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Going off-grid

Documentary film maker and author Nick Rosen argues that off-grid settlements in the UK could help create cheap housing, energy security and rural regeneration

At a time when housing in this country is facing multiple crises - of affordability and of supply and, in the case of social housing, of funding and of allocation - we need to be willing to embrace brave and new solutions.  Off-grid settlements - historically a fringe interest in the UK, although they have a long history in other countries, including the US - offer an important new alternative. They are important because they help solve three problems:

  • Cheap housing – how to enable it
  • Energy Security – how to improve it
  • Rural Regeneration – how to kickstart it

What do I mean by off-grid?  No mains utilities of any sort.  That's a huge infrastructure saving on its own.  It's about creating positive closed loops - for example, the local sewer network would have potential as an energy source in my proposed 300-household communities, which would be extended to grow to 3000 over 5 years. They might not be brand-new communities. The first few would probably be bolted on to an existing village or suburb - with the active encouragement of existing residents, who would also be able to go off-grid, with the help of investment to reduce energy usage and develop local energy generation, saving money and increasing resilience in the face of an uncertain future energy market.

The new Localism Bill, with its new powers of community planning and building will enable that. And the land would not currently have residential planning permission, which would be another cost saving. The sell-off in Forestry and British Waterways property should make it possible to buy land for little more than agricultural value, as long as the development is ecologically sensitive and the area is covenanted to remain off-grid.

Off-grid homes could be delivered for an average cost of GBP50,000 per unit.  With much lower ongoing costs and growing a little of their own food, residents should be able to get by with much less money, so they will not have to work as hard.

But whilst off-grid living is almost mainstream in some countries, particularly in rural areas, and aspects of it - for example local energy generation - have started to permeate government policy, too often attempts to pioneer off-grid approaches in the UK fail at the very outset - in terms of both planning and funding.  The main reason given, and there are many others, is that ordinary people would not want to live in an off-grid home, where they would have access to at best 25% of the energy supply of a “normal” house (although that would be largely offset by better home design and insulation). They would not want to live in an off-grid street, where houses had to share their limited heat and power, and they would not want to live in an off-grid town or village, which would be constantly subject to shortages of water, power and other supplies.

Policymakers need to recognise that, whilst it may not, in the short-term, become a mainstream housing offer, it is an idea worth taking seriously and that on its own will make a noticeable difference.

I have written a book about the lives of people who already live off-grid – How to Live Off-Grid. I know from first-hand experience it can work.  I have visited individuals, families, settlements and whole villages, and the lifestyle is growing fast, although it would grow a lot faster were it not for the planning laws, which are about to undergo radical alteration.

I want to answer head-on the objection that nobody would want to live in off-grid communities. And it is not just some 'Good Life' style indulgence.  I was invited to record a phone-in with TalkSport recently because their three million listeners, who tend to be male and from a lower socio-economic background, have been spontaneously talking about going off-grid.  “I've had enough of this,” they are saying on the late-night chat shows. “I'm going off-grid.” At first it was one or two a month, my interviewer told me.  But now it's a few every week. 

I think I know why they are saying that, and it has little to do with the environment.  I think we all know why many want to do more than shake their fist impotently at the TV screen.  Increasing numbers of people are angry – scared and angry.  They are angry about the bankers and MPs expenses and the Iraq War. And they are scared about losing their jobs, or their housing benefits or, when interest rates start rising, losing their homes. They no longer feel society is capable of guaranteeing  them what they want – justice, accountability and security.  Their skills may be rusty, but hundreds of thousands of them are perfectly capable of looking after themselves and their families if the opportunity presented itself to them. They know how to wire a socket, plumb a sink and dig an allotment.

There is another objection to off-grid settlements lurking behind the one I mentioned earlier.  Namely, that it's a ligger's charter – the same laws that would allow a group of industrious, conservation minded settlers to grow their own community, would also allow a bunch of new age travellers to plague neighbourhoods with waste, crime and drugs.  It should not be beyond the wit of lawyers and politicians to come up with a way of encouraging the deserving cases and preventing the undeserving ones.  Isn't that what we pay them for?
Learn more about off-grid living at or by reading Nick's new book How to Live Off-Grid.

