A framework for sustainable land use

10th October 2018

This paper is the result of a roundtable discussion that took place in July 2018 at the RSA on the theme of ‘Planning for progress: the future of land use’.

This discussion paper was published in October 2018. Find out more about our latest work towards a land use framework for England here.

The discussion formed the basis of our thinking about what policy levers can positively influence land use and which changes would have the most public legitimacy. Combined with insights gained from the bike tour and call for ideas, this paper helps to show how we arrived at the content of our progress report, and in particular the proposals in Chapter 2: ‘A framework for sustainable land use’.


Land is a finite resource. It is this that gives land different economic characteristics to other factorial inputs in the economy. While agriculture comprises a small economic sector, it is the existing land use for 71% of UK land. This resource is worth hundreds of £billions in current market value, and this under-represents the societal value of land in providing a multitude of ecosystem services. The future direction for agriculture is hugely influential on the land use and land management system, and — vice versa — the system will largely determine how agriculture evolves in coming decades. In looking to the future, while Brexit changes lots, some elements of future land use remain the same:

The UK has existing environmental and cultural heritage obligations and objectives which require significant investment in land management…and which are well understood and will not be altered by exiting the EU; meeting those objectives and obligations through land management will cost money and will depend on farmers and land managers as custodians of our countryside.¹

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission aims to influence the parameters and processes which govern the emergence of the UK’s future land use management system. This discussion paper briefly outlines the fundamental dynamics — natural resources, market forces and cultural preferences — which influence land use, and factors that may take greater prominence in the future. The key indications in recent government policy for future environment and agriculture policy are then rehearsed. The remainder of the paper discusses where gaps in the debate exist, where missed relationships between policy, investment and finance regimes are evident, and where further investigation and policy definition is likely contributing to designing and shaping a better future land use management system that reconciles competing demands on the UK’s finite land.

Regulation of land use

In effect, the use of all the UK’s land is subject to regulation, since changing use beyond agriculture (with the exception of permitted development and erecting modest agricultural buildings or planting trees without grant) requires permission, the adjudication of which is subject to national and local planning policy. This regime broadly reflects the system as conceived through post-war legislation, a world of active government intervention in agriculture, industry and the development of the built environment including communication and transport networks. An increasing number of land-based planning restrictions have come into force, which — to varying degrees — restrict new development and change of land use in areas of landscape value (National Parks, AONB) and restrict activity around designated areas for conservation of species and habitats. Land under these designations will undoubtedly play an important role in the system that evolves to shape future land use.

Land use change, as opposed to the construction of larger buildings, within agricultural use is not governed directly by the planning system, but incremental decisions by farmers and land managers have wider social, economic and environmental consequences. Farmers have different financial relationships to the land: 40% of UK farmland farmed not by the owners of the land but by tenants, formally and informally². It is more common for livestock and dairy farms to be rented. And the spatial structure of ownership is important: commercial farms in the UK have land holdings four times larger than the EU average³. One of the proposals suggested to the Commission was to;

Repeal s.55(2)(e) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 so that ‘agriculture’ and ‘forestry’ would be land uses that amount to ‘development’. Planning permission could then be required for changes to and from agricultural and forestry uses. The law and policies could then privilege beneficial practices and prevent or control potentially damaging ones.

However, many have complained at the weakness of existing administrative processes which engage farmers on their land management — such as the efficiency of the Rural Payments Agency. Poor performance creates reluctance to trust in future approaches that rely on extensive administration. While some have suggested to us that permitted development rights for farmers should be restricted to create equity with non-agricultural land uses, others have suggested that new restrictions on planning permission for agricultural change of use would be administratively complex, and would add costs into the industry disproportionate to societal benefits. Ultimately, it is farmers themselves who will always have the greatest knowledge and information about the land they farm — prescribing land use choices in this context is therefore inherently cumbersome.

