From a Permaculture Design Course to a successful community organisation

by Chloe Anthony, our Permaculture Design Course lead tutor, writes about our history following a conversation with Bryn Thomas, co-founder and CEO


"Permaculture comes from green movement and holistic thinking, joined up thinking. It's absolutely fantastic that environmental concerns have become more mainstream, but they have sort of been reduced to sound-bite solutions and knee-jerk reactions. Our challenge is as much as it ever was to get people to think of design solutions to problems that are holistic and long-term. Bryn Thomas

Brighton Permaculture Trust today

  • Brighton Permaculture Trust formed in 2000

  • now running 30-40 courses a year

  • hosting yearly events, including Apple Day, Green Architecture Day and partners in Eco Open Houses

  • we have no office! - leasing sites at Stanmer Park, including The Plot (permaculture demonstration site), Home Farm Orchard (the Sussex Collection of traditional apple varieties), the Fruit Factory (venue for courses and fruit processing), and Racehill Community Orchard

  • helping to plant 120 small school/community orchards across Sussex

  • working in partnership with the Low Carbon Trust on building courses, and with Brighton & Hove Food Partnership delivering food projects and community orchards

  • running the Scrumping Project using local fruit, producing juices, ciders, chutneys, jams

  • 6,000 subscribers to our newsletter

  • 1,800 people on the volunteer list, around a third actively volunteering

  • four trustees and a management group of eight

  • over 100 members

  • 40-50 people who do some paid work for the organisation; 10-15 people run key projects as volunteers

It all began in 1996 with the first Permaculture Design Course taught in Brighton. We taught a Permaculture Design Course every year, soon adding the Introduction to Permaculture and starting projects in schools. Feedback from our course participants made clear that what engages people most are practical projects and a supportive network. So from a group of people who did a single thing (the Permaculture Design Course), we became more diverse with what we tried to achieve and developed into an organisation with number of working groups for different projects. We visualised this progression as a flowering of the organisation – each group a petal of the Brighton Permaculture Trust flower – we called it 'flower power'!

 Permaculture design applied to organisations

Our main aim always was to promote permaculture and we felt that an organisation could provide more support to people than an informal network. Other advantages of an organisational set-up were ease of accounting as one entity rather than through different people's self-employed books, and the ability to attract funding. We began as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee with model charitable rules and became a charity in 2013.

We apply permaculture design to everything we do! We use permaculture design methods to review how we're doing and set the direction of the organisation. We harvest evaluation and feedback from all our course and event participants and make changes in response to these. We keep the organisation dynamic and resilient through creating opportunities for new people to get involved as volunteers and in other roles. We understand our teams in terms of niche and diversity.

Networking and practical projects as key factors for success

Cooperation is a key principle for us. Our strength definitely comes through working with local organisations that are different, but complementary. To start with one of our main partners was Action in Rural Sussex. With them we planted small orchards and published our book, Apples & Orchards in Sussex. Today we partner with Brighton & Hove Food Partnership on our Scrumping Project and on small and larger community orchards. We also work closely with the Low Carbon Trust on our building courses, Green Architecture Day, Eco Open Houses events and assisting with the Brighton Earthship.

Working with town, district, city and county councils has been essential to our development. We lease our sites from Brighton & Hove City Council. Each council has different priorities and different ways of working. We have learnt to talk their language, find common aims with council priorities and often our aims as a permaculture organisation are accepted as common sense! Sometimes we are requested for advice in a consultancy role, sometimes we work in partnership, sometimes we are given access to council resources.

We have always understood ourselves as local partners of the national Permaculture Association. Individual team members attend various events and we keep aware of regional permaculture projects and sites, which we often visit on our courses.

Permaculture livelihoods

Our course and event work has grown organically and is self-financed from participants' fees. We aim to run at courses affordable prices offering a sliding scale and volunteer discounts. The National Lottery Local Food Fund brought in nearly half a million pounds of funding over five years, which enabled us to do a lot of our orchard work and develop the organisation.

We have a lot of diversity in the organisation with regard to paid and volunteer work. We are proud to say we have around 600 active volunteers. We have five part-time administration staff, paid at reasonable rates. Our course convenors and tutors are paid rates similar to local FE colleges. Some of our projects are financed through funding, some are entirely volunteer led.

We find the key to the amazing commitment people give to Brighton Permaculture Trust is supported by listening to people about what they want and are willing to give, rather than asking for something. This is the permaculture ethic of people care and fair shares in action: everyone defines fair shares for themselves, rather than us defining a fair share policy. We want to make the organisation accessible to people with different backgrounds which means people are able to give and take different amounts.

Our vision

We aim to continue to be a local organisation promoting permaculture by delivering courses, events and community projects. We are currently in a phase of consolidation, having slightly overstretched ourselves, and we hope now to expand slowly and steadily.

  • For our courses and events, we aim to add one or two more courses a year. Apple Day, our biggest event, is self-financing and very popular: here we are aiming to increase awareness of permaculture. Eco Open Houses will continue to receive funding and Green Architecture Day has been running for 13 years as self-financing event: we aim to increase attendance of both these events.

  • For our community orchard work, we currently plant around eight to 10 orchards a year, often with sponsorship from Infinity Foods or private funding, and aim to continue to do so.

  • Our Scrumping Project is now self-financing, still reliant on a lot of voluntary input, but becoming more and more established.

  • We are doing the finishing touches to the Fruit Factory - our new venue for courses and fruit processing - and we are aiming for a longer-term lease from the council.

  • For our demonstration sites at Stanmer Park, we are lucky to have a great group of volunteers going from strength to strength.

The Permaculture Design Course has been the catalyst for the formation of many groups, projects and organisations all over the world: this course was Bill Mollison's strategy for social change. The fact that most of our team have done a Permaculture Design Course has been one of the most powerful ways of building the organisation. Permaculture gives us shared ethics and a shared way of working. But we are not focused solely on promoting permaculture. We are an organisation that runs projects in the community. Without a doubt, it has been our practical projects that have been beneficial in building partnerships with local authorities and organisations. Our community projects have given our work a much wider appeal and really made a difference.

“For me it's been inspiring to be involved with such an enthusiastic group of people who have managed to deliver so much over the years and to continue to develop that. Brighton Permaculture Trust has been one of the most harmonious and supportive organisations I have worked with.” Bryn Thomas