Energy supply, skills and apprenticeships, the education and health services: these were the focus of the big debates over resources during the election campaign. But there’s one national resource that we didn’t hear about at all – ironically, the one that provides the foundation for our economy, society and environment.
The ground beneath our feet
I’m referring, of course, to England’s limited land resource – the 13,281,521 ha (or 51,280 square miles, if you prefer) in this small island of ours.
Yet land is not always ignored by the politicians. Its importance was the theme of a powerful speech by the David Miliband and hosted by CPRE in 2007 when he was Environment Secretary, entitled ‘A land fit for the future?’ In it, he addressed head on the question of what land is for and why we value it.
The speech stimulated a wide-ranging discussion within CPRE that culminated in our 2026 Vision for the Countryside, launched the following year. It also led directly to the Land Use Futures study carried out by the Government Office for Science and published in 2010. That study, informed by numerous research reports from academic experts and overseen by a high level stakeholder group involving CPRE, concluded that: ‘a critical choice for Governments is whether to address the future challenges in an incremental piecemeal fashion, or whether to aim for a more coherent and consistent approach to managing land use – or indeed some combination of the two’. Sadly, not much has happened since – at least on this side of Hadrian’s Wall.
The Scottish Government has taken a different approach. Following the adoption of a legal requirement in the 2009 Climate Change (Scotland) Act, it published its first Land Use Strategy report in 2011. The Scottish Land Use Strategy, currently undergoing a review, adopts 10 principles for sustainable land use, sets out 13 proposals, with an action plan, annual progress report and a land use information hub. Its vision is for a Scotland where ‘we fully recognise, understand and value the importance of our land resources, and where our plans and decisions about land use deliver improved and enduring benefits, enhancing the wellbeing of our nation’.
It’s too early to assess the impact of the Scottish approach on land use decisions but it is useful for considering how we might take this agenda forward in England. Arguably, pressures on our own land resources are even more intense than those facing much of Scotland: England has a higher population density, not just than Scotland, but also all other European countries. It’s arguable that with a larger proportion of lowland coastline, we face even greater pressures as a result of rising sea levels due to climate change; and, perhaps shared with several countries, we experience serious regional imbalances in terms of economic performance.
So what value might there be in developing a land use strategy for England? How might this benefit the countryside we love? And how might it help address the housing challenges we face? CPRE is beginning to explore the potential for this. There are links with the work of the Natural Capital Committee and the so-called ‘ecosystems services’ approach which embraces all the benefits land (and air) provides, including food and fibre, climate and water cycle regulation, soil formation, recreation and aesthetic experience.
We also need to clarify the relationship between a land use and spatial strategy, and learn from a seminal report by the former Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution in 2002, which called with the adoption of integrated spatial strategies ‘covering all aspects of sustainable development; … and all forms of land use, in particular agriculture and forestry.’ A land use strategy could also improve our understanding of the relationship between town and country, including how we can reinforce the focus on reuse of suitable brownfield land for housing by strengthening controls over greenfield land release.
When they were responsible for planning policy, both Eric Pickles and John Prescott talked about tackling the wasteful use of land. Isn’t it time we gave serious consideration to the policies we need to address this issue? CPRE will be giving this further attention in the coming months. While it’s unlikely to be anywhere near the top of the new Government’s agenda right now, there are many who, like CPRE, want to see it rise up the pecking order well before the next election.
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