Accounting for the productive use of land

The primary constraint on agricultural production is environmental — what the soil and climate will reliably produce. Likewise, the potential of land to provide a richer range of ecosystem services (beyond food) is ultimately derived from its objective physical characteristics, most fundamentally the quality of soil in relationship to the prevailing local climate. Soils form very slowly, and so are best understood as a non-renewable resource. As Baroness Young wrote in an essay for CPRE in 2017, ‘the first task of a land use strategy must be to protect the basic resource, with agricultural and forestry policies targeted on more sustainable management of our soils.’⁴ The data on soil quality is poor. Aggregating local ‘spot check’ surveys on soils with the data mapped nationally Agricultural Land Classification reveals the discrepancies.⁵

As the government has recently acknowledged, a future land use management system must build from a stronger environmental baseline of knowledge about the qualities of land itself. For too long interventions and management have defied the natural status of the land and its natural capital asset value in favour of creating a homogenised substrate in which to grow crops for an unsustainably short period of time until the resource becomes exhausted.

For commercial agricultural production, produce must be able reach a standard which, after accounting for input costs, allows profitable sale at regional or global market prices. Prices change with consumer demand trends, as well as supply. Fundamentally, the use of UK land for agriculture for domestic consumption and international export, and the incentive to import food, depends on the productivity attainable and attained by UK farmers. From a societal point of view this is a complex calculation, since the extent to which different local, regional and national agricultural production incorporates the total ‘costs’ of production varies — one example being the requirement on water companies to treat water with high levels of nitrogen originating from the application of nitrogen fertiliser to farmland.

Future challenges

The long-term impacts of agricultural intensification, a policy direction set after World War Two, set the scene for challenges to be addressed going forward — these include substantial loss of soils and soil degradation (including compaction, erosion, and depletion of mineral content), reduced biodiversity, increased flood risk, and increased residual chemical burdens in crops.

With Brexit comes change to the existing regime of international trade, as well as the harmonisation of UK food standards, the requirements for wildlife and habitat protection, and the system of subsidy payments to farmers, all overseen by the EU. Beyond the EU, it is exceptional to find countries that don’t regulate agriculture and food, or provide financial support at a significant scale, so as to boost domestic farming. In the UK, public payments have represented at least 50% of total farm net income, in every single year this century. A widely accepted challenge is how to redesign the regime of public payments to address the breadth of future challenges to the existing land use system.

Debates concerning upland sheep farming exemplify the challenge: a historic agricultural activity in which relative to lowland farm businesses, operations are only viable with subsidy making up a high proportion of profit. Grazing regimes impact both positively and negatively on biodiversity and flood management, but encouraging ‘rewilding’ through reduced grazing thereby encouraging natural afforestation would leave local farmers with little alternative economic opportunity, reduce domestic food supply and change the landscape aesthetics which have endured for centuries, been inscribed in cultural artefacts, and which attract significant tourism for their beauty.

There are significant localised challenges to existing agricultural land use which come from a changing environment (e.g. salt water ingress on the East Coast), and from development pressure for housing, commercial, industrial land and resource extraction. There are further challenges posed by climate change (patterns of temperature and rainfall) which shifts established growing seasons and suitable species for a given tract of land.

Certain forms of agriculture, if they grow in scale, have the potential to change the relationship between food production and land use. These include large-scale greenhouse production and technologies which increase productivity through more sophisticated targeting of fertiliser and pesticide inputs or through genetic modification and gene editing. Globally, the relationship of agricultural practices to ‘planetary boundaries’ such as climate-changing emissions, water and resource availability and biodiversity are inescapable. In the long-term in order to maintain a safe operating space on Earth, agriculture must transition from being the biggest driver of global environmental change, to becoming a key contributor to a sustainable world.⁶

It is unclear whether the long-term trends (UK and Europe) of agricultural land use reduction will continue as this in part depends on continued gains in yields, and factors such as future dietary preferences, waste reduction efficiencies, and reforming relationships with global food supply chains, but most scenario modelling has included the assumption that forestry, recreation and urban development replace agricultural land use to some extent, and have assumed that the long-term policy direction is towards supporting a broader range of ecosystem services from land than simply agricultural production.

