A new champion for better land decisions

By David Boyle

16th December 2020

This was written in response to the Climate Change Committee's Sixth Carbon Budget. Find out more about our latest work towards a land use framework for England

People are a diverse lot, with so many different ways of being.

We all possess a unique tapestry of skills, behaviours and even moods that make us difficult to predict and categorise. Public policy doesn’t always respond to this intricacy very well. Health policy deals with our bodies, education policy with the intellectual development of our children, but mental health often falls between these two pillars – or at least between government departments.

When it comes to people, Ministers normally understand this difficulty and mismatch very well – so why do governments find it so hard to understand that the same applies to places, and by extension to land too?  

We have screeds of land-related policy, administered separately, to deal with housing (the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government), with agriculture and forestry (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and energy (the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). And we have so many competing plans and objectives involving our most precious finite resource – a national commitment to achieve carbon net zero by 2050, an agricultural transition plan to create cleaner, greener landscapes whilst still producing high-quality food, and a plethora of other commitments to enhance natural resources and protect our communities.

When we have limited land, as we do in the UK, it makes sense to plan for multiple uses. Unfortunately, the recent Government White Paper Planning for the Future, risks leaving us instead with a paint-by-numbers approach, as if any one place only has to fulfil one purpose at a time.  

Luckily, it seems that Lord Deben has emerged as a champion of a more nuanced approach to these complexities. A former Conservative MP and Secretary of State for the Environment, he now chairs the Climate Change Committee, which set out its Sixth Carbon Budget for the UK last week, providing a pathway to Net Zero.  

Among other sensible ideas about agriculture and forestry, the carbon budget urges a different way to make decisions on land use and to resolve conflicts between rival uses. It recognises that “that decisions on land use need to be taken locally, and that decision making is complex and multi-layered”. I could not agree more.  

What’s more, the report also emphasises both why and how these decisions need to be shared locally. Embracing decision-making at a local level will, it suggests, help people accept big changes, as they are “part of a national conversation on the options available for achieving Net Zero”. And - importantly - it needs to be done “in a way that allows people to understand and deliberate over the options available, at a point where people’s input is most useful in policy-making - which is likely to differ according to the policy being developed - and in a way that is transparent about how people’s decisions will influence the course of action taken.”  

The alternative approach leads to tensions, not just between people and places, but between government bodies whose own projects and objectives compete with each other. In the end, it will mean that land cannot achieve its full potential as the key to unlocking solutions to our burgeoning climate, nature and health crises.

Land can and should deliver multiple benefits. The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is proposing a national land use framework for England to shape a shared vision for our places and to help get the best out of our unique landscape. Such a framework has much potential. It would manage competing pressures on land. It would help government deliver its laudable goals of transformational change in areas such as agriculture and climate change. It would alleviate the growing pressures and tensions within current land disputes. Perhaps most importantly of all, it would make it possible to allow multiple functions in land, so we can begin to use our most precious resource to its full potential.