How Surrey County Council is securing multiple outcomes through a Land Management Framework
18th December 2023
Surrey is perhaps best known for its leafy, well-healed suburbs, sprawling woodland and verdant countryside. In many ways, it’s a tale of two counties. To the south, it’s a decidedly rural landscape, home to the nationally protected Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and large swathes of farmland. To the north lies more urban and peri-urban land, bordering the southwest Greater London area and encompassing parts of the Thames River.
As such, Surrey’s communities often have different perspectives, needs and priorities – especially when it comes to the best use of land. At the same time, there’s increasing pressure for the local authority to meet government targets for nature restoration, clean energy, food production, house building, better transport links and more.
So, how does Surrey County Council balance these competing, and in many cases overlapping, demands on their land? For Carolyn McKenzie, Director of Environment, the answer lies in a policy and framework to support better decision-making around land management.
Her Environment Directorate covers areas from net zero and nature recovery, to flood risk management and climate resilience. The Council is one of the largest landowners in the county, owning or managing between one and two percent of Surrey land. It’s an impressive and cross-cutting remit, with a real opportunity to enact ‘joined-up’ policy and co-design with stakeholders to capitalise on a multiplier effect in delivery.
“It’s the first time all these services have been brought together at Surrey and it means I have been able to set a clear vision for the environment of Surrey which focuses on maximising benefits across all our areas of work. Whilst we have influence and impact across the whole of Surrey, we have initially focused on improving how the Council manages its own land. We are well underway with developing a Land Management Policy which outlines a set of principles to achieve multiple outcomes from the land the council owns and manages, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions, sequestering carbon, encouraging biodiversity, supporting community empowerment and quality of life; thereby helping to address the parallel challenges of climate change and ecological collapse.”
While organisations including FFCC, the Royal Society and Green Alliance were developing an evidence base for a Land Use Framework for England, Carolyn and her team were independently planning, at county level, the development of a first step Land Management Policy and Framework.
“When I joined Surrey County Council, it became clear there were a lot of land-related issues that needed to be reconciled. For example, there was a target to plant 1.2 million trees, but Surrey is the most wooded county in the country so finding land for planting was not easy. At the same time, we were trying to find space for renewable energy. Trees were in direct conflict with solar farms. Other issues included declining biodiversity, flooding and drought, and poor-quality water and soil.”
As a densely populated county in striking distance of the capital, the 10,000 acres of countryside the Council owns or manages for nature is also used for recreation, and over 2,500 miles of public rights of way are maintained for access by residents and visitors. “As pressure on the NHS and our social services builds, we are under increasing pressure to resolve conflicts between recreational users and those who want to protect our biodiversity. The same applies to the 3,000 acres the County farms, where vital incentives from the government to deliver public goods on land are about to come online. They will make biodiversity, water management and soil health almost as important for farmers as food production”.
“At the same time momentum is growing for tree planting, but we need to plant the right tree in the right place. We also need to be certain that encouraging wild meadows on our highway verges is the right thing for local soil and geology and that it will have the desired effects. Poppies on farmland verges could be poisonous to livestock, for example.”
“There are plenty of opportunities for us to achieve more than one outcome from our land – we have set out our aims for this in the Land Management Policy, but we need to deliver them in an informed and considered way”.
For Carolyn, these multiple and interlinking conflicts present an opportunity. “Once we started to gather information in one place such as flood risks, urban Biodiversity Opportunity Areas (BOAs), nitrate vulnerable zones, open access and existing tree cover, I could see there was potential to bring the Council’s social, economic and environmental goals together at both county and site- based level. The idea behind the Land Use Management Framework in Surrey has been to use a variety of scales and approaches to land management options, testing them on land owned or managed by the Council first. The types of information we need for these projects have helped us in determining what layers of information and evidence we need to offer all those making land use and management decisions in Surrey. The Framework will be a tool for all land managers.
Carolyn has always been passionate about being outcome-driven, but the Framework’s ability to establish multiple outcomes is what makes it powerful. She challenges her teams daily with questions such as: What ecosystem services can we provide? Where we have conflict can we find harmony? How can we determine the ‘best’ use of land and what does that look like? Can we achieve more than one outcome with the same budget?
She explains, “This is key when we start to talk to funders. No one use of land will provide a decent livelihood anymore without degrading it. Funders look for progressive opportunities which are effective and push the boundaries. It means we have to be creative, we need to work together with partners to test emerging markets and not be afraid to fail.”
It’s an innovative and pioneering approach to local government, which challenges traditional approaches to land management, but Carolyn points out that lots of the work is already done.
“In local government there are action plans and strategies for everything, from biodiversity and nature to flood management and sustainable transport. It is in joining up the evidence, principles and outcomes in a more usable format which really affects and supports the decision-making process. Data is key. We’re pulling together data from all over the place. It needs to be in a consistent format and then we can map it into a Geographic Information System (GIS). And once we can visually show all the different links between any issues and opportunities in a given area, that’s a powerful tool for communities, decision-makers and funders.”
Many landowners feel paralysed by the options and demands on land use at the moment – but starting with the information they have on their land is the first step to making a decision. For Surrey County Council, the Land Management Policy sets out the different principles for land use and the Framework provides the tool to refine decision making. Like many advocating for a land use decision making tool, Carolyn is clear that the Policy and Framework are not a set of rules or a top-down approach, but a guide. They are not too restrictive or prescriptive, but simply help to guide decision making.
And while Surrey’s Land Management Policy and Framework are being developed, Carolyn is clear in her ambitions that it will align with national level principles. “It’s about how not what. How can we achieve the best outcomes across the environment, the economy, people’s health. For a national Land Use Framework, I’d like to see a meaningful and broad set of principles and outcomes that brings together government targets and the needs of local communities at a local level.”
“It needs to cross departments, it needs to cross organisations and be about integration and sharing of data. If the national Land Use Framework just stays in DEFRA or focuses on food production, it’s a completely lost opportunity to deliver multiple benefits for the country at large.”
Further information can be found on Surrey’s website What we're doing about climate change - Surrey County Council (surreycc.gov.uk)
Watch the film below to find out more.