The culture of how we use land

Actively promoting and providing incentives for the ‘multifunctional’ use of land is one way of realising a greater range of benefits — a broader set of values — from a given parcel of land or landscape. The land management needed to support this tends to require local land managers with local knowledge, whereas monoculture land use is more easily codified and prescribed in policy. However, we should not see land management decisions as responding solely to a rational calculation of costs and benefits. They are often driven by the principles and desires of the landowner or manager and the ability to control the land that you own has been a strong driver over the centuries irrespective of economic returns. Where economics do apply however the perception of costs and benefits is dynamic, and there is clear evidence that farmers tend to respond more to strong prices, and be less responsive to weak prices. This partly reflects a degree of ‘asset fixity’, whereby farm resources, including land, have limited alternative uses, at least in the short term. This has been the experience particularly in the livestock sector, and especially in relatively remote and disadvantaged areas.⁷ ‘Disadvantaged’ areas tend to be those with the highest biodiversity value where new farming approaches called High Nature Value farming are being promoted.

One farmer visited by the Commission, having sold his dairy herd and equipment, established successful holiday accommodation adjacent to their farmyard, and raises rare breed livestock. His regret is not giving up dairying 10 years earlier; his fear had been that his mother would feel offended by his decision to exit the business that her generation had built (though ultimately she wasn’t).

Maintaining culture, status and relationships, within families and rural communities are valuable goals for individuals and households. It is through this lens that the introduction and encouragement of new practices must be understood.

The case for an integrated approach to managing land use change

A major UK government study was undertaken in 2010 looking at land use through to 2050. The study recognised that multifunctionality is inherently an efficient response to meeting future demands on land. However, to be effective, the combination of institutional and regulatory mechanisms (e.g. relating to planning decisions or use of pesticides), and economic measures (e.g. financial incentives) needs to evolve. The broader conclusions of the study, excerpted in part below, remain valid for policymakers in 2018 — highlighting that a strategic approach to land use governance must embody coherent and consistent goals and processes and be designed with the whole land use and land management system in mind.

Traditionally the ‘levers’ for influencing land use decisions has been to focus on ‘control’ where there has been something important to encourage (for example, a new road) or protect (a National Park) and then to do so either by legislation or economic incentive. The key framework has been a legal one — reassuring the rights of those who have already invested in land and regulating land use to protect neighbouring interests or protected species and habitats. Otherwise the decisions have been left to individual owners and managers within the law — and indeed educational efforts aimed at those responsible for land use choices have tended to be neglected.

National spatial plans have been developed recently in Wales and Scotland but not for England or the UK as a whole; a new England/UK national spatial strategy is advocated by professional planning bodies (and the subject of a new Commission to be launched in the Autumn). Although there have been several (ongoing) rounds of reform to planning policy, only in the last six months have systemic changes been proposed by government itself.

The key process then becomes the way in which different voices are heard and interests and expertise are recognised and included in decision-making processes. These mechanisms — crucial to ensuring fair and accountable outcomes for existing and future interests in land — remain to be defined and designed, and this will represent a significant focus for the Commission. Certain actors — who don’t necessarily represent ‘interests’ but whose actions have significant impacts on land use and land management — need to be included. For example, one response to our call for ideas noted the importance of:

Working with the land agent sector — this sector can hold back change due to a reliance on status quo tenancy arrangements etc. and need to be brought on board as a sector which enables change and new models of farm business.

At the moment, there is an absence of national and regional decision-making on planning, so this takes place at county council, local, and neighbourhood level. There is a general sense that neighbourhood plans have been a force for good in giving local people a voice. They then get adopted by the local authority as having a formal status. But regional planning has disappeared which means there is a lack of an integrated approach — with energy planning, for example, coordination takes place regionally. The exception to this lack of national decision-making is on major infrastructure (e.g. HS2) which trumps local plans. If a new national spatial plan went ahead, this would assume renewed regional planning powers. Additionally, as well as missing the regional ‘layer’ of governance, the UK is going to miss out the supranational/continental layer when we leave the EU.

In terms of organisation, there is a need for multiple layers and nesting of different levels of power and decision making, that is, governance at different spatial scales…valleys as well as catchment levels. Future governance needs to work on the ground, and that may in practice mean that it needs to be simpler than the complexity of the issues might seem to demand. Of course, this raises questions. For example, what are the incentives for collaboration on the ground and how do you bring people together on an equal footing? Are we talking then, about developing principles and values to inform rolling 5 year frameworks?

