Back to the land — the case for a more strategic approach to land use and management

This paper was written by the Green Alliance and commissioned by the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission.

According to the Treasury Blue Book, land is the UK’s most valuable asset. In 2017 it was worth £5.4 trillion (just over £22 per square metre, on average), while the homes and other buildings and structures on it were worth £3.6 trillion[1]. Land alone accounted for 51% of the UK’s total net worth, a higher percentage than in Canada, France, Germany and Japan.

That monetary valuation reflects land’s finite nature and the nation’s relatively high wealth and population density. Of all the world’s developed or emerging states, England is now the most densely populated (excluding small island and city states such as Singapore and Malta). Our economy also depends heavily on land overseas with UK’s global land footprint — the total land use associated with our own consumption, minus exports — estimated at 5.6 times the UK’s own surface area[2].

Globally, governments have long intervened in land use, land management and land markets within their own borders. They have done so in order to redress market failures, mainly around externalities (unregulated land development and land use causes problems for the public and the environment) and unearned betterment (land owners derive windfall benefits from actions and investments by others, including Government).

Local and national governments in developed nations have also tried to actively plan land use and coordinate different actors at the local, national and regional level, to help meet national needs and aspirations or to give local people more say in shaping the future of their surroundings.

As the first nation to industrialise, the UK has a rich history of these complex interventions, with the 1940s standing out as our richest decade. During the Second World War several enquiries and commissions made ground-breaking proposals on land use and planning. Within a few years of the war’s end, development rights were nationalised with the Town & Country Planning Act 1947 which underpins today’s planning system. There was also legislation for New Towns (1946), National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (1949) with Green Belts (1955) coming soon after.

These and the many subsequent legislative, regulatory and policy adjustments and innovations dealing primarily with land use and management have shaped modern Britain. The planning system itself is only part of the picture. Farming and forestry, accounting for most of England’s land use, are almost entirely outside of the planning system. Yet they are much influenced by Government and EU policy, and rapid change in both has had large economic, social and environmental impacts.

From time to time, UK Governments have tried to simplify and deregulate in the sphere of land use and management. But there can be no withdrawal; the state has been compelled to have a long and deep involvement which will continue. Population growth, economic growth (or its dearth), environmental damage and climate change are all raising the stakes.

This paper looks at government priorities linked to land use and land management, then some emerging challenges, before asking the question: can we manage land better?

Current Government priorities linked to land use and land management

The Government itself seems to think we can: several of the Government’s highest priorities, as set out in recent strategy documents, are tightly linked to land use and land management (see Summary table at x).

Improving productivity and good work — the Industrial Strategy

‘Place’ and ‘infrastructure’, two of the five foundations of productivity set out in the Government’s industrial strategy, are closely concerned with how we use land[3]. The white paper’s main preoccupation here concerns housing rather than sites for business and industry. More market and subsidised homes, and the infrastructure required to support their residents, are seen as playing a key role in helping employers to recruit and retain the staff they need to be more productive. We say more on housing and infrastructure below.

A key theme of the Industrial Strategy linked to land use and management is reducing wide disparities in productivity between regions, and the associated disparities in wealth and income. These gaps are deep-seated, long running and particularly large for England’s urban areas. London and the mid-sized South East towns around it generally have significantly higher levels of labour productivity than other UK conurbations, compared to the productivity gap found between European capitals and their second-tier cities. Managing land use in ways which promote growth and investment in those places which have fallen behind offers one way to tackle these disparities (see ‘A fairer society for all’, below).

Fixing our broken housing market — the housing white paper

Homes and their gardens represent the largest use of land in built up areas. Government sees planning system reform as critical to tackling housing shortages and unaffordability, although a lack of competition in the housebuilding sector and under-investment in subsidised housing are also identified as contributors in the housing white paper[4].

One of the system’s most important roles is to deliver planning consents for sufficient new homes in the context of:

  • Rising population, falling household sizes, and the aspiration of wealthier households to have larger homes and second homes
  • An enduring national consensus that housebuilding outside existing settlements should be highly constrained, especially in the most scenic areas (AONBs and National Parks) and the Green Belts surrounding major towns and cities.

Housing, or the lack of it, is behind many of the many changes to the planning system since 1947, changes which have accelerated through this century. Arguably, the planning and delivery of new housing is the main contributor to a national sense of dismay about the planning system highlighted in the Town and Country Planning Association’s recent review, led by a task force chaired by former planning and housing minister Nick Raynsford[5].

Delivering nationally significant infrastructure to support economic growth

Infrastructure uses relatively little land, but it has a major impact on landscapes, surrounding communities, economic development and the environment. If housing is considered as infrastructure then its land take is much larger. Infrastructure needs to accompany new built development, but it can also shape where future development happens.

