Woodland Hutting

Once upon a time, people across Britain had the freedom to build a weekend hut or a cabin-in-the-woods on land they rented or bought for a few pounds. All that changed in 1948 with the Town and Country Planning Acts. In Scotland, there is a growing movement to get some of that freedom back. How can we do the same in England and Wales? I think the first step is to start with cabins-in-the-woods and “Woodland Hutting”.

Contents

    1. Definition
    2. Routes to Woodland Hutting
    3. Finding land
    4. Next steps
    5. Notes
      1. Comparison with Scottish Hutting
      2. Comparison with full time residence
      3. The Woodland Hutting definition in detail

Definition

“Woodland Hutting” involves a hut or cabin-in-the-woods which satisfies the following conditions:

  • It is built within plantation woodland or in accordance with a management plan which protects an Ancient Woodland site.
  • It is not visible from outside the wood, or if in new woodland, it will not be visible when the wood matures.
  • It is largely built of renewable materials, especially timber.
  • It has no formal foundations and can be removed leaving little or no trace.
  • It has an internal floor area of about 30m2 or less.
  • It is owned and primarily occupied by the same individual or family, whose primary residence is elsewhere.

These conditions are designed to address concerns about ecological damage and impact on the local environment and neighbours. There is more discussion of the motivation for each condition in the notes below.

Legal routes to Woodland Hutting

Woodland Hutting is already happening on a small scale. Many people who buy woodlands make use of the permitted development right to put up a shed for forestry purposes, providing accommodation on days spent working in their woodlands and the occasional overnight stay between work days. One feature of the Woodland Hutting definition is that these work-based justifications for huts are not excluded.

Nevertheless, wherever current and future woodland owners gather, sooner or later the topic of huts and cabins-in-the-woods primarily for recreational use is raised, and the demand is clearly there.

Full planning permission is required for primarily recreational huts, and Woodland Hutting may provide a framework for explaining how to limit potentially negative impacts. Local planning authorities, usually councils, have the power to attach planning conditions when granting planning permission. These conditions could be used to give legal force to the protections of the Woodland Hutting definition, without any new legislation or regulations.

Many councils will continue to be wary of any development in the countryside, and it would help with applications if huts were recognised in the national planning guidances in England and in Wales, as they are in Scotland. Ideally, recreational huts for owner-occupiers would be allowed as permitted development with suitable safeguards, just as the use of land for recreational caravans sites open to the public is permitted with some limitations and safeguards.

Finding land

With “retail” woodland vendors like Woodland Investments Ltd and Woods4sale, and the appearance of open land and woodland on the main house buying websites like OnTheMarket, it has never been easier to buy land across Britain, from the north of Scotland to Cornwall. For a cash buyer, the purchasing process is little more complicated than changing energy suppliers.

So one option for Woodland Hutting is just to buy woodland and then pursue the forestry permitted development route.

However, small woodlands of a few acres tend to command much higher prices per acre than woodlands of tens or hundreds of acres, or even of good quality open farmland. If the aim is the hut, then permitted development is unsuitable, even if the money is available.

On the other hand, if a site can accommodate multiple huts, then the cost of the land is less of an issue. This will require full planning permission rather than forestry permitted development, and the safeguards presented in the Woodland Hutting definition may help with the application. Large wooded hutting sites could even be created by buying substantial plantations, or by purchasing large open fields and planting the spaces between hut plots.

It is also possible that some landowners will see supporting hutting as a way of diversifying, with an income stream from leasing plots to hutters. This is already starting to happen with Scottish Hutting.

Next steps

Can we get back some of the freedom we had in the past to build huts in the countryside on our own bought or rented land? People are already trying to achieve this, and Woodland Hutting offers another way of making progress. We need to talk about it unashamedly and work towards allaying people’s fears, explaining the benefits to health and to children’s development when families can spend time staying in woodland.

Henry David Thoreau built his own cabin in the woods of Massachusetts in the spring of 1845 and said “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

Please join us on the Hutters Facebook group, Twitter, and the mailing list if you want to get involved.

Notes

Some topics is more detail.

