Why England needs a Land Use Framework

FFCC Commissioner Dame Fiona Reynolds on why England needs a Land Use Framework.

18th January 2024

This blog was originally published by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. Dame Fiona Reynolds is Chair of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy Management Board.

The UK Government pledged to release a Land Use Framework (LUF) for England to address the country's lack of a mechanism for managing diverse land demands. As stakeholders await the official announcement, Fiona Reynolds, Deputy Chair of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission and former Director-General of the National Trust, sets out the case for introducing a land use framework to integrate decision-making, transparently cover all land uses, engage communities, and support sustainability across England.

In July 2023 the UK Government committed in its response to a House of Lords report to publishing its plans for a Land Use Framework (LUF) for England before the end of the year, but it has not yet appeared. When it does arrive, what should be in it?

What’s the problem?

As a small, densely populated country with huge pressures on land, it’s astonishing that England has no mechanism for resolving the many and complex demands made on this key resource. We need land to produce food, to build on (whether houses, jobs, shops and public services, or for transport, energy and water infrastructure), to provide space for nature, trees and water, and to combat climate change and achieve net zero. While some of these uses clash, many could be entirely compatible, but they will not happen in the right way and the right place by chance.

When the Royal Society in its February 2023 report Multifunctional landscapes added up all the targets the Government has set that relate to land, it calculated that we’d need 1.4m hectares more land than we have – a missing area the size of Northern Ireland. We are currently not hitting those targets because of the absence of an integrated means of delivering them. This makes a powerful case for a mechanism to allocate land appropriately, and to achieve multiple benefits for its use. But currently there is none.

It’s frankly even more astonishing that land is so invisible in public dialogue. Adam Smith and Karl Marx told us that the industrial revolution was built on the three pillars of land, labour and capital. We hear a lot of about capital and labour (and skills, and entrepreneurship) today but almost nothing about land. Land seems to be the invisible – yet invaluable – resource. We need it to occupy the place it deserves in public policy.

Ironically land use had more prominence in the past. A 1944 White Paper, The Control of Land Use, contained two clear statements of intent:

  • provision for the right use of land, in accordance with a considered policy, is an essential requirement of the Government’s programme of post-war reconstruction
  • … it is essential that the various claims on land should be so harmonised as to ensure for the people of this country the greatest possible measure of individual wellbeing and national prosperity.

In response, during the post-war period there were policy instruments to achieve these aims, such as publicly funded support and advice for farmers; national policies for the location of transport and energy infrastructure; and County Structure Plans which included provision both for built development under the planning system and ambitions for the best use of undeveloped land, whether for conservation, farming or forestry.

In England those mechanisms no longer exist (though Scotland and Wales are both working on land use strategies), and the planning system is now largely responsive, using devices such as ‘calling for sites’ to allocate land for development rather than proactively seeking the best places for new development, while undeveloped land appears just as ‘white land’ in Local Plans. Similarly, while farmers are beginning to be encouraged to embrace more environmentally responsible methods of farming, there is very little advice to guide them about the best thing to do where. The Government’s advice on emerging Local nature recovery strategies is a useful first step, but these are very early stage, and do not cover, or integrate, the Government’s ambitions for tree planting, net zero or climate change mitigation, or relate to development plans.

As a result, we currently make too many bad decisions. We build houses in the wrong place (on floodplains, or nowhere near jobs or schools), we farm unsustainably in too many places and don’t plan for local food systems, we put solar panels on high quality agricultural land, and we find it contentious, difficult and time-consuming to make decisions about new infrastructure, whether reservoirs, roads or new train lines.

What’s the solution?

A Land Use Framework could address all these problems, informing and facilitating decision-making, helping the right things to happen in the right place, and building confidence in and support for decision-making about land.

At the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), which has been leading much of the thinking and practice on land use frameworks since 2019, we have identified four overriding principles for a land use framework:

  • first, it needs to cover all demands on and uses of land, including both those that are covered by the land use planning system and those that aren’t
  • second, it needs to operate both at an England-wide and ‘larger than local’ level – large counties offer both a sensible geography and links to democratic processes
  • third, the processes of creation need to be transparent and to engage people in them
  • and fourth, the land use framework is a tool to integrate and better inform existing decision-making processes and responsibilities and does not replace them.

The aim of land use frameworks at both England and the ‘larger than local’ level should be to better ensure the delivery of Government targets, with aim of achieving a more sustainable future. They should therefore be a real help to Government and local authorities who are currently struggling to make sense of competing, often contested and sometimes convergent but more often disconnected priorities.

How might an LUF work?

The FFCC has tested the proposition in two large counties: Devon and Cambridgeshire & Peterborough. While very different in character, both exemplify the challenge, with huge pressures on land both for development and conservation.

We set up cross-sectoral leadership groups in each county and developed six interconnected principles to shape and guide our work. These are to be:

  • led by the land – its qualities and character
  • adaptive and resilient
  • locally responsive, and informed by local people
  • outward facing and future-focused
  • contribute to prosperity; and
  • achieve multifunctionally wherever possible
What did we create?

In Cambridgeshire, we carried out a listening exercise, focused on reaching those who felt left behind either socially, economically or geographically, to explore their ambitions for land and its use. Their constructive challenges led to our confidence that land use frameworks can help engage people in a much more collaborative approach to plan-making and spatial policies in general.

We also developed, with the help of a local spatial data design company, Vizzuality, a prototype of a tool that we believe would provide the crucial underpinning for a land use framework. The tool simply but effectively layers data about key land uses in the area, bringing together issues that are never normally seen together on a single map, illustrating both where the conflicts lie and where the potential for synergies can be found.

The tool can be accessed online.

While this tool is a prototype, we believe it illustrates the requirement for such information to underpin land useful frameworks, and we have urged Defra (as the current lead department for LUFs) to facilitate a common approach to avoid each authority commissioning their own tool, which would be both expensive and unlikely to be compatible with others.

What have we learned and what happens next?

There was huge appetite and enthusiasm for our work from all the participants, regardless of affiliation or geography. Everyone could see the potential for better, more joined up decision-making and wants to see it happen.

A recurring theme was the lack of agreed, consistent data, and the need for Government to lead the way by specifying a standard data set and committing to keep it up to date. Notwithstanding this problem, we made useful progress using currently available data and believe the lack of consistent data should not be a reason to delay the introduction of land use frameworks.

It’s often assumed – or stated – that people are against change of any kind. But our work demonstrated that people are much more supportive of change than they are often given credit for, provided they are part of the process, properly engaged and consulted, and believe it will lead to a better future.

It’s vital that there are effective democratic inputs to a land use framework, and that decision-making remains with the responsible owners. This is not a way of removing accountability or personal or organisational authority, but providing the information from which better and more joined up decisions can be made.

What can you do?

When the Defra announcement appears, it will be an opportunity for stakeholders across England to come together to support the principle of an LUF and to seek to secure:

  • both an England-wide and ‘larger than local’ level framework
  • the essential need to cross the planning/non-planning divide and cover all land uses
  • the need to engage people in the process; and
  • to fulfil the Government’s leadership role on good, consistent data.

With this in place, we could enter the most productive period for joined-up, effective decision-making about land this country has ever seen.