Land use in England is changing radically. Rather than a landscape dominated by food production, the new priorities are nature and biodiversity restoration, carbon sequestration, development and infrastructure, energy generation, and public access and well-being.
This is the view of the House of Lords Land Use in England Committee, which was appointed last year and published its report Making the most out of England's land in December.
But the committee notes that, outside the planning system, competing needs for land are not assessed by any framework across England; neither is there is any formal advisory or coordinating body besides government departments.
• 8.7% of land in England is of developed use, 91.1% is of non-developed use and the remaining 0.2% vacant, i.e. was previously developed and now ready for development.
• The top 3 land use groups were 'Agriculture' (63.1%), 'Forestry, open land and water' (20.1%), and 'Residential gardens' (4.9%).
• 6.8% of land within the green belt is of developed use.
• 6.1% of land within Flood Zone 3 is of developed use (not including flood defences).
• 5% of land within areas at high to medium risk of flooding from rivers and the sea is of developed use (after accounting for flood defences).
Based on the evidence it heard, the committee believes there is a compelling case for a land-use commission, the role of which will be to enable the development and promulgation of a framework to help landowners, managers and other decision-makers make the most appropriate decisions on land use.
It does not intend that the commission should have any powers of direction. Rather, it would support effective land use on the basis that multiple simultaneous benefits could be achieved with the right approach in the same location.
Importantly, the report calls for this commission to be set up as an independent, statutory arm's-length public body under the Cabinet Office, with commissioners representing all relevant government departments and a budget similar to those of the Scottish Land Commission or the Climate Change Committee.
Among other priorities, the report argues that the commission's role should include the following functions:
preparing and updating a land-use framework
encouraging the publication and application of accessible, open-source land-use data
reviewing the effectiveness and impact of laws and policies relating to land and advising government accordingly
working across local and national government to enable an integrated approach
producing a report every three years on progress and on improving the effectiveness of multifunctional land uses, to be discussed in Parliament.
The report notes the uncertainty around the detail of the Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), and the impact this is having on landowners, managers and other decision-makers.
At the time of writing the report the three tiers of ELMs were:
Sustainable farming incentive
Local nature recovery
The committee urges the government to clarify ELMs for the farming community, and to ensure that much-needed habitats are better promoted and managed across England to enable the recovery of biodiversity.
It also calls for government to examine how it can improve environmental management skills among all land managers. It highlights the importance of local nature recovery strategies (LNRSs) in ensuring that appropriate environmental initiatives are encouraged on the right land, with input from local communities throughout England.
Furthermore, the committee states that government must ensure that LNRSs are properly resourced, with the necessary local cooperation and coordination. Strategies must also be given sufficient weight in the planning system to ensure they are effective. The committee thus wants stronger planning rules and accompanying guidance, to ensure that LNRSs are a material consideration in planning decisions.
Before the report was published, however, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) had confirmed that an enhanced version of the Countryside Stewardship grant scheme will form the second tier of ELMS, replacing the local nature recovery tier.
The report refers to biodiversity net gain (BNG) and states that this must be accompanied by proper monitoring and enforcement. This means that planning authorities should be given adequate resources and powers, both to support BNG and to intervene in cases where its requirements are at risk of not being fulfilled.
It goes on to acknowledge that afforestation is clearly a priority in future land use to help meet climate-related goals. However, targets are being missed and workers in the sector may not have the necessary skills to achieve those targets.
The report further acknowledges that incentives, support and regulation must be reviewed, and there should be more support for and investment in management of existing woodland. It says the government must also ensure that the right species of tree are planted in the right place, and that this initiative complements other land-use targets.
In the recent Woodland Market Review, the chartered forestry surveyors, valuers and agents Tustins cited a worrying reduction in the number of workers with forestry skills available to advise clients, which is affecting the market. The firm says: 'Never has the basic "plant trees, absorb carbon, produce timber, enhance biodiversity" message been more relevant, but this is not reflected in the raft of government departments who all seem to think they can say "No" to nearly all planting.'