There are also questions over the skills and capabilities of local authority (LA) planning committees, e.g. on biodiversity. One participant in the land use roundtable mentioned that only 31 percent of LAs have an ecologist. Another element that’s missing is data and mapping, which are constraints on good decision-making: much better quality of data and therefore knowledge is needed. As another participant put it “Without stronger and more open data it is hard to do sensible analysis on current use and incentives.”

There has also been strong criticism of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPS) — several roundtable participants felt that LEPs have no resonance with land or ecosystem perspectives. The SDGs provide a potentially more useful supra national framework which needs to be more effectively integrated. Generally, effective frameworks operate at the level most appropriate for the actions — e.g. climate change needs an international level of operation; soil quality needs a local level.

Our review of recent policy proposals also revealed a common interest in policy aimed at addressing housing affordability in rural areas and for land workers: reducing the negative impact of second home ownership, and increasing policy support and public resources available for small-scale housing development, including self-build, custom-build and affordable housing. There were calls to scale up innovative local practices, such as Rural Housing Enablers in Wales. Planning policies such as Rural Exception Sites, dedicated to new housing that is affordable in perpetuity and for which people with a local connection are eligible, are welcomed — 8,000 homes have been built under this policy in England since 2012.

However, speaking to a Housing Director at a rural district, the Commission has heard that building such schemes is hardest in the very communities where affordability challenges are greatest. This is because the sensitivities around new construction and maintaining and enhancing existing character are the same factors that have constrained new housing historically, raising prices and dominating the politics of planning policy decisions.

Levers for influencing land use

A wide range of levers can influence land use.

Consultation: The first, and perhaps most obvious lever are consultations — on what matters and who cares or is affected. Health and Harmony was a wide-ranging consultation, and there is certainly a case for genuine listening and people knowing that they’ve been heard.

Education: At the moment, policy-making is in silos, and education and information transfer can help to break up these silos. As one participant during the roundtable put it: “Currently, levers and drivers are siloed, hard to navigate and to align. Land use is siloed. If layering and stacking benefits on land are the direction of travel, how can current levers become more aligned for that purpose?”

Taxation: This can be a strong lever for influencing land use change. Not only through alternative taxation routes such as a Land Value Tax, or taxes related to land use, but also to consumption taxes, e.g. VAT could be modified so that, for example, intensive livestock products are taxed for environmental and health reasons, or tax incentives can be offered to drive private and corporate investment in land restoration projects. This could include conservation covenants, as currently operating in the US and Canada, and they have been proposed in the UK but haven’t yet been adopted.

Feed-in Tariffs: FITs for renewable energy. At the moment these are driven by renewables strategy with perverse outcomes for land use (maize growing). But they are also an example of how government can take bold steps.

Planning: This is a significant lever which can have huge impact on net biodiversity gain, although it’s unclear how much influence planning has on rural land use. Planning (and other levers) might and should have an impact of land distribution given that 1 percent of people in England and Wales own 50 percent of the land. Unfortunately, at the moment the current discussion is not a discussion among equals.

Legal tools: many legal tools already exist to hold the government to account and should be used more. An example is the Welsh Future Generations Act, which obliges landlords to collaborate more effectively to deliver outcomes outlined by the act. Existing legislation can help with this but so too can information: making information about land use more accessible and transparent can help decision makers and usefully feed into the planning system.

Government proposals

The government’s explicit long-term plan is to transition environmental policy and agricultural policy to a ‘polluter pays’ model as ‘the foundation of our future environmental land management system, setting out minimum standards that all farmers and land managers must comply with.’ This model would be a powerful element of land use futures in all four home nations, but the transition to this system is complicated by virtue of planning, environmental and agricultural policy being devolved matters, while Defra retains a UK-wide role for example in administering EU basic payments.

In January 2018, the government published a 25-year Environment Plan:

We will improve the way we manage and incentivise land management, including designing and delivering a new environmental land management system…The new approach will recognise good practices that build up and bolster natural and heritage assets. It will also take account of the negative effects of a range of land uses and activities. It will require a balance of incentives and regulations — influencing decisions so that we use land in a way that supports cost-effective, sustainable growth.

