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Making Sense of Land Use

Mark Walton

A number of recent reports and publications look at the fundamental role of land in addressing some of the key problems of our times, from social justice to climate change and biodiversity loss. Mark Walton takes a look at what they have to say and finds a remarkable degree of consistency in their recommendations.

Dig deep enough into many of the problems this country faces, and you will soon hit land” says George Monbiot in the introduction to Land For The Many, a recently published report commissioned by the Labour Party. He rightly points out that land “scarcely features in political discussions”, but perhaps that is about to change. 

Alongside Land For The Many, Guy Shrubsole’s new book Who Owns England? and a raft of recent reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the RSA’s Food and Farming Commission and CPRE, have placed land firmly in the spotlight, not just as a source of problems, but as a potential source of solutions to issues including affordable housing, biodiversity loss, climate change and food production.

In their report on Climate Change and Land the IPCC state that land “provides the principal basis for human livelihoods and well-being”. It focuses on how sustainable land and forest management can not only prevent and reduce land degradation and maintain productivity, but reduce and even reverse the adverse impacts of climate change. However we are a long way from managing our land in ways that deliver these benefits. As CPRE point out in their Landlines report from 2017, “we continually demand more from land” including food and fibre, recreation, housing and infrastructure.

So what are these reports and publications suggesting needs to change?

Land For The Many and Who Owns England? both focus on land as a social justice issue, and seek to address the concentration of land, property, wealth and power in England. They propose a wide ranging suite of policy proposals, from tax and fiscal measures to reforms of the planning system. A key starting point for the authors is to increase transparency; completing and opening up the Land Registry to enable the general public to understand who owns what. 

The IPCC, taking a global view, highlight the need to address adaptation, mitigation, desertification, land degradation and food security in the face of climate change. Suggested actions include reforestation and bioenergy, alongside urban and peri-urban food production and green infrastructure to reduce climate risks in cities. However their focus is not just on climate outcomes. They are confident that such actions can bring social, ecological, and economic benefits, contributing to poverty eradication and more resilient livelihoods. 

This international perspective reinforces the earlier work of the UK Committee on Climate Change in 2018 that called for improved farming practices to help reduce emissions. However even after such changes the CCC still saw agriculture as one of the biggest emitting sectors, suggesting that deep emissions reductions would require agricultural land to be released for other uses such as afforestation and peatlands.

Our Future In Land by the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission also focuses on the changes needed to make our food and farming system more sustainable, and to stop ecosystem collapse, regenerate nature and restore people’s health and wellbeing. Proposals include committing to supply the UK’s fruit, vegetables, nuts and pulses from UK sustainable agriculture. They also call for a ten-year transition plan for sustainable, agroecological farming by 2030, backed by a National Agroecology Development Bank. 

How do the authors of these reports suggest we go about managing the competing interests and issues that would need to be addressed in making such widespread changes?

Perhaps surprisingly, given their different focuses and framing of the issues, there is a remarkable degree of consistency in their proposals. 

The IPCC recognise that land management decisions are made from farm to national scales, across multiple sectors, departments and agencies. They call for “multilevel, hybrid and cross-sectoral governance” and for policies “developed and adopted in an iterative, coherent, adaptive and flexible manner”. They also highlight the importance of involving “local stakeholders (particularly those most vulnerable to climate change including indigenous peoples, local communities, women, the poor and marginalised) in the selection, evaluation, implementation and monitoring” of new policies. 

This multilevel approach is reflected, at least to some extent, in suggestions being put forward by many of the England or UK focused reports. 

At the centre of proposals by all of the authors is a land use strategy or framework that: “delivers the UK’s climate goals whilst balancing other pressures will require fundamental changes to how land is used” (CCC) or “inspires cooperation based on the public value of land, mediating and encouraging multipurpose uses” (RSA). 

CPRE state that refining the objectives of such a strategy, and beginning to develop policies and institutional structures that address them, could be the mission of a new Land Use Commission. The establishment of such a commission is supported by the authors of Who Owns England? and Land For The Many.

Greater community involvement is suggested across issues ranging from the design and co-creation of new developments and housing estates (Land For The Many), to the development of collaborative community food plans to help inform and implement national food strategies (Food, Farming and Countryside Commission).  

Additional support for land managers and farmers to make the changes necessary to achieve the transition to new land uses are recommended by both the Climate Change Commission and Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. 

It’s rare for land issues to be the focus of such diverse and sustained attention from policy makers and advisors, and the changes being proposed are not minor. They have the potential to radically alter our towns, cities, countryside and our relationship to the land. However these ideas are not new. A government white paper on the Control of Land Use from 1944 states that ‘Provision for the right use of land, in accordance with a considered policy, is an essential requirement of the Government’s programme …. [that] can best be evolved by a continuous process of collaboration.’ 

Whether the starting point is social justice, protecting our soils, creating a more sustainable food system or addressing climate change, there is growing recognition that England, Wales and NI need a Land Use Commission such as that which developed recent proposals for land reform in Scotland. A key output from such a commission should be the objectives for a new Land Use Strategy which recognises the foundational role of land, and involves citizens and stakeholders in developing policies and making decisions about how we manage our most fundamental resource, the land beneath our feet. 

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