March 13th, 2007

Land use strategy – discuss

Good speech and blog by David Miliband last week – opening up what should be big questions for everyone involved in the environment: what do we want to do with our land?

The vast majority of land in England, perhaps up to 87% is ‘green space’ – farming, forests and urban green space… see chart [view spreadsheet more detail / download xls]. In round figures: about 70% of land has some sort of agriculture, 10% is forests or woodland, 20% is urban or suburban, of which about half is built on – houses, gardens, other properties or transport infrastructure.  Is this the right distribution, and what determines it?

Interestingly, a majority believe that more than 50% of England is developed [polling for Barker Review] and near hysteria greets any suggestion that the green belt might be protecting the wrong things or having perverse consequences.

Taking on David Miliband’s call for a “mature, engaged debate”, I’d like to float some provocations about land use strategy for discussion… I can’t claim 100% confidence in these ideas, only that I think they are worth holding up to challenge. here we go…

1. Convert more farmland to woodland. We have too much land devoted to farming – preferences for land use stress on its amenity and conservation value [polling Q3]. We should change more land to forest and woodlands, and to high quality housing. The food security argument for supporting farming is overplayed by farming interests: our main guarantor of food security is well-functioning markets.

2. Use CAP payments to buy environmental changes. A change of land use from farming to woodland, to nature reserves or for ‘re-wilding’ requires active government intervention – land used for these purposes has very high value, but it is ‘non-marketed’ so wont happen without intervention. CAP single farm payments could be capitalised and used to pay for conversion of farmland to higher value purposes. More broadly, CAP monies should only be used to provide public goods (such as environmental protection) – a position already taken by the government (see Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy), but subject to EU negotiation.

3. Move (more) cautiously on biofuels. Biofuels offer a promise of carbon reductions but how much depends on how they are produced and it can come at a high price in impacts on land and water. For farmers instruments like the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation create a new farming gravy train and subsidy, but this policy can only be justified if the carbon benefits outweigh the other economic and environmental costs. We should move carefully and experimentally – this policy will drive major land use changes and it’s far from clear it meets sustainability tests.

4. Make the land designation system more responsive to climate change. The system of designations for protecting land is complex (map) but reflects our complex pattern of preferences and desire to reconcile competing demands for land use. The system is quite static though – and that will not work in a world of climate change. Our system for protecting particular land uses needs to become more dynamic and refocussed on outcomes. Some people fear that opening up the system, will cause it to be whittled away – but the danger of not opening it up is that it wont do what it is intended to do.

5. Define and protect land as natural capital. Land provides many valuable services – and many of these are recognised and managed, but others less so. We need to understand land better as a reservoir of carbon (huge reserves are held in British peat bogs), and as a system for collecting and holding water. Land can also manage flood risk and drainage by absorbing and buffering water as it falls and heads for rivers or drains. We can deliberately ‘soften’ land surfaces to slow the build up of floods and build flood protection around soft defences, such as wetlands.

6. Reduce sheep grazing in the uplands. As an economic activity, sheep grazing is not really viable in upland Britain. These open expanses are, however, some of the most highly prized landscapes in the country – but reduced to biological desert status by sheep. The job to be done there is more like the American park ranger than farming – environmental stewardship rather production of meat and wool.

7. Realign the coast. Climate change and sea level rise mean that many coastal communities will be at risk from erosion and storm surges. We need better incentives for those affected to move and a more community-orientated approach to realignment of the coast. We can’t do it on the cheap.

8. Expand housing provision including more in the countryside. There is an insider-outsider problem for housing development in the pleasant rural or semi-rural areas in which many people would like to live. People already living in the countryside vigorously (and successfully) campaign to protect rural England… but in doing so they are excluding incomers and raising the value of their own assets by maintaining their scarcity – and that has negative intergenerational consequences. There is no plan to concrete over the Home Counties (even the most bullish house building proposals take no more than a couple of percent of available land), but there is also no reason why a select few should have the privilege of living in nice rural surroundings whilst using the planning system to exclude others. More houses should be built in the countryside. Some very compelling arguments from the Housing team at Policy Exchange – I particularly recommend Unaffordable Housing. Added 9 April – there was really informative coverage of the arguments for and against this approach in the Financial Times [see Martin Wolf columns and letters from CPRE and Policy Exchange here]

9. Protect more urban brownfield land from development. Government targets drive development to ‘brownfield’ (previously used) land – but this can have perverse consequences of driving development in areas of high flood risk and it may overlook the biodiversity and amenity value of brownfield land in urban areas. At the same time, green field sites can have little intrinsic value, but be very suitable for new housing.

10. Replace green belt with a green space strategy. 50 year old green belt policy is becoming dysfunctional, overprotecting some greenfield land, even though it is poor quality, poor biodiversity and generally nothing special. At the same time commuters are starting to ‘jump’ over the green belt. creating a kind of remote sprawl, and such crude protection creates perverse land price effects – land for development in the SE can be worth 400 times as much as land allocated to farming. Some sensible arguments in the new report from IPPR: A question of balance. We should have ‘green wedges’ allowing development along transportation radii and expanding existing towns, but having green space penetrating deeper into the cities and where people live.

Overall, we should understand what we value and why, and protect and enhance the assets that create that value.

4 comments to Land use strategy – discuss

  • Mqrk Oliver

    Well hrre is something .. if you increase building in rural areas so everyone can live there … then guess what? It isnt rural anymore … Dumbest thing I ever heard ..

  • Clive Bates

    Gerry’s (anon) comment is here.

    I think both Gerry and John make good points – the key is that there must be economic activity in the countryside and rural towns – and this must go beyond traditional rural industries like farming. I’m optimistic – I think a revolution in telecoms and collaborative working techniques means people will be able to work more remotely more often from their normal place of work – or work itself will be come geographically decentralised.

    I agree that ‘what people want’ shouldn’t be the way we determine land use – there lies the the route to the tragedy of the commons. On the other hand, we do protect nature because people like it, and one of the best ways to experience it is to live and work in it.

    I think what the Policy Exchange makes use face is that through the planning system and high house prices, it is possible for a select group to ‘capture’ the countryside and keep its pleasures exclusive to them.

    I agree with Caspar about access, but one of the best ways of doing that is to bring green space into the urban areas – the green belt isn’t really something people visit much.

  • John Swainson

    There is a good deal of sense in most of Alan Bates’s comments but I think we need to be careful about rural building simply because it encourages commuting unless we can build genuinely sustainable communities. Where we can provide genuine new employment opportunities then of course we should look at rural building centered on existing communities – but in doing so we need to remember that there will always be more workers than managers and the housing needs to reflect this. It does not do so at present. To be sustainable a community also needs to be self contained rather than commuter based.

  • Caspar Henderson

    This agenda hits a lot of good points. One suggested addition: a strategy and implementation plan for access. This would not be the same as a “right to roam” (welcome though that may be under certain conditions). It would include much greater thought, planning and resources about transport into and across rural areas. For example, a comprehensive, funded programme for the re-development of more disused railway lines for very low or zero carbon travel.

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