Better decisions about land are vital

By Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE

28th October 2020

Find out more about our latest work towards a land use framework for England here

Without a framework, vital decisions about the future of our land cannot be made.

If we are to fulfil our Government’s commitments on levelling up, carbon net zero, housing, infrastructure, nature recovery and more, we need a process to prioritise the many pressures on our green and pleasant land. Currently there’s no such mechanism in England to help us decide how best to meet these commitments.

In England, we have a high population density and enormous pressures on the use of land. This isn’t new; and we have traditionally managed those pressures with a mixture of regulation and mediation (land use planning, nature and landscape protection), incentives (for farming and woodland planting and management) and regulated market forces (water and energy supply, and some infrastructure). But over recent years we have added to this complexity with a raft of additional strategic goals, all of which depend on land to be delivered.

We’re committed as a country to reach carbon net zero by 2050; to shift from nature loss to nature recovery; and to better protect natural resources, reduce waste and plastic, making progress towards a circular economy. On top of this, the Government wants to build 300,000 houses each year, improve the country’s infrastructure, and plant a huge number of trees. And, because of COVID-19, we know we need to give more people access to green space and nature in order to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing.

The problem is that these activities and the policies associated with them aren’t joined up. Too often they contradict each other, and there is no process for prioritising them to ensure we use our precious land wisely and well, achieving multiple goals where we can. This is dangerously inefficient because it can mean that one set of policies too often ‘pays’ to override another. It explains why decision-making is often complex and slow, and why we too often fail to achieve the outcomes we seek.

We urgently need something better – and it needs to go beyond a stand-off over planning: a fight between rigid, centralised rules or, as risked by White Paper, a kind of free for all. Or even an American-style zoning system that represents the inflexible worst of both worlds, limiting land’s multifunctional capacity.

Fortunately, the Government’s White Paper recognised the need for a new approach to ensure effectiveness, and efficiency. But what approach would be best? The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, of which I am a Commissioner, has recommended a Land Use Framework to help resolve these tensions, and enable progress to be made on a sustainable basis. We suggest there are two levels – national and larger-than-local – at which a framework like this needs to work.

Scotland and Wales already have land use frameworks and we have studied them with great interest. Wales’ benefits from being set within the Welsh Government’s legal commitment to future generations, which puts sustainability at its heart. Scotland’s is more focused on activities within the land use planning system, but has already demonstrated the benefits of a joined up approach.

We suggest a bespoke, principles-based English framework, spanning activities that fall within the planning system and those that don’t. Its very existence will help local policymakers to join up and prioritise policies with conflicting goals, guided by the best available scientific evidence and data sources, but with the flexibility to respond to local and sectoral needs.

The England-wide framework would be a vital tool for managing national priorities, but it shouldn’t impose solutions on local people: the idea is that by setting out clear overarching principles, more local and specific strategies can decide where and what should happen. It needs to help deliver the ‘best use of land’, including multiple goals wherever possible. It would help us think and act for the long term, especially to make sure non-reversible land use changes are made in the right way and in the right places. Importantly, it would ensure decisions respond to what is already there: the natural, human and cultural capital, so we maintain the sense of identity and special qualities of places while moving forward.

Then we need processes nearer the ground, taking the context from the England-wide framework – to give real spatial focus to reconciling conflicting objectives. For example, where would new development best underpin sustainable living patterns and support net zero plans? Where are the best places for nature recovery networks, tree planting, sustainable farming and food production? And how can local people and organisations (local authorities, farmers, water companies, charities) work together so their efforts add up to more than the sum of their parts? Pilots, ideally in large counties or groups of counties, and ideally with different challenges, would be a good way to test these ideas: FFCC is testing the principles of a Land Use Framework in Cambridgeshire and Devon.

This is a huge moment for us all. In our earlier work we have found a real appetite to experiment, to try out what’s possible and what might work. Now, the impact of Covid-19 makes a Land Use Framework for England even more vital. In order to move from recovery to renewal, we need an economy that works for every place in the country, and a countryside that is both productive and ecologically resilient. We need to support flourishing ecosystems and tackle climate change while meeting our needs for food, housing, water, and clean air. A Land Use Framework for England would enable all this to happen and help the Government meet its commitments across the land.