington’s land was, following the Great Turnaround of 2015, transferred into a Community Land Trust two years later. This ensured its future, and put the community in the driving seat over decisions relating to the Trust’s future. It was an innovative decision that was recognised in the many awards, both national and international, that it won at the time. Its resources are now used for the community benefit, and what that means is determined by the community itself.
The first thing we pass is the ‘Village of Possibilities’, built close to the centre of the estate. This was built between 2017 and 2018, and is a tight cluster of 15 small houses, beautifully designed compact small spaces for 1-2 people, each built using a different natural building technique, with materials from the estate. There are cob buildings, clay straw, strawbale, hemp/lime and many others. Building it allowed the Trust to get its hands dirty, to understand what works, what doesn’t work, and which techniques to scale up. They are now the most popular accommodation on the Estate, booked up 18 months in advance.
We pass one of the four new clusters of houses built on the Estate itself which proved so central to bringing it back to life. In 2015, DHT realised that good development can only be achieved if the local community is central to its design from the very beginning. Each cluster features a community house for shared meals and celebrations, as well as live/work units.
They are surrounded by edible landscapes and food forests, designed by Schumacher College’s very successful ‘Estate Edibles’ social enterprise design consultancy. Having more people on the estate means that, by working with Dartington SSE, more enterprises are based here, and visitor numbers have risen sharply.
The new natural swimming lakes created in the holes left by digging out subsoil now bring hundreds of local people onto the estate on summers days like today and have led to an explosion of wildlife.
The estate began buzzing again in 2017, and that buzz has grown steadily louder ever since. The visit of King Charles III in 2019, during which he placed the ceremonial first bale of straw in one of the new buildings and left his handprint in the clay plaster in another, is still talked about locally. “One rather likes this kind of thing”, he is reputed to have said.
We pause for a drink at the White Hart, beer flavoured with hops grown on the estate, before heading down towards Dartington Village. We pass fields of hemp being grown for a new cluster of homes due to be built next year. Selfies taken in front of the field of waving hemp plants adorn the Facebook pages of many local teenagers, although attempts to smoke it have led to little other than coughing and headaches.
We pass what had been The Shops at Dartington, which in 2018 was converted into a new village centre for Dartington. While still keeping some retail, the new village centre features play spaces, some innovative self-build housing and new community space, which gives the village the heart it lacked until then.
We then visit several sites around the village where new developments have recently been completed. In each case, the community was involved from the beginning. One of them, Brimhay, was rebuilt in 2016 after the community itself redesigned the site, and it now features beautiful strawbale and hemp/lime co-housing around a community food garden, and a vibrant place where young, old and adults with learning difficulties live alongside each other.
The Dartington Neighbourhood Plan, which had shaped the locations and principles of each new development, was passed overwhelmingly by local people in 2016. Each site on Dartington Hall Trust land was transferred into the ownership of a Community Land Trust, and rather than generating protest, generated enthusiastic engagement.
The high percentage of rented properties generates a revenue that has both turned around DHT’s financial situation, while also giving the village more control over its own destiny. A huge programme of retrofitting local homes, starting with the least energy efficient first, has cut the village’s carbon footprint by 50% already and created many jobs.
The holistic approach on show here and the extent to which it has brought people together modelled a powerful antidote to what in 2015 people had started calling “the epidemic of loneliness”. Researchers now study what is called “The Dartington Effect” and the learnings inform social policy worldwide.
As we leave the Estate we pass the ‘Origins’ development at Sawmill Fields, built 2015/2016. The high energy prices of 2017 meant that a couple of years later, the buildings already needed to be retrofitted, as residents were unable to afford to heat their new homes. People found them hard to sell, and eyed the new developments happening around the village with jealousy.
In 2025, the 100 year celebration of the Elmhirsts buying the Dartington estate were marked with a huge celebration, with fireworks, and with the reflection that once again the Estate was acting as a living embodiment of its founding values, while also acting in service to local people. Its strong commitment to playing its role in the process of resilience-building in the area runs through everything it does. It now feels connected to Totnes, as part of the same economic story that has led to changes in economic policies and models nationally. The closer one gets to Dartington, the more good things people have to say about it.
You can open your eyes now.
Tom Homer-Dixon once said:
“If we want to thrive, we need to move from a growth imperative to a resilience imperative”.
We can do this here. We can do extraordinary things here. You will hear, today and tomorrow, from people who already are. If anywhere can do it, Dartington, working in deep partnership with the communities of Totnes and Dartington village can do it. May it be so. I can’t wait to see it. I can’t stand the suspense. Thank you."