Government has found itself compelled to take a leading, strategic and multi-departmental role in the planning and siting of critical new infrastructure (transport, energy generation and distribution, water, waste), separate from the planning system run mainly by local authorities with central government oversight. The process of planning nationally significant infrastructure has been changed by successive governments to try and improve its performance and public acceptance. The Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime established ten years ago underwent major reform in 2011, with Government departments taking back control of consent decisions from a briefly-established Infrastructure Planning Commission.

The current configuration provides a National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and an Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA). Both report to HM Treasury (the IPA also reports to the Cabinet Office). The NIC provides expert, impartial and periodically updated advice to Government on the nation’s infrastructure needs while the IPA’s remit is to advise on, and promote, successful and efficient delivery of those major infrastructure projects where a decision has been made to go ahead. Projects are generally put forward and funded by the private sector, with the relevant Government department ultimately deciding on which ones to consent. The National Planning Inspectorate manages the process of application, consultation, examination and recommendation.

The Government has also published 12 National Policy Statements setting out its objectives and intentions for various types of nationally significant infrastructure. These NPSs guide infrastructure providers, stakeholders and the government’s own decision making. Some of the NPSs make statements about exactly where in the UK particular types of infrastructure should be located.

Government increasingly recognises the term ‘green infrastructure’, now referenced in the National Planning Policy Framework[6]. This refers to those green spaces mainly in urban areas such as parks, woodlands, back gardens, allotments and golf courses, providing a range of valuable ecosystem services to millions of people living nearby. But it is far from having equal weight with ‘hard’ infrastructure and is not yet planned or managed effectively enough to maximise the benefits it could offer.

A fairer society for all

Government wishes to increase social mobility and equality of opportunity and help millions of people who feel they have been left out, left behind and are only just about managing, creating “a fairer society for all”[7]. The wide disparities in income and wealth which underlie these objectives are often place-based. Some areas get left behind, from large social housing estates at one end of the geographic scale to entire regions at the other — they have lower incomes, productivity, investment levels and other problems associated with lying low in a hierarchy. It is very difficult for them to catch up. Some people living in them who want to get on get out.

These deep disparities of place make for an ill-at-ease nation with an unhappy politics of “somewhere people” and “anywhere people” (cf Brexit)[8]. Land prices are much lower in the left-behind areas, but this fails to attract the private sector investment required to narrow the gap. Successive governments have been driven to try to help with many and varied interventions. Yet Government simultaneously tries to support the most successful areas and facilitate further investment and economic growth within them, because of their contribution to the national economy and the Exchequer.

Reducing these geographic disparities is relevant to all of the policy areas discussed above and below (productivity, housing, infrastructure, environment and climate change). Policies bearing on land use and land management have been one important way in which local and national government address them — assembling and preparing sites for new development, installing infrastructure to attract investment and introducing planning policies and area designations which make it easier for developers to secure planning consents.

‘Places’ is the title of one of the five chapters in the Government’s Civil Society Strategy[9]. People’s feelings about the quality and security of their shared surroundings may influence a community’s cohesion, resilience and resources (think of John Major’s “invincible green suburbs”[10]). This is largely a matter of how well a neighbourhood or town is managed by its council, community and the private sector from day to day in terms of litter, graffiti and upkeep of buildings. But it also relates to wider issues of urban land use and management; the quality of new built developments, the presence and quality of green infrastructure (parks, gardens, playing fields, urban woodland). Many people also use their nearby countryside; it is a place they care about and identify with, and the way it is managed and changes matters to them.

The 25 Year Environment Plan, Clean Growth Strategy and the Agriculture

Government strives to integrate environmental protection and combatting climate change with its other priorities. The Industrial Strategy and the accompanying Clean Growth Strategy[11] reflect the Government’s ambition “to leave our natural environment in a better condition than we found it”. So does the 25-Year Environment Plan[12] and the great reform of farm support set out in the Agriculture Bill[13].

There are other important Government goals which feed into this overall ambition for environmental improvement. One is the aim of planting more trees and significantly increasing the nation’s total woodland area, as recommended by the Independent Panel on Forestry[14] and more recent policies such as the 25-Year Environment Plan. Critical to the achievement of the overall ambition is halting further biodiversity loss in one of the world’s more nature-depleted nations[15] including through making new developments contribute to net biodiversity gain[16]. The 25 Year Environment Plan commits to a ‘Nature Recovery Network’, an additional 5,000 km2 of wildlife habitat — more than three times the area of Greater London. This reflects the recommendations of the 2012 Lawton Review, which called for more and better managed habitat, in larger and better connected areas[17].