In February 2018, the government launched a consultation on new proposals for future agricultural policy, excerpted below in relation to land use policy:

From 2022 onwards, a new environmental land management system will be the cornerstone of our agricultural policy…It will consist of a new scheme that pays providers for delivering environmentally beneficial outcomes; and will provide support for farmers and land managers as we move towards a more effective application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle…As soon as is practical, we propose to maintain a strong regulatory baseline of standards that reflects the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

Our new environmental land management system will be underpinned by natural capital principles, so that the benefits the natural environment provides for people and wildlife are properly valued and used to inform decisions on future land management. The new system aims to deliver benefits such as improved air, water and soil quality; increased biodiversity; climate change mitigation and adaptation; and cultural benefits that improve our mental and physical well-being, while protecting our historic environment.

A new environmental land management system…could involve some or all of the following…

  • Enhanced support and continued funding for technical advice for projects which meet national priorities and require complex, places-specific management (such as wetland and woodland creation, or peatland restoration.)
  • Funding for collaborative projects, incentivising land managers to work together to secure environmental improvements at landscape and catchment level, supporting co-ordinated action on areas such as diffuse water pollution and the protection of priority habitats.
  • Capital grants: supporting land managers to adopt sustainable practices and reduce negative environmental impacts in a transition towards a fuller application of the ‘polluter pays’ principle.

The transition from area-based payments, which comprise the majority of payments to farmers under (Pillar 1) of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, to a system of ‘public money for public goods’ is hugely significant. It has the potential to transform the way the countryside looks, as well as how (and whether) we deploy terms such as ‘subsidy’ and ‘support’ in the context of new legal contracts for providing goods that the public purchase. It also explicitly integrates agricultural objectives with other land use management regimes; environmental enhancement could be incentivised regardless of agricultural intentions — for example on the UK’s 130,000 hectares of golf courses (an area the size of the entire Greater Manchester conurbation).

We can’t stipulate land use — at least not within the plausible political economy of the UK at the moment. The government is however trying to align policy and incentives in a way that reinforces the socially, economically and environmentally optimal land use mix. In this way, land owners and managers are encouraged to transition in advance of markets adapting economic changes that may be difficult to foresee (or ‘price’ in). In the context of future trade arrangements, these are highly unpredictable, and the affirmation in Health and Harmony that subsidies considered by the WTO to distort trade are off the table represents a crucial parameter for future domestic agricultural policy.

Another critical question is the scale at which new policy and payment regimes operate; as Commission Director Sue Pritchard asks:

How would catchment-scale governance overlay our existing UK jurisdictions: the devolved authorities; county and district councils; LEPs and other administrative units; the geography of labour markets and housing markets; not to mention the dynamic and subconscious mental maps communities have to identify and define themselves?⁸

As the Commons Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs concluded in June 2018;

Defra has a huge task to ensure a lead agency and national framework are in place to start delivering its policy based on public goods. Defra must assess which current public bodies are suitable to provide the coordination of its new environmental land management system. Given past performance of delivering rural payments and stewardship schemes, this must include an assessment of what additional skills and resources this body will require.

A further consideration in terms of policy development is that a land use management system is not solely the preserve of Defra to develop; the planning system comes under MHCLG, the largest land use requirements from the public sector come from DfT (such as HS2), and the UK’s industrial strategy sits in yet another Whitehall department, BEIS.

Gaps in the debate and questions for further investigation

The reorganisation of agricultural land management incentives and the promotion of environmental outcomes in a public goods framework must be reconciled against broader pressures on alternative land use. For example, growth in population and economic activity create land use demands; the intensity and location of that demand is itself governed by the land management regime, with relevant factors including the cost of remediating brownfield urban land, choices about public infrastructure investment and planning policy which directs the location of new development.

Land management markets

Nationally, about 60% of farmland that comes up for sale gets bought by other farmers⁹, but it is also bought by private investors, and for ‘lifestyle’ purposes, to protect a cherished view, to avoid the risk that you don’t like a new neighbour (though these purposes do not necessarily preclude many forms of agriculture). Farmland is under pressure from infrastructure, residential, industrial and commercial development, as well as mines, quarries and waste management — though these pressures are low by European standards¹⁰, and agricultural statistics show afforestation of farmland by UK farmers is larger in scale. In particular, there is growing momentum to support a greater scale of housebuilding at more affordable prices, in part by changing the law so as to capture the difference in land value between agricultural and residential use. How will this be reconciled?

