This update was written in June 2015, with a further update from September at the bottom of the article.
At Transition Homes we're celebrating a successful application to the Community Buildings & Housing fund, who have recently awarded us £35,000 of pre-development funding to pay for the final work required for our planning application, including planning fees of £11000.
The TH team started 2015 with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We'd previously secured a grant to pay for our not-insubstantial planning fees from the HCA's Community Led Project Support fund, which had a deadline of end-March, and were going all out to achieve this. In February, we realised we weren't going to meet that deadline due to specific requirements of the grant and difficulties in the South Hams planning department. It was quite demoralising to realise we were going to be £10000 short, but we ploughed on with the work and our final community consultation. Thankfully we were informed of this new grant and we put in an application as soon as it opened, and were successful.
Another issue we've faced is a long-running discussion with the Environment Agency about how we handle our greywater and poo. We always wanted to treat our greywater on site and have composting toilets. Planning policy states that where a development could connect to the mains sewer, this is what should be done - and we could connect to the mains behind Puddavine Terrace. However we've been trying to fight the case on environmental grounds, due to the energy and water which would be saved by treating it on site, and the benefits of retaining these nutrient-rich resources. After many months we were informed we'd have to discuss it with the permitting department of the EA as we'd have to obtain a license to treat our own greywater, which would involve annual fees of over £2000. Again, we were told mains sewerage was preferable - without giving a reason - and we were unlikely to obtain a permit. We sent them further information regarding the permit, and have yet to receive a response. We've done so much work with our drainage consultant Chris Weedon to develop the plans for our treatment system, and yet, we've accepted that it's not looking likely.
We are still fighting the case to have composting toilets, and are faced with a number of regulations on waste, with lots of requirements including having to lab test both the 'sludge' (compost) and the soil to which it's applied, every 6 months in perpetuity, and having to document the testing and how much compost we're producing, among other things, if they do grant us an exemption to do. We are now having a productive conversation, and hope a face-to-face meeting will help them to understand and support our proposals.
We're also having discussions with Western Power Distribution around our plans for renewable energy, due to upgrades required to the grid and a lack of capacity for any further renewables in the south-west putting a dampener on our hopes to install over 130kW of PV panels. Thankfully we have some great technical expertise in the form of Fraser Durham, who has been helping us to understand our options. We're waiting to hear back from WPD regarding our latest proposal, and looking to secure a formal offer from them so we can proceed.
Now we're bringing together all the information for the planning application. Our planning officer at South Hams has left as of the end of May, in a big shake up of the department. We're waiting to find out who our new officer is, but talks with the new head of the department have so far been very encouraging!
Every time we've set a goal for the planning application, it's shifted. We're lucky to have a team who are determined (stubborn?), and knowing the community backs the development helps us to maintain our motivation in the face of challenges. We're also inspired by other CLTs - both those who are just starting out, such as Cambridge Living Future Community who we're helping with information about funding and business planning, and local Broadhempston CLT, who have been on site for the last few months, framing and insulating, and who'll be getting their strawbales installed soon. We hope that the next update will say that the application is in, and invite you all to support it, to show South Hams that community-led, affordable, sustainable housing is what we need!
What is a dual chamber composting toilet?
Here's an example of a dual chamber composting toilet, which has been integrated into a modern bathroom in a house in Australia. The toilet has two chambers, sized for the number of people living in the house. One chamber is used for a year, then capped and left to compost for a year. Meanwhile, you use the other chamber.
Dual chamber composting toilet in a modern bathroom
We are intending to have urine separating toilets. They have a simple insert beneath the seat which diverts the pee away into a separate container (or to mains sewers). In a non-separating toilet, there is a lot of liquid to be evaporated, or drained away, from the compost.
The only thing which goes in the chamber is poo, toilet paper and a 'soak', such as sawdust (which can be sourced locally). After composting, the compost looks and smells like earth, and can be used (due to the nutrients it contains) on plants as a soil enricher - in your garden, orchard, coppice, etc.
Through June and July we were corresponding with the Environment Agency on our plans to have composting toilets. Initially we were met with the standard response - you should connect to the mains - with no discussion about why, or of the possible benefits and drawbacks of each system.
Perseverance paid off as we found someone willing to engage in a healthy debate. Having been very clear about our proposal, and reassuring them that we had read relevant legislation and guidance and were familiar with our obligations, we've gained the EA's support! This is crucial for the planning application, as South Hams planning will refer to the EA for their recommendation.
Being a CLT was a bonus for us, as our ultimate responsibility for the site reassures the EA that there will be someone responsible for the system long-term. Our contact said that it has been known that developers sell their properties and move on - and during the recession a number went out of business - leaving no one responsible for things such as off-mains sewerage, with potentially dangerous consequences for the environment and public health. It was good to be able to understand the EA's concerns, as then we can respond to them by putting in place procedures to ensure the system is properly maintained.
The research we've done around compost toilets and the use of compost has been both interesting and frustrating - but it'll be of use hopefully not only to us, but to other projects looking to do similar. We'll be writing up what we've learned so that we can share it.
One of the interesting things we've learned is around the 'yuck' factor around using the compost for food crops. Some people said that they wouldn't mind using their own compost, but not other peoples! The interesting thing here is that in the UK around 60% of sewage sludge generated at waste water treatment plants is spread on agricultural land - and has been for many years! So it's perfectly normal to use human poo as a fertiliser for our veg, as long as it's appropriately treated. Education - for us, the EA, and the public - is clearly critical for these kinds of proposals.
Transition Homes will have the first community-scale composting toilet system of this kind in the UK. It was a fight worth pursuing!
We're now pulling together the remaining documents for our planning application - including a compost toilet management plan. Since our previous planning officer left the department at the end of May, we're yet to be allocated a new one. This has been frustrating, but we are engaged in discussion with the head of department and are looking for our pre-app meeting at the end of September, with the submission of our planning application shortly after.
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