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Making a Great British idea a perfect English one

Making a Great British idea a perfect English one

We talk about land a lot here at CPRE – it is at the heart of everything we do both as a charity and as a nation, as my colleague Belinda noted earlier this year – but what would a Land Use Strategy actually look like, and what could it hope to achieve? We may be the Campaign to Protect Rural England, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested in the rest of the UK – I’ve been up to the Highlands and Islands on holiday every year for the past eight – and we know a good idea when we see one. Since 2012, Scotland has been leading the way on developing a Land Use Strategy to find the best means of managing land within its capabilities, getting the most from it in a sustainable way.

Land use management may sound like a dry topic with few discernible consequences – the story goes, after all, that the English countryside is a symbol of steadfast and persistent Britishness which has remained unchanged for centuries. However, we all know that isn’t true, and nor should it be. The countryside is a living breathing space where people live, work and play. It is a place of change, innovation and beauty, and there needs to be a means to manage the demands of these uneasy bedfellows. Land is at the heart of this as a vital and limited resource under pressure from all sides to provide space for housing, agriculture, infrastructure and wilderness. All the while we also expect land to provide ecosystem services such as clean water, flood management, abundant biodiversity, healthy soils and places for recreation as well as beautiful, tranquil landscapes that we all need, and deserve to have, the opportunity to escape to.

This is precisely what the Scottish Land Use Strategy sets out to do, to create ‘A Scotland where we fully recognise, understand and value the importance of our land resources, and where our plans and decisions about land use will deliver improved and enduring benefits, enhancing the wellbeing of our nation’. A Land Use Strategy is not about creating a provision for a single direction or masterplan for future land use, instead it is a means to: ‘assess policy choices at local, regional and national levels; identify opportunities for multiple benefits from land use options; engage stakeholders as part of the creation of opportunities and solutions; and offer a framework to guide decisions in an integrated way.’

That’s all well and good, but what does it mean on the ground on a day-to-day basis, beyond the government doublespeak? A Land Use Strategy is a means to get knowledge into policy, engage local people to ensure changes are for their benefit, and make sure the left hand of Government is talking to the right. The two pilot schemes, running in Aberdeenshire and the Scottish Borders, have used cutting-edge mapping data to measure the ability of land to deliver four key ecosystem services (natural flood management, improvements to water quality, enhanced soil quality and biodiversity). In places where there were opportunities to deliver multiple benefits investment could be targeted to improve them, or the damaging consequences of reckless development highlighted with input from the knowledge of the local community, landowners and land users.

All the data already exists to follow this model and improve on it in England. The sheer quantity of knowledge we have about the English landscape is remarkable, from the Corine land cover data to the highly detailed National Character Area profiles. And the approach of the Scottish pilot schemes could easily be extended to move beyond tangible natural capital benefits to measure the potential to improve and protect other land-based assets such as cultural heritage, farm size diversity, dark skies and tranquillity. Measuring these benefits is a crucial means to better understanding and enhancement of them. Moreover, the Scottish Land Use Strategy is founded on nine principles of sustainable land use, several of which relate to the human benefits of being more closely linked to the land and providing green spaces close to where people live. The British landscape is a key part of defining our identity and improving our wellbeing – I think I sense another blog coming on.

There’s plenty more to cover on an English Land Use Strategy: how might it apply to towns and cities to support the creation of connected, liveable regions? If we identify ecosystem services as a key determinant of land value, what might be the consequences for a land market where value is primarily linked to planning permission and development? When it identifies investment opportunities to improve the environment, how would these relate to new farm subsidies post-CAP? What would be the role of Michael Gove’s recently announced Environmental Governance Body in collating data and joining-up Government policy?

With the Government’s long-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan edging ever closer, now is the time for Michael Gove and his team at Defra to think big and include a Land Use Strategy which could support integrated and informed decisions about how to use land in a sustainable manner. It would be an invaluable tool in supporting the Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited, as well as protecting rural England for the benefit of all.

A Land Use Strategy is a means to get knowledge into policy, engage local people to ensure changes are for their benefit, and make sure the left hand of Government is talking to the right

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