The difference between (micro) financial/business planning and (macro) economic planning is that the economy — the overall allocation of resources — must account for aggregate resource depletion and formation, including natural resources and human talent. Existing interests need to be acknowledged, to some degree protected (eg to avoid bankruptcy and abandonment of farm business) and encouraged to align their capital interests with public interest. The potential use of land — where alternative uses are of greater societal value than existing uses, must be encouraged. Markets are often unable to successfully reflect social, economic and environmental values, and human decision-making biases prejudice — more often than not — towards both inertia and short-termism.

Financing land use change

Apart from complete abandonment, all forms of transition require investment, because the revenues from a new regime are often not fully developed during transitional periods. The financing that supports investment in new land use regimes is therefore crucial, and has been the subject of recent policy inquiries and institutional innovation.

One of the proposals made to the Commission in our call for ideas is that ‘a publicly owned Agricultural Development Bank should be created with powers and financial resources to purchase land for conservation farming purposes or for adding to nature reserves.’ Another model being developed by the Environment Bank involves channelling money from those who have obtained planning permission with a legal requirement to ensure ‘no net loss’ of biodiversity; this represents a new source of investment in wildlife conservation and habitat restoration serving as off-site compensation schemes (biodiversity offsetting).

Land value changes take place in the context of wider taxes and regulations. Prices for agricultural land were up about 250% between 2005 and 2015 — rising more than prime London property. Land, compared to other capital investment, is taxed at a relatively low rate. Farmland owners are exempt from inheritance tax if actively farmed (including by more recent tenant farmers), and capital gains tax can be deferred through the recycling of farm sales into a new business or acquisition. Woodland is also exempt from capital gains tax and inheritance tax if commercially managed, and profit from timber can also tax-free. Should we consider changing tax incentives, which influence investment choices, to align with land uses that produce the optimal mix of public goods? This might require localisation of policy discretion in order to respond adequately to the localisation of land potential.

An important consideration is that different forms of finance and investment in future land management come with different perspectives on the nature of investment, and this governs the preferences of investors. Trusts and charities behave in different ways to government agencies; large farm businesses have different financial opportunities for land use change compared to smaller farm businesses. The attachment to place — to pursuing the management of a specific location of land — also differs. In seeking to maximise financial returns from rents and capital gains, a farmland investor might seek a distributed portfolio of smaller land holdings across different regions, a strategy which spreads risk and creates greater liquidity; discussing the ‘spectacular gains’ of farmland investment, the Financial Times noted that ‘for a pure investor the location doesn’t matter — but they want to know they’re buying into a popular area so they’ll have an easier process when they want to sell it.’¹¹ By contrast, a locally oriented farmer often seeks economies of scale by consolidating neighbouring or nearby holdings into a concentrated farming operation.

The pattern of land ownership

The challenges and opportunities of concentrated land ownership and land management are different from those of disaggregated ownership and management. Both the scale of individual ‘land holdings’, and the size and distribution of individual holdings managed by single institutions are important, and to a large extent under-researched. ‘Wildlife-friendly farming’, ‘High Nature Value farming’, and ‘land sparing’ are not mutually exclusive options for land management; all offer different and sometimes complementary advantages. Debates about land sharing and land sparing often become framed as a trade-off between inherently competing land use regimes, or inherently incompatible visions for the land use system overall. Landscapes always produce a multitude of products/services, and the relationship between any combination of them rarely represents a linear arithmetic of substitution. And while pursuit of a quantifiably maximal ‘public value’ from finite land resources is the right goal, a pervasive challenge is that the aggregated public preferences are — at least at supra-local scales — typically unknown and unknowable, making the achievement of a utilitarian outcome unverifiable. It is therefore perhaps helpful to adopt Elinor Ostrom’s line of inquiry (winning her the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009): are there social and ecological system properties that benefit sustainable management of the commons?¹²

Major rural landowners in the UK include governmental bodies such as the Crown Estate, Natural England, Ministry of Defence and local authorities; charities such as the National Trust, Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trusts and RSPB; companies including water utilities and other organisations such as the Church Commissioners (the Church of England investment fund), and the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall. Some of these organisations many engage in agricultural activity as secondary or ancillary to their core objectives and some will include forestry holdings, including forestry specialists like the Forestry Commission and. The role of major landowners is under increased scrutiny, especially in Scotland and with the recent government announcement that UK agricultural subsidies would be capped, affecting the largest farming operations.