Comments on: Going off-grid

Gravatar Dr Adford 25 December 2010
As for this load of rubbish in the article: "There is another objection to off-grid settlements lurking behind the one I mentioned earlier. Namely, that it's a ligger’s charter – the same laws that would allow a group of industrious, conservation minded settlers to grow their own community, would also allow a bunch of new age travellers to plague neighbourhoods with waste, crime and drugs."r/>r/>It's only a 'ligger's charter' if you don't allow people to choose who they live with. Most people wouldn't choose to live with criminals. Most new age travellers aren't criminals either, I think you're referring to people who are currently known as 'gypsies'... (Careful though, telling the truth about 'gypsies' could be a 'thought crime', and as we know, our government loves protecting criminals so that they can continue to ruin OUR lives.)r/>r/>If you allowed people to CHOOSE who they lived with, then guess what? Nobody is going to want scumbags living in their off grid community, so they won't get in, or they will be exiled if they misbehave. That is the way a sane society functions (unlike our current society) - the majority get to vote out people who they don't like, and they exile them. Heavens forbid! We can't allow people to live around only people who make their lives better, can we! What would happen to all the selfish, obnoxious people who spend their time ruining other people's lives! Boo hoo.r/>r/>Now, just imagine the implications if you could build your own strawbale house for £10,000, no mortgage, no loans (I am presuming that you saved up the £10,000), and your outgoings each month would be less than £300. Imagine what you could do with the money that you would previously have had to give to the fraudulent, counterfeiting BANKS for 25 years. You could spend that money on buying goods and services from REAL businesses (banks aren't real businesses, since they don't increase the real wealth of a nation, quite the reverse). You could buy British made clothes, and cars, and furniture, and go to British places on holiday, thus keeping your own countryfolk employed and well off - and they could also live in £10,000 straw bale houses, and do the same.r/>r/>Whereas at the moment what we have is a giant concentration camp - a forced labour camp, called 'the United Kingdom'. We know it's a forced labour camp because YOU CANNOT LEAVE. If you want to build your own £10,000 off grid house, you can't, because the 'government' (i.e. the front men of the banks) have stolen all the LAND, and thus you have to add £100,000 onto the cost of building your £10,000 house, just to buy a piece of land which was STOLEN from you in the first place.r/>r/>Unless somebody can explain to me how they can justify one person 'owning' 50,000 acres of land, while 50 million people own no land at all, especially as that one person came by that land by receiving STOLEN PROPERTY...
Gravatar Dr Adford 25 December 2010
The reason we can't go and live off grid is because of the international bankers, as simple as that. The fractional reserve system requires constant 'growth', i.e. more people, who take out loans, which keeps the fractional reserve system (i.e. legalised counterfeiting of billions of pounds by banks every year) from collapsing. (It will eventually collapse because it is based on massive fraud.)r/>r/>You don't have to 'make do' with 25% of the energy you used to use, if you go off grid. Simply use more solar panels and more or larger wind turbines, and use a diesel generator (using used cooking oil) if needs be.r/>r/>Secondly, the houses don't need to cost £50,000 at all. Brian Stinchcombe built an amazing two bedroom strawbale bungalow in Wales for £10,000. There will always be a supply of volunteers who are only too happy to help build a straw bale home for nothing, simply because by doing so they get to learn how it's done.r/>r/>You'll notice that the only 'off grid' planning applications that have been allowed in this country always have the stupid requirement that the owners of the houses have to 'live off the land'. After all, we can't possibly allow people to build their own £10,000 off grid houses and still be part of normal society, can we! Everybody would be doing it, and then where would the banks and the building industry be! We can't have people having large gardens where they can grow their own food and actually have a bit of privacy from their neighbours, can we! We must have thousands of tiny rabbit hutch houses with no front gardens, all squeezed into the smallest space possible, so those damn people have nothing else to do but sit and watch the controlled media on TV...r/>r/>The solutions to all these problems all have their roots in ONE thing - true democracy. If we had true democracy, i.e. the ability to vote once a month on whatever WE, the people, wanted to, I am certain that the majority of the population would be all in favour of allowing off grid housing to be built by the people of this country, because the less energy I use, the more energy is left for everybody else. If I build a house out of straw bales and use only a tenth of the energy of a conventional house to do so, that keeps the price of YOUR next conventional house down. The same with people who cycle instead of driving - drivers should welcome more cyclists, because by cycling we are keeping the cost of petrol down. r/>r/>But the government will do everything it can to prevent us from building off grid houses. Their first trick is to keep the price of land artificially high by allowing the recipients of stolen property, otherwise known as 'the landed gentry', who own MILLIONS of acres of OUR land, whose ancestors STOLE it from your and my ancestors, at the point of a sword, hundreds of years ago, to keep that land and to only sell off tiny amounts of it to us, the peasants, every year, at exhorbitant prices.r/>r/>Living off grid means that you don't have to be near any utilities, which means that ANY piece of land that's flat enough to build a house on, could be inhabited.
Gravatar Jonathan West 23 December 2010
Hi Nick I really enjoyed your blog.r/>r/>I would like to pick-up on what going “off-grid” implies.r/>r/>You open with a discussion of micro-grids, of 300-3000 homes, whilst you end by discussing why people, particularly men, want to reject all grids. To go off-grid do we have to be completely independent or can we be on local grids? Does it qualify as going off-grid if you transfer from a national supplier’s grid to a more local supplier’s grid?r/>r/>Merging this with Al Shaw's comment, I would argue that this is not primarily about changing the proximity of a supplier’s head office. Rather it is about increasing our responsibility and control over our production, supply and consumption of utility services. Which means it is about changing the market model that we appeal to deliver (and remove) our utilities. It is a rejection of utilities as marketable commodities.r/>r/>This is an important nuance. From this perspective, going off-grid is as much a process of self-awareness as it is a rejection of grids. As such, I would certainly concur that this is not a short-term process. r/>r/>One substantial hole in this interpretation of going off-grid is who is responsible day to day for the utilities? Whilst communities could achieve consensus over costs and installation, but when problems arise that require immediate action (e.g. burst water pipe) who will act and under what authority? It is one thing to maintain the infrastructure (e.g. PV panels, wind or hydro-turbines, generators) to supply your own home with its independent source of energy, but how do you achieve and sustain this for a community of 3000?r/>
Gravatar Al Shaw 23 December 2010
There's also a growing interest in opting out of traditional financial institutions and structures, for similar reasons.r/>r/>Not sure whether off-grid is the right term for this or not.

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Detailed Summary

Date Published
21 December 2010

About The Authors

Nick Rosen

Nick is a documentary film maker and author. Learn more about off-grid living at or by reading Nick's n...