Landing a Rural Land Use Framework

By Dr Alison Caffyn

27th July 2021

FFCC Senior Land Use Researcher Alison Caffyn focuses on how the NFS recommendation for a Rural Land Use Framework could put English land to work for a genuinely fair and sustainable future.

This was written in response to the publication of the National Food Strategy. Find out more about our work towards and land use framework for England.

Catastrophic floods are becoming more frequent, supermarkets are struggling to maintain supplies of fresh produce and the government has set targets for planting more trees and building more houses. Never before have there been so many demands on land. The National Food Strategy for England (NFS) has rightly recognised the urgent need to respond to these strategically. Its solution? A Rural Land Use Framework – a strategy that categorises English land and signals the kind of support and incentives required for each patch of land to do a particular job – be that food production, restoring nature, mitigating flooding or sequestering more carbon. They have even provided a map of what it might look like - a top-line indication of how different parts of the UK might be put to work.

FFCC has been advocating a Land Use Framework for England for several years, so it is really welcome to see a more strategic approach to land and better use of land data feature so strongly in the NFS. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already at various stages along this path. It’s high time England grasped the nettle too.

"How can it enable genuinely fair and sustainable change, and avoid becoming another failed top-down technofix?"

So what next? How can this high-level analysis and recommendation move rapidly to becoming real-world action? How can it enable genuinely fair and sustainable change, and avoid becoming another failed top-down technofix?

First off, the recommendation recognises that a further mechanism is needed to address the full complexity of English land. The map identifies areas as priority places for nature and carbon sequestration, or farming – but what does this mean, for example, for large swathes of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Northumberland, Sussex and Devon, where in reality this polarity is not so clear cut?

This high-level mapping also, inevitably, suggests that one patch of land is best used for one purpose – here a binary choice between nature and farming – but much land can do more than one thing. Developments can incorporate green spaces and services, agroforestry can include agriculture, horticulture, nature and perhaps education. There are likely to be multiple win-wins that can be identified by the landowner and local community – and that need to be acknowledged and recorded for policies be truly joined-up and avoid the unintended consequences of previous generations.

And once land has been mapped, the right incentives for landowners and farmers need to be identified. The NFS acknowledges that priorities at a local level will vary from place to place and that land changes can’t be imposed by central government. It envisages that landowners’ decisions will be influenced by the carrots of ELM schemes and the sticks of planning regulations. But many large farms are not dependent on government schemes and current proposals suggest fewer planning restrictions. A Land Use Framework that isn’t underpinned with an inclusive place-based process risks being viewed by farmers, landowners and local communities as a top-down plan. It’s these local groups of stakeholders who are in fact best placed to work out the needs of their area and the most effective ways to maximise benefits from their land.

With all of these recognised challenges in mind, our 2019 report Our Future in the Land recommends a Land Use Framework for England that is built on inclusive processes, that uses place-based cooperative decision-making to assess the value of land in accordance with the public value framework and encourage multipurpose uses wherever possible.

"It would enable planners and policymakers to move beyond generic, map-based priorities, to speed real-world change"

This process would ensure that the expertise of local communities is harnessed in making the difficult decisions about where new housing and infrastructure should go, what land should be prioritised for nature and how farmland could provide for people and wildlife as well as food production. It would also enable planners and policymakers to move beyond generic, map-based priorities, to speed real-world change within place-based partnerships that are poised and motivated to enact it.

And it’s an approach that is already being tested: FFCC is working with Devon County Council, the Cabinet Office’s Geospatial Commission and the Environment Agency to pilot this approach on the ground. We’ll be sharing our learning from this in the months to come.

At its most effective, the NFS Rural Land Use Framework can be a force for the rapid changes we need to see: for policymakers to join up and prioritise policies with conflicting goals, guided by scientific evidence and data, with flexibility to respond to local needs; and for communities to develop a common vision for their land, mediating between interests – farmers and environmentalists, local residents and developers. Deciding how to integrate flood mitigation, forestry, more horticulture and new homes and services for communities is a huge challenge, but a collaborative framework will make the process eminently more achievable.

We look forward to supporting the NFS’s Rural Land Use Framework and to helping co-create an effective, collaborative process for local communities and governments together to take rapid, practical action. Confronting the many pressing challenges of our time with real change is only possible if each area of English land can provide multiple benefits, enable communities to flourish, and play its own unique part within the full complexity of England’s diverse, and very human, landscape.

This short paper is part of Healthy food is everyone's business - a series exploring and developing the ideas in the National Food Strategy, and discussing what needs to happen now.

The National Food Strategy is a rigorously researched, eloquently written and passionate call to action. As the dust settles, it’s time for serious conversation about how we work together to take the eminently achievable recommendations in the Strategy into the promised White Paper. They are the first steps on the route to a different future for food, farming and land use, improving the public’s health, reducing inequalities and acting on the nature and climate crises.

This is a critical moment. It’s both deadly serious - we have just 9 growing seasons left until 2030 - and hopeful, as we see a growing consensus forming around a route to a better future. When we published Our Future in the Land in 2019, which shares the same analysis and many recommendations as Henry’s Strategy, that consensus was not so clear.

It’s time to let governments know we want them to be bold, radical and practical, to create the conditions for business and citizens to work together to get this done.