In 2019, while living in London, I visited the Knepp rewilding project in Sussex for the first time. I was blown away by what appeared to me to be paradise, with its patchwork landscape of habitats at different stages of development, as natural processes slowly took hold of the land, aided by free roaming deer, pigs, cattle and wild ponies. But I soon realised that this approach is not supported by everybody. What seemed idyllic to me was described by someone, whose views I respect, as “an aristocratic vanity project” and an “abdication of responsibility for managing the land”.
This illustrates an issue that is about to get a lot bigger across the country. The way land is used is on the verge of a revolution, the likes of which probably hasn’t been seen since the middle of the 20th century.
A society-wide push for net zero, new post-Brexit subsidy payments and the new Environment Act mandating the restoration of nature, means new things will be wanted from the land and how the land looks and is managed may change radically in some places. This was all pledged in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, so it is central to the government’s programme.
In response, community groups and local volunteers are buying land, and planting trees for people, nature and the climate. Corporations too are buying farms to plant trees, in their case for carbon offsetting. Trees are good, right? But some see land use change to suit corporate ends as a direct assault on their local landscape and heritage of an area.
Farmers, the government, companies and community groups are already involved in these changes. But, as a society, we haven’t yet settled on who should have a say in how they happen and what role communities should play. That is the central question for a new Green Alliance initiative, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, to recommend how community benefit, engagement and ownership can be maximised as our land use changes in response to the climate and nature crises.
Government decisions drive land use change
Most land in the UK (70 per cent) is used for agriculture. Its use is influenced by a complex web of drivers, including markets for food, wood and other produce, but government payments, regulation and the planning system are the dominant drivers. For instance, the planning system limits urban sprawl, which is a major reason why south east England is still largely agricultural and doesn’t look like Phoenix, Arizona, where lax planning rules have led to a city comparable in size to Greater London, but with roughly half the population.
More fundamentally, without farm payments, up to two thirds of farms would not be viable: the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy has created an agricultural landscape that would have looked very different without its interventions. Now, outside the EU, regional governments of the UK can no longer hide decisions that alter the land behind the excuse that they came from Brussels.
Although the Westminster government has no explicit land use framework, its policy changes are already having an impact. The new environmental land management scheme, and the Treasury’s demand for Defra to find £1 billion in private investment in nature, such as through land-based carbon and biodiversity offset markets, will alter the financial and regulatory signals for landowners. As highlighted in a recent Green Alliance report, land use change in the absence of an explicit framework is likely to result in avoidable conflicts and trade-offs between different priorities and preferences, including environment, food production, and rural economy and landscapes.
Who should have a say in land use decisions?
When I lived in London I liked to get out of the city and visit places like Knepp. I certainly felt I had an interest in how the land surrounding London was managed, but I am not part of the local community around the Knepp estate, still less part of the community that owns, manages and works on it. So am I someone who has a right to an opinion about what happens there?
Around the country, different communities will have different concerns about and interests in the landscapes they inhabit and what they are for. How those interests and concerns will be accounted for and balanced, as part of the new decision making, is not yet clear. Failure to get this right will lead to increasing local friction over land use, such as is already being experienced in some parts of the country as a result of large scale tree planting for corporate offsetting.
In theory, there is some democracy in how land is used via the policies set by national and devolved governments. But, in practice, community engagement in the big strategic questions is limited.
There are ways of involving people more meaningfully in these decisions, with lessons to be learnt from the planning system. And there are interesting hybrid models that enable people to take a more active role in their local area, such as community land trusts, community interest companies and co-operatives. In this new project, we’ll be exploring which engagement models are best under different circumstances.
Changes to the land are very likely to accelerate in the coming years. This can and should be positive change for both people and planet. Our work on this hot topic will recommend how it can happen in a way that meets the needs and preferences of communities and local areas, as well as the nation’s environmental goals.