Land use beyond borders

Georgie Barber on learning about land across five nations.

13th June 2024

In March, FFCC convened a group of partners, policymakers and practitioners from across the four nations of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, all active in strategic land use decision-making, to share their knowledge and insights into land use governance.

Land is needed for the solutions to all our most pressing challenges: for energy, housing, producing food, restoring nature, storing carbon and adapting to climate change, among others. Deciding how limited land should be used is increasingly important, as policymakers grapple with the trade-offs and tensions involved in those decisions.

Policies governing how we use our land are devolved. Agriculture, environment, forestry, housing and planning - all of these are determined at the country level, rather than the UK level. Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England all have different approaches to land use issues. These differences reflect different policy design and land use pressures, but also distinct social, political and economic contexts. So, what can we learn from emerging land use policies from different contexts and pressures? And how can we use that to meet targets for the UK and the Republic of Ireland?

The discussion was lively and wide ranging, with contributions from across different ‘lenses’ on land use – net zero, planning, biodiversity and nature, estates, government, housing, water and others – but all on work and projects that factor multiple demands on land. After a full day of constant discussion and comparison of the various highlights and challenges of different countries’ land policy, there was consensus in key areas:

  • Strategic land use governance – particularly at the subnational but larger-than-local level – is still relatively new and unrecognised in public discourse. However, there are lots of organisations working on this - working out how to balance different land uses and trade-offs and how to include local communities and stakeholders effectively - but operating in silos, not knowing about each other’s work. Sharing insights and experiences really helped to highlight common challenges and opportunities in this emergent practice (i.e., making strategic land use decisions), and how much value there is in sharing those insights.
  • All the countries gave feedback that having a bottom-up component to this work was critical to successful implementation. Some organisations had gone further along in this work than others, and spoke to the complexity of meaningful stakeholder engagement with land use decision-making processes on the ground. Nonetheless, it was agreed that having the bottom-up approach is vital for community buy in (and therefore delivery), as well as to find the best information about what the local land pressures and possibilities are. The governance of this – coordinating and aggregating nationally – is an important facet to good land use policy design.
  • There are many necessary levers of change that, individually, are not enough to achieve the most effective land use decisions. Land use timescales are long term: we need consistent and persistent policy direction that looks at 30-year goals, not five to ten years. Policy is the background, but we also need to mobilise the necessary levers of change: like trusted advisors to on-the-ground stakeholders, to build knowledge and capacity, and market regulation and incentives, to referee the markets and financialisation of public and private goods. Access to data was another lever: making sure that decision makers knew of the good quality data that could support their processes, knowledge of how to use that data appropriately, and it being affordable and accessible. Making better land use decisions is complex, and requires a joined-up, strategic approach that brings many different levers of change together to tackle this challenge with the necessary urgency.
  • There was recognition of the lack of diversity in land management decisions, and that to generate truly sustainable and fair land use we need to broaden the constituencies that make decisions over how land is made – be that by gender, ethnicity, age, etc.
  • The UK has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and halting biodiversity loss by 2030. These are tight timescales, but there is also the urgent need to tackle inequality and the cost of living, the housing crisis, improve infrastructure, support food resilience, and so on. Ideally, we would have a wealth of research lighting the way, but given the complexity and urgency of the issues, we need to learn from people working on land use policy now. Practitioners identifying gaps in knowledge and research need to work with academia and national policymakers to find answers that can deliver solutions at scale.

Fundamentally, it became clear that – though strategic land use governance, making the most effective use of limited land, is a relatively emergent discussion – there are many people working on this nationally, regionally and locally, and learning valuable lessons from their different contexts. FFCC will continue to work with this network and others to further understanding of the delivery mechanisms for integrated, spatially explicit land use policy. In doing so, we hope to identify gaps in knowledge, room for further research and evidence, and possible policy levers that can offer big gains in the successful delivery of strategic, integrated land use policy. This can support other subnational actors beginning to engage with strategic land use governance, particularly to share and learn from what has been done before and what has worked in different contexts. It can also support national governments when designing new policy and governance infrastructure to support those decision makers – not least the next government in Westminster.

Going forward, we are starting to convene a Community of Interest in strategic land use governance, to bring together insights from practitioners so that we can feed into national policymakers and academic researchers looking to fill in knowledge gaps.