“Any reasonable person would look at Scotland and recognise that the concentrated pattern of land ownership — Europe’s most extreme — can be an obstacle to economic development and … communities having a say over their own destiny.”

Richard Lochhead, Scottish Government’s cabinet secretary for rural affairs, 2007–2016

Others would disagree pointing to the ability of the private estates to invest more in economic development and jobs and housing than the Communities that might replace them.

Surfacing assumptions, making connections

Assumptions about new or expanded financial models, in turn, rest on deeper philosophical and ideological positions. If markets don’t fairly value the true and total impact of local land-based activities, or externalities, it is unlikely that the commercially-driven interests of farmers and land managers will automatically align with societal interests which require a broader conception of value. In policies designed to influence land management to bring it closer into alignment with social value, should we assume that a change in activity represents ‘income foregone’ for land managers, or that land managers should reimburse society (eg through tax) for the costs borne at a societal level? Or should land owners ultimately be accountable for the activity on their land?

Finally, despite the direction recommended by the Land Use Futures Foresight project, and others, the government’s current thinking on land use remains narrow, currently focused on agriculture. There are policies and plans that influence land use which aren’t explicitly about land use, including HS2, the tax system, and strategies for waste management. Mechanisms for alignment must be facilitated.¹³ The starting position should be the recognition that land is the most basic and fundamental and valuable national asset. To do so will confirm the integral role that the agricultural sector has in shaping the future of the countryside and the county as a whole.

Next steps

We will be commissioning research about how to take some of these ideas further, in particular around what Westminster can learn from other land use strategies, the types of creative proposals that could help tackle the rural housing crisis, and the mechanisms that could help communities to capture increases in land value.


[1] RSPB, National Trust and The Wildlife Trusts (2017). Assessing the costs of environmental land management in the UK. Available at https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/assessing-the-costs-of-environmental-land-management-in-the-uk-final-report-dec-2017.pdf

[2] HM Government (2018). A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf; note that the Tenant Farmers Association estimates the figure at one-third, formal tenancies only.

[3] Government Office for Science (2010) Land use futures: Foresight project looking at the future of land use in the UK over the next 50 years. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/land-use-futures

[4] CPRE (2017). Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land. Available at https://www.cpre.org.uk/resources/countryside/item/download/4842

[5] Vaughan, R (2014). Tunbridge Wells Borough: Agricultural Land Classification Study. Available at http://www.tunbridgewells.gov.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/85063/Agricultural-Land-Classification-Study-2014.pdf

[6] Rockström, K. (2017). Sustainable intensification of agriculture for human prosperity and global sustainability. Ambio. Available at https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-016-0793-6

[7] HM Government (2018). A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment. Available at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf

[8] Pritchard, S (2018). Where next for the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Available at https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2018/06/where-next-for-the-rsa-food-farming-and-countryside-commission

[9] Strutt & Parker (2018). English Estates & Farmland Market Review. Available at https://2391de4ba78ae59a71f3-fe3f5161196526a8a7b5af72d4961ee5.ssl.cf3.rackcdn.com/5915/2587/7660/EEFM_Review_Q1_2018_WEB.pdf

[10] European Environment Agency (2018). Land take. https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/land-take-2/assessment-1

[11] Pickford, J. (2018). Harvesting returns from farmland investment. Available at https://www.ft.com/content/1489204a-31e9-11e5-8873-775ba7c2ea3d

[12] Land sparing versus land sharing: moving forward, Joern Fischer, et al , 2014, Land sparing versus land sharing — moving forward, https://www.slideshare.net/joernfischer/land-sparing-versus-land-sharing-moving-forward

[13] For example, see Ireland’s National Policy Objective 24 — http://npf.ie/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Ireland-2040-Our-Plan-Draft-NPF.pdf

Note: this paper was originally published on the RSA website (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), which hosted the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission between November 2017-April 2020.