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Land and how to use it

Tom Fyans
By Tom Fyans
21st July 2022

For those of us who have grown up since the second world war, any sign of empty supermarket shelves has been worthy of a news headline – and it’s usually been caused by some panic buying. But CPRE’s new report suggests that if we don’t pay attention to the way we use land, we’re putting our food security at risk.

Our shocking finding was that since 2010, we’ve lost thousands of hectares of our finest agricultural land to often inappropriate development. Two million fewer people can be fed their ‘five a day’ from vegetables homegrown in England as a result. That’s equivalent to the combined populations of the cities of Liverpool, Sheffield and Manchester.

This suggests that, bizarrely for a developed western country, our food security – the nation’s supply of sufficient affordable, nutritious food – is at risk.

It’s not about calories – sugar beet could provide plenty of those, but is hardly what we want our children growing up on. It’s about nutrition – and, specifically, how to protect what the technicians call our ‘Best and Most Versatile’ agricultural land to provide it.

That’s the only way to ensure we can all eat our five a day from homegrown fruit and veg. And by losing that farming land we are putting our food security at risk.

And then there’s flooding

There’s more. On top of that, of our absolute best, most fertile land, 60% is at the highest risk of severe flooding. In low lying areas in the east of England, a whopping 95% of our best farmland is in what’s known as Flood Zone 3.

And knowing about that threat of flooding is why we must urgently protect the Best and Most Versatile land that is left.

Never before have we seen such urgent and competing demands on our land. Once productive farmland is lost to housing or industry, it is lost forever. And yet our destruction of this irreplaceable resource is accelerating exponentially; there has been a 100-fold increase since 2010.

'Never before have we seen such urgent and competing demands on our land. Once productive farmland is lost to housing or industry, it is lost