A COUPLE living an “off-grid” lifestyle say they face prison unless they move from their own land in Willand England and return to an existence in the benefits trap.
Stig and Dinah Mason bought Muxbeare Orchard after a sudden windfall allowed them to quit their impoverished lives on a Hertfordshire council estate two years ago
The Masons have transformed what they described as a derelict four-acre plot into a haven of self-sufficiency boasting a 400 sq m allotment, a polytunnel and greenhouses to grow fruit and vegetables, chickens for egg production and an orchard they have regenerated by planting around 14 new apple trees of various species.
The couple, who have two boys, aged eight and nine, say because they moved onto the site in order to work the land, Mid Devon District Council is turfing them off as officers do not consider them to be conserving an agricultural area.
They faced magistrates on March 31 when they were served with an injunction to leave within 28 days from June 1.
Dinah, 35, who spent a year with her husband clearing four-foot high nettles and thistles which engulfed the four-acre site, said: “How anybody can say the orchard was being conserved before is beyond my comprehension.”
Dinah works while Stig, 34, as well as making sure the children get to school on time, tends to the land on a daily basis where peas, potatoes, garlic, strawberries, raspberries and various produce have been growing since 2009.
Vegetarians Stig and Dinah claim council officers offered them bed and breakfast accommodation in Cullompton at taxpayers’ expense and suggested they live on take aways, which are likely to cost around £20 for each family meal.
Dinah’s income currently provides the family with everything they need which they cannot grow themselves but is unlikely to stretch to cover kennelling costs for their dog, Moo.
They say they currently receive no state hand-outs but by giving up their “off grid” way of life, they fear they will end up in a council house, claiming housing and council tax benefits, as well as seeking grants to help pay for high utility bills.
Stig, chairman of the Willand Composting Scheme and a member of the primary school’s PTFA, sells eggs, produce, and hopefully cider in the future but explained that planning permission to live and work on the land was refused in 2009 which they are appealing against.
He said one of the council’s reasons for refusal was based on a belief the couple had did not have a “sound enough business plan.”
As well as plans to sell more produce locally, the couple say it is only likely to take them a further two years to get to a stage where they will be able to grow six to eight months’ worth of vegetables.
Dinah, who is a community care worker, cub leader and also a member of the PTFA, said: “To live in an agricultural area you need to have a financial need, but this gives us enough to live on, but our whole ethos is not about making money.
“The council is saying by us living here it becomes mixed-use and is therefore no longer deemed agricultural.”
Dinah was bequeathed money from the sudden death of her aunt and £47,000 was spent on the land to create the smallholding where wood burners and solar panels provide their energy needs.
Dinah said removing them from their land will render them homeless and is concerned they will have to pull their children out of Willand Primary School if they have to move out of the area.
But several people from across the country have written to the council in support of the family’s retention.
Anne Wallington, whose family has had an interest in the village for 44 years, wrote to the council in support of the Masons by praising their hard work in reclaiming what was “rapidly becoming derelict land.” David Thompson, who also lives in the village, said “they are trying to live up to the Government’s pledge to take better care of the environment and this is the last orchard in the vicinity of Willand.”
John Clarke, planning enforcement officer, said: “To get planning permission to move onto agricultural land, you have to prove first there is a need for someone to live there, for example, to tend livestock and look after crops, and second, that the enterprise can provide living income for at least one worker.
“Neither condition was met and therefore took the necessary action to protect the nature of the rural landscape and prevent unlawful habitation.”
The council said it cannot comment on individual cases of housing need and said bed and breakfast accommodation is offered if people are homeless.