Belinda Gordon on how government can harness the Land Use Framework to meet its ambitions, and the risks of a top-down approach
23rd January 2023
It was great to be at the Oxford farming conferences – back in person after a three-year break. While both conferences – the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) – also offered some great online content, there is no replacement for being there – bumping into people, having informal chats and feeling the buzz. One of the topics that was generating real interest was the development of a Land Use Framework for England which the government has committed to delivering. Thérèse Coffey has indicated there will be developments by May, and Daniel Zeichner, Shadow Environment Minister, reconfirmed Labour’s commitment to a Framework in his OFC speech.
A Guardian article published during the conferences is further evidence of the idea of a Land Use Framework rising up the agenda. It is great to see such a difficult but important concept getting national press coverage. But the article shows that there are many different views of what a Framework should be and how it would work. The article suggests, for example, that it could dictate to landowners in England exactly what they should be producing on each piece of land – in this case, to reduce livestock production. Leaving aside the effectiveness in terms of emissions reductions of cutting domestic livestock production without addressing demand for meat, this overlooks the true potential of a Land Use Framework. It can and should be used to give a strategic steer on land use, to deliver across government targets and societal needs in a joined-up way, rather than picking off single issues. It needs to link delivery across all the major land uses – food, nature, housing, climate change mitigation and adaptation, infrastructure etc. – and to enable all land to deliver multiple benefits. The House of Lords Committee on land use, which published its report just before Christmas, found that each of these land uses is considered in isolation and dealt with by a different part of government. We simply don’t have enough land to carry on delivering societal needs in these silos – a Land Use Framework must cover all these uses and be owned by all the relevant government departments.
Top-down diktats on what should be produced where, even if politically feasible, would be unlikely to work – the buy-in of landowners and local communities is crucial and the framework will need to harness the knowledge farmers have of their land. To be effective, a Framework needs to allow landowners, farmers and local communities and businesses to input into how the Framework is delivered at the local level. It should be an enabling tool setting out clearly government’s long-term priorities; how to align government targets and manage trade-offs between competing uses; and combining and making accessible data about land, supporting those who own and use land to make more informed, long-term decisions. It should set out principles which allow the top-down clarity about national societal needs – linking this ‘top down’ agenda with ‘bottom up’ local knowledge and understanding to help meet targets. By bringing together data and information in one place, it would also reduce the number of separate plans and strategies that currently need to be considered by landowners and local authorities.
Encouragingly, the conversations about land use were happening across both the Oxford Conferences. At an RSPB event at the ORFC I spoke alongside three farmers who were making inspirational changes on their land and the consensus seemed to be that having a clear steer from government, on its long-term priorities and funding would help others do the same. Many of the same issues came up at ORFC and OFC and centred around how we can use land to produce food while also addressing the nature and climate crises. It is clear that a Land Use Framework can help with this process, reconciling different needs, supporting landowners’ decision making and helping each piece of land deliver – providing multiple benefits to society.
Belinda spoke to farmers and citizens alongside RSPB and NFFN at "Making the best use of your land"
Belinda Gordon leads FFCC's work to advocate for a broad, inclusive Land Use Framework for England. A freelance environmental policy and strategy consultant, she was previously Strategy Director at the Green Alliance. More