Protecting and enhancing the environment and biodiversity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change are largely or predominantly concerned with how we use and manage land in town and country. Similarly, the analysis of ecosystem services and natural capital — or making nature economically visible — which now underpin Government strategies in these domains relate to how land, seas and freshwaters are managed (the state of freshwaters depends mainly on land management). Land and what lives on it and under it provides critical but under-valued or unvalued services, from pollination to flood protection, with one piece of ground usually covering a variety of functions.

Given this strong link to the land, Government strategies for environmental protection often depend on spatial or map-based plans and map-based designations — for habitat, species and landscape protection, river basin and water quality management, flood risk management, shoreline management and even air quality management. The many other map-based plans of local and national government, mainly within the town and country planning system and/or related to infrastructure planning, should coordinate with, or at least not conflict with, these environment-related plans.

It is worth mentioning one other priority area for Government with links to land management that are increasingly recognised — improving public mental and physical health and wellbeing and tackling obesity. The role of nature and green infrastructure in encouraging and supporting people to take exercise and feel better about their lives is a strong theme of the 25-year Environment Plan. There is accumulating evidence of the health benefits of exposure to nature, and growing interest among health professionals in prescribing outdoor exercise and outdoor socialising, although this is still in its infancy[18].

Future challenges which link to land use

All of these land use issues will remain high priorities in the long term. Climate change adaptation may climb up the agenda as sea levels rise and averages and extremes of rainfall and temperature change. Also likely to be of concern will be:

  • How to densify towns and cities sustainably? The housing pressures discussed above are driving the densification of urban areas, in the UK and globally[19]. There are potential benefits but also challenges, such as conserving the relatively green, tree-lined character of UK urban areas and retaining citizens’ access to green infrastructure including their own gardens.
  • The impact of digital technologies on patterns of work, leisure and shopping. The future of key urban components such as high street shops and offices is uncertain as people move to shopping and working at home, online.
  • The rise of autonomous, electric vehicles may greatly increase road capacity and decrease personal car ownership. This could alter demands for expanding road infrastructure and influence choices about where to live and work. The future of mobility is one of four ‘Grand Challenges’ in the Industrial Strategy.
  • An ageing population may find itself living in the wrong kind of homes, too large and expensive to run and not adapted for their needs. Ageing society is one of the four grand challenges in the Industrial Strategy.
  • Changes in diet, driven by health and climate change concerns, and improvements in agricultural productivity through innovation may alter the use and appearance of farmland, and affect the other ecosystem services it provides, potentially freeing up land for biodiversity conservation for example[20].

A more strategic, integrated approach

Land use and land management are critical to sustainable development. From time to time, expert advisory bodies call on Government to devise a more integrated, long term strategy for land use. Some recent examples:

  • In 2002 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s 23rd report, Environmental Planning, proposed ‘integrated spatial strategies…covering all aspects of sustainable development; and ensuring that such strategies cover all forms of land use, in particular agriculture and forestry as the largest uses’.
  • In 2010 the Government Office for Science’s Foresight Programme published a 300-page report on Land Use Futures out to 2060[21]. This proposed that Government should develop a strategic land use framework “that recognises the fundamental, cross-cutting importance of land across many sectors and which considers new circumstances…that will emerge over the next 50 years.”
  • In 2017 the OECD published the findings of a large study on the governance of land use across most member states including the UK[22]. One of its key findings: greater integration of land use polices across sectors and levels of government is needed to overcome sectoral silos.

There are long-standing, large obstacles to greater integration, beyond the fact that different Government departments have different roles and objectives concerning land use. They have cropped up repeatedly in the history of the town and country planning system.

Land use plans and strategies, from the local to the national, spatial or non-spatial, may take a long time and considerable resources to prepare because they must be founded on consultation with interested parties and experts.

The more issues they cover, the more integrated they are, the more complex they become. They inevitably struggle to resolve all of the conflicts inherent in land use. And, having been prepared, they may soon become out of date as circumstances change. There is further large difficulty in trying to achieve coordination between plans covering different spatial scales and levels of government, which may also run on different time scales.

Yet the arguments for a more strategic approach to land use planning will not go away: as land is under ever more pressure, the need to deliver the range of government objectives that depend on land use efficiently and effectively will only grow. In Scotland, the devolved administration has published its second Land Use Strategy covering the period 2016–2021[23]. The Welsh Government is preparing a National Development Framework to replace the current Wales Spatial Plan, setting out a 20-year framework for land use reviewed every five years. In both nations, these strategies are intended to work alongside existing planning policy frameworks similar to England’s NPPF.

Within England, central Government and local authorities work together on strategic spatial plans where the need is most obvious. Fifteen years after the demise of county structure plans, the six councils in Oxfordshire are preparing a Joint Statutory Spatial Plan “to provide an integrated strategic planning framework…to support sustainable growth across the county to 2050.” This plan is a key part of the Oxfordshire Housing and Growth Deal between these councils and Government, aligned with the Oxford Milton Keynes Cambridge growth arc.

