Maximising finite land

A roundtable discussion on achieving the multifunctional use of land in Northern Ireland

31st March 2023

How can we reconcile the finite availability of land with the multiple demands on its use?

The answer lies in the multifunctional use of land.

Government targets for house building, tree planting, food production, nature restoration, carbon sequestration, green spaces, transport and energy production, add up to a total that far exceeds the amount of land we actually have. The Royal Society recently reported that to meet current policy targets for net zero and biodiversity in the UK, we will need additional land equivalent to over twice the area of Wales by 2050. Our land use planning system as it is currently designed and operated, however, is not up to this challenge.

A recent roundtable discussion on the concept of a Land Use Framework for Northern Ireland, hosted by the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission (FFCC), heard that the answer lies in the multifunctional use of land.

This might look like a public park managed to maximise biodiversity, a housing development with solar panels on every roof, or farmland that produces food while storing carbon and improving biodiversity in soil, hedgerows and trees. On the other hand, a poorly-planned retail park with car parking as the dominant land use, covering prime agricultural land in solar panels, or intensive farming in a drinking water catchment all undermine the best use of land.

While the argument for multifunctionality is clear, how to achieve it is less obvious.

Land in Northern Ireland is owned by over 25,000 farmers, a wide range of businesses, dozens of public bodies, a number of NGOs, and countless other individuals.

The roundtable heard from policymakers in Scotland, England and the Republic of Ireland where there have been some encouraging developments. The Scottish Land Use Commission is currently conducting a series of Regional Land Use Partnership pilot projects where local authorities, landowners and communities are experimenting with different approaches. In England, FFCC has developed a Land Use Framework which it is testing with local stakeholders in Devon and Cambridgeshire. And in the Republic of Ireland, Government’s Land Use Review has just published the report of its evidence gathering phase.

In Northern Ireland, discussions that go back to 2013 were revived last year by the recommendation of a government-commissioned review of the agri-food sector, led by Sir Peter Kendall (a past president of the NFU), that we should have a land use strategy. Kendall and his colleagues wrote, ‘We recognise that a land use strategy could be contentious. But we think a strategy is needed to underpin and join together other key strategies (peatlands, forestry, green growth, biodiversity, ammonia reduction, energy).’

The word contentious is important. Land in Northern Ireland is owned by over 25,000 farmers, a wide range of businesses, dozens of public bodies, a number of NGOs, and countless other individuals. The history and culture of land ownership is complex, and a top-down approach that dictates what people should do with their land would be unworkable. The word strategy, that implies land-zoning for specific purposes, is unhelpful.

A framework, on the other hand, is a set of guiding principles for making decisions at all levels – such as prioritising multifunctional uses, involving local communities, and using land for what it is best suited.

Land use is a systemic issue and we need to work across the system. This will require a cross-departmental approach.

Of course, there will be no point in such an approach if the principles are simply warm words that are easily ignored. More substance is needed, and we are now beginning to see how a Land Use Framework for Northern Ireland might take shape.

It is presented here as four steps, but is likely to be an iterative process in practice:

  1. Agree a set of principles that can be applied at every level in the decision-making process – an important co-design exercise.
  2. Agree what outcomes we want from land – currently distributed across a wide range of Government strategies and policies (Green Growth, Energy, Forestry, Peatlands, Agriculture, etc.)
  3. Collate multiple datasets on land use and integrate them as an evidence base for decision making. By layering different maps on top of each other (e.g. flood risk, water quality, soil type, agricultural classification, infrastructure), decisions on how to use land, and what uses to avoid, can be taken based on reliable evidence.
  4. Take the Framework with its principles, outcomes and data, and apply it to all land use decisions where there is a regulatory or support role for government or local government. From a farmer’s point of view, this should mean an agricultural strategy with a well-designed menu of options and support mechanisms that enable and encourage the most productive (in terms of food, nature, carbon, amenity etc) and profitable use of their land.

Finally, this will require a cross-departmental approach (Agriculture, Environment & Rural Affairs, Infrastructure, Economy and Finance) and, closer to grassroots level, there may be a key role for Community Planning Partnerships. Land use is a systemic issue and we need to work across the system – that’s something FFCC was set up to do and we are looking forward to helping to facilitate the next phase of this work in Northern Ireland.