The report also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of green and open space for access and recreation, and the revival of tourism has given this issue further prominence. It outlines that it is particularly important to prioritise access to such spaces in and near urban and peri-urban areas.
The committee does not propose that a land-use framework or the commission replaces or interferes with the current responsibilities of the English planning system; but it feels that it is important to acknowledge the role that system plays in land use, and the challenges and opportunities it generates.
Its view is that a framework should help better identify and define those areas where land should be optimised for priority uses other than housing – for example, prime agricultural land for food production – or land that is essential for carbon sequestration and nature recovery. A framework supported by the commission and based on the available evidence could also advise the government on reforming and strengthening planning policy.
The report outlines that planning rules and accompanying guidance should be changed, to stress the need for:
sufficient green infrastructure provision and protection in new development
improvement and enhancement of existing infrastructure
best use to be made of green infrastructure using a multifunctional framework where possible.
Similarly, the report advises on the views of those who fed into the report that much more could be made of the multifunctional potential of the green belt. This should also be a priority for the framework, it says, integrated with objectives for green infrastructure where relevant. In seeking to integrate the various land-use priorities into a proposed framework, the committee considered evidence on approaches to multifunctionality and debates over land sharing and land sparing.
RICS responded to the committee's call for evidence. Here are some of the key points:
For example, it recommended a thorough review of all the different regulatory and statutory obligation frameworks relating to land use.
It also recommended a comprehensive set of up-to-date local plans for England rather than the present patchwork, which includes many local plans that are long out of date. Yet, as currently funded and resourced, there is little prospect of this changing.
There needs to be a strategic spatial plan at a geographical scale much larger than the local authority, to ensure the various infrastructure requirements are provided at the necessary scale.
Central government also needs to devise land-use policies that clearly identify its priorities in the public interest. Guidance should be offered for implementing these priorities at regional and local level to deal with issues more specific to these areas, thereby providing critical services to the public. All of this could easily be carried out by a fully reformed, resourced and efficiently operated planning system.
With the security of food production in the UK coming again to the fore, strategic government policy must deal with affordable food supply in England as well.
Meanwhile, a key factor in achieving net-zero-carbon objectives relates to the spatial distribution of sustainable settlements in England. This will need to be employment-led, with homes and places of work in close proximity. How and where land is allocated for development with supporting infrastructure is critical to achieving the net-zero target.
The relationship between land allocation, market and affordable housing funding and provision is the subject of constant investigation as well. In 2018, the Letwin review recommended ways for greater diversity of housing to be supplied through large sites. That a lack of adequate affordable housing remains an issue in 2023 is testament to ineffectual policy-making over many years.
Following the publication of Making the most out of England's land, the Rural Coalition wrote to the secretaries of state for environment, food and rural affairs, for levelling up, housing and communities, and for business, energy and industrial strategy.
The 13 coalition members, which include RICS, are organisations with a strong interest in ensuring that the finite and precious land in England is used effectively, and the letter identified the attributes the government framework must contain to ensure land is used to provide better public value, as follows.
Responsibility for the framework must be taken across government, covering all major land-use changes and not just agriculture, to tackle less effective, siloed approaches.
The framework must optimise the multifunctional use of land so economic, environmental and social targets are met to offer public value.
Data should be made available at national, regional and local level, and used and integrated effectively to improve decisions.
Neither top-down nor bottom-up, the framework must encourage genuine community, business and civil society involvement in the ways that national targets are met at the local and regional levels.
The Rural Coalition also outlined that a land-use framework for England could be an essential tool to foster innovation, economic growth and environmental improvements.
Coordinated effectively with plans in the devolved administrations, the framework should take a long-term, strategic, integrating approach, engaging and empowering the leaders who will make it work. The coalition members are ready to help develop the framework, to make it as effective as possible.