Protected landscapes that work for all

Two National Park farmers working for people and nature face resistance to their plans

18th December 2023

National Parks make up some of the UK’s most beautiful and iconic landscapes. But in the face of competing pressures on land – from nature and climate to housing and energy – is the current planning system equipped to help these areas deliver more than beauty? What else is needed to support a multifunctional approach to protected landscapes?

In 2019, the Glover Review found that National Parks were not equipped to deal with a rapidly changing countryside. In particular, new forms of farming, carbon emissions, housing demand, technologies and social shifts have changed the relationship between people and countryside, and left nature and climate in crises. The review concluded that the way we protect our landscapes must radically change to respond to these pressures, ensuring that National Parks look “up and outwards to the nation they serve”.

Since 2019, however, National Parks have faced severe funding cuts, despite the urgent need to modernise, continue to accommodate 80 million visitors a year and help tackle the nature and climate emergencies. How are these challenges affecting those living and working in protected landscapes? We hear from two inspiring farmers based in the southeast of England who are working towards many different outcomes on their land, but are being thwarted by local planning laws.

Lovebrook is an agroecological fruit and vegetable farm situated in the South Downs National Park.

It’s 9.30 am on a blustery, wet Saturday morning, but one little corner of Kingston, near Lewes, is buzzing. And it is all because of Lovebrook Farm – a 33-acre agroecological community interest farm that set up shop two years ago.

The steady flow of locals at their weekly pop-up farm shop stop to chat with each other and Hannah and Rich, the owners of Lovebrook – and there’s a real feel of community in the air. No one would know that this thriving farm is at risk of closing over a decision taken by the local planning authority.

Planning policy often comes up in discussions about the future of food, and Lovebrook shows why. It is an innovative example of climate-positive farming, nestled in the South Downs National Park (SDNP), providing food for the local community, training future agroecological growers, and hosting weekly outreach and community support events for refugees, people leaving prison, and many other vulnerable and under-resourced groups. But despite creating a farm business that brings benefits for nature, climate and people, Rich and Hannah face significant barriers to continuing their work because of local planning laws.

Over the next few years, they have master plans for even more multifunctional use of their land, including planting permaculture food forests, rewilding areas and building wildlife ponds, incorporating animals into their agroecological system and building a completely carbon-neutral eco-holiday let.

Community outreach and events are an important part of Lovebrook's offering.

“We wanted to address a myriad of issues in one place... food... community wellbeing... energy and building... agriculture”

It's a brilliant example of what can be achieved when land is used for multiple outcomes. Hannah and Rich started Lovebrook as a fresh start for their family, selling their house to begin a new life on the land, and showcasing the positive impact food and farming can have.

“[We wanted] a project that could address a myriad of issues in one place. So we can look at how food can be done differently here. We can look at how community wellbeing can be done differently. We can look at how energy and building can be done differently. We can look at how agriculture can be done differently. It gave us this opportunity to sort of land ourselves, bring all our knowledge, and create almost an exemplar of a myriad of different ways to do things.”

But it is also a farm without a farmhouse, a result of years of former owners parcelling off the land and selling off assets to raise capital. When they bought the farm, there was a temporary housing structure – permitted previously because it was used for intensive livestock and had an “essential need” for farmers to be on-site.

Hannah and Rich expected that the permission for the existing housing would be extended for a further three years, allowing them time to make the business profitable and sort out housing for themselves. Unfortunately, their application was rejected and now they are looking for rented accommodation nearby – an expense the farm cannot currently sustain.

Rich explains that the farm had been on the market for five years before they bought it. “Nobody wanted this farm. And now it's thriving. But we need a house to live in to keep it going. In the midst of a climate emergency, we were surprised that the National Park Authority wanted to continue intensive sheep farming rather than regenerative fruit and veg farming on this site.”

Apart from their housing permission, Lovebrook has also met strong resistance to changing the landscape of their farm as it’s situated in a protected area. It’s an incredibly divisive issue, but their story raises questions about how planning authorities in protected areas can encourage more nature-friendly farming – something the Farming in Protected Landscapes programme from the government is hoping to encourage.

Nestled within a protected landscape, Lovebrook has faced resistance to their plans from the local authority.

Hannah and Rich’s plans to convert parts of their farm into regenerative fruit and veg crops were met with initial concerns from the SDNP around how this kind of food production would show up visually on the landscape. It’s an anxiety that plays out time and time again when it comes to rural development, bolstered by decades of national policy designed to protect pastoral landscapes, at times, above nature, climate and community – and in this case, a lack of government support for horticulture production. Frustratingly, this is despite historical evidence that every acre of their land was used for much of the last thousand years to supply the village with cereals, fruit and vegetables. As Hannah says, “It is this historic use of the land in this village that inspired our community veg bag scheme - a return to local food, in an age of unsustainable global food systems and damaging intensive meat production.”

The Glover Review recognised the fragility and importance of National Parks like the SDNP, but cautioned that their survival depends on radical change: “if their natural beauty is to be in a better condition 70 years from today, even better to look at, far more biodiverse, and alive with people from all backgrounds and parts of the country, they cannot carry on as they do now”.

Authorities in other parts of the UK have begun to support projects like Lovebrook that need housing to operate, including through the One Planet legislation in Wales that encourages families to sustainably build a home on their land with a net-zero impact. And while controversial, the English government is also considering allowing farmers to convert farm buildings in protected areas into houses on their land. Though some are concerned this will lead to a “developer free-for-all”, the rural housing shortage for farmers is critically affecting new entrants like Hannah and Rich, who want to create a better food and farming system for the future, but have to fight against the odds to do so. As the climate and nature emergencies deepen, planning decisions that threaten agroecological farms, like those given to Lovebrook Farm, seem further out of step with the reality facing farmers (and all of us) today.

In this context, and many others like it, the case for a Land Use Framework is clear. Landowners, farmers, local councils, community groups and many others are under pressure to build houses, protect nature, grow food, improve transport, respond to floods and much more. They are looking for ways to work together to find solutions that work for their community. Decisions about land use will only become more complex as the climate and nature crises deepen. A Land Use Framework that takes an integrated and holistic approach to land use can break down siloed and simplistic thinking, and better support the multifunctionality of land is needed. Having a Land Use Framework in place will make policy more flexible and responsive to local needs, bring together existing plans and strategies for more coherent and joined-up decisions, and ultimately a countryside that works for everyone.

Watch the film below to find out more.