Comparison with Scottish Hutting

In Scotland, there has been a high profile campaign to restart hutting since the early 2010s, led by Reforesting Scotland’s Thousand Huts Campaign. One result is this definition given for huts in the Scottish government’s national planning guidance:

A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.”

In most cases, examples of Woodland Hutting would also satisfy the Scottish Hutting definition, but there are some significant differences in the edge cases. In Woodland Hutting, the additional requirements to be hidden from view and to be in woodland seek to head off some common objections. On the other hand, there is no requirement that the huts are purely recreational: they could be used by people working their woodland part time, for example. This flexibility allows the existing forestry permitted development route for huts used while working in people’s own woodlands.

Comparison with full time residence

Woodland Hutting is intentionally limited to part time occupation of low-impact second homes. There are separate attempts to make it easier for people working their woodlands to have their primary residences on site, which has environmental benefits in reducing travelling distance and helps address the lack of affordable rural housing in many areas.

Several people have obtained planning permission on the basis of needing to be present within their woods overnight for activities such as charcoal burning – notably by Ben Law. In Wales, the One Planet Development policy allows homes to be built in open countryside rather than existing villages if they meet stringent environmental conditions. The OPD policy has been used to build primary residences in woodland.

Whether to make a proposal that allows or that forbids primary residence really depends on what people’s objectives are and, realistically, what concerns a local community and council may have. Woodland Hutting provides a framework for people who will maintain their primary residence elsewhere.

The Woodland Hutting definition in detail

This final section explains the reasoning of the conditions in the definition in detail.

  • It is built within plantation woodland or in accordance with a management plan which protects an Ancient Woodland site.

People are naturally protective about Ancient Woodland since it is irreplaceable. This first condition requires that the hut is built in a plantation (that is, woodland planted by people on open land at some point), or according to a management plan which protects the site if on an Ancient Woodland site. There may still be doubts and the site will not be appropriate for hutting if a management plan cannot be drawn up which includes the hut and simultaneously protects the site. Nevertheless, even access by the general public is encouraged in many Ancient Woodlands sites owned by the National Trust, Woodland Trust or Forestry Commission. A hut used by one person and normally accessed by a well worn track is an entirely different proposition to a use which encourages large numbers of people to wander throughout the site.

  • It is not visible from outside the wood, or if in new woodland, it will not be visible when the wood matures.

The second condition conceals the hut from the wider landscape. Since newly planted woodland is also accepted, this will also provide a motivation for tree planting.

  • It is largely built of renewable materials, especially timber.
  • It has no formal foundations and can be removed leaving little or no trace.

The requirement to use renewable materials and to have no formal foundation imposes broad constraints on the appearance and the ecological impact of the hut: not just a small bricks and mortar house for instance.

  • It has an internal floor area of about 30m2 or less.

The floor area constraint also limits the ecological impact, and makes it clear the hut is not the size of a conventional house. 30m2 is also the point at which building regulations apply for some types of small buildings.

  • It is owned and primarily occupied by the same individual or family, whose primary residence is elsewhere.

This final requirement addresses a series of specific and vague fears, and would perhaps be the most important in practice. In particular, to avoid the fate of Jaywick, where weekend and holiday chalets were blighted by council restrictions and gradually became substandard slums rented out by absentee landlords.

It is required that the hut is owned and primarily occupied by the same person or family. That is, the building is not a rented property, even if it is occasionally let to people for short holidays. As an owner-occupier of the hut itself (even if perhaps a tenant of the land), the owner has a long term interest in their surroundings and good relations with their neighbours. It would also discourage some “caravan park” business models where a site owner provides a large number of near identical huts for rent. To prevent the hut being used covertly as a primary residence, it is explicitly required that the hut owner and occupier has a primary residence elsewhere.

By requiring that the hut or cabin remains a second home, this condition is in contrast with the well publicised cases of councils trying to limit the conversion of primary residences into second homes, which reduces the supply of housing for local people. Here huts and cabins must be second homes, and so have the potential to divert some of the demand for second homes away from homes wanted by local people.

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