Looking to the future, the Government’s planned new Environmental Land Management Scheme is a clear candidate for close integration with other land use plans, strategies and policies. Defra appears to recognise that if farmers are to be paid public funds to deliver particular environmental benefits, this should reflect local and regional circumstances, objectives and priorities.

If the payments are for public access to their land, then nearby communities or the nearest large settlement would want to be involved in determining and benefiting from that access. In some places conserving and improving soil quality will be the local priority, in others it will be new forestry or water retention and flood prevention or the restoration of biodiversity at scale, achievable through environmental land management contracts.

A more local and immediate example can serve to argue for a more strategic approach. The Planning Inspectorate and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are about to consider an application for what would be the UK’s largest solar farm with accompanying battery storage near Faversham in north Kent.[24] It will cover more than 3.5 square kilometres, have peak generating capacity of some 350 megawatts and is largely surrounded by nature reserves and designated wildlife protection areas (covered by the EU Birds and Habitats directives, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and the Ramsar Convention).

Solar farm developers will usually find rural sites more attractive than urban ones. The land is affordable and accessible, there is only one landowner to deal with and infrastructure can be easily and quickly installed on open, undeveloped land.

However, a broader strategy for sustainable land use might favour locating large solar farms on existing rooftops in urban areas. The panels would be close to where the electricity is consumed. Urban communities might benefit from rental income or discounted electricity from the panels and batteries. The urban land under solar panels would continue to have multiple functions. The net impacts on biodiversity and scenery would certainly be reduced.

It is not the purpose of this briefing to suggest what form a more strategic Government approach to land use might take. But, if it worked, what would success look like?

  • Increased efficiency in delivering government objectives as delivery is better integrated spatially.
  • More agreement and better coordination between and within local and central government, with parts of government working more effectively together to deliver government objectives.
  • More sustainable development — evidence that economic, social and environmental considerations are being fully balanced to achieve greater overall public benefit.
  • Less conflict over land use changes and existing land uses, greater public acceptance and understanding of decision making and change.
  • Better shared data about land use and land values, in terms of market valuation and natural capital assessments.

To use some words from the foreword of the Industrial Strategy, this is something that seems appropriate for “a strong and strategic state that intervenes decisively wherever it can make a difference” to look at afresh.

— — — — —

[1] The UK national balance sheet estimates: 2018.

[2] Tukker, A., Bulavskaya, T., Giljum, S., de Koning, A., Lutter, S., Simas, M., Stadler, K., Wood, R. 2014. The Global Resource Footprint of Nations. Carbon, water, land and materials embodied in trade and final consumption calculated with EXIOBASE 2.1. Leiden/Delft/Vienna/Trondheim.

[3] HM Government, 2017. Industrial Strategy — Building a Britain fit for the future.

[4] Department for Communities and Local Government, 2017. Fixing our broken housing market.

[5] TCPA, 2018. Planning 2020; Raynsford Review of Planning in England, Final Report.

[6] Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2018. National Planning Policy Framework.

[7] HM Government/Cabinet Office, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone.

[8] Goodhart, D. 2017. The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics. Penguin Books.

[9] HM Government/Cabinet Office, 2018, Civil Society Strategy: Building a future that works for everyone.

[10] Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Group on Europe, 22 April 1993.

[11] HM Government, 2017. The Clean Growth Strategy; Leading the way to a low carbon future.

[12] HM Government, 2018. A Green Future: Our 25 year plan to improve the environment.

[13] Defra, 2018. Health and harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a green Brexit — policy paper.

[14] Independent Panel on Forestry: Final Report, 2012.

[15] Hayhow DB et al, RSPB, The State of Nature partnership, 2016. State of Nature 2016. A new measure that assesses how intact a country’s biodiversity is, suggests that the UK has lost significantly more nature over the long term than the global average. The index suggests that the UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

[16] Defra, 2018. Net gain consultation proposals.

[17] Defra, 2010. Making space for nature: A review of England’s wildlife sites and ecological network. A review chaired by Professor Sir John Lawton.

[18] Schoon, N, 2017. The Nature of Gardens. B&Q, Bioregional.

[19] OECD, 2017. The governance of land use — Policy highlights.

[20] Ridley M and Hill D, 2018. The effect of innovation in agriculture on the environment, IEA Current Controversies Number 64.

[21] Government Office for Science/Foresight, 2010. Land Use Futures: Making the most of land in the 21st century.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Scottish Government, 2016. Getting the best from our land: A land use strategy for Scotland, 2016–2021.

[24] See https://www.clevehillsolar.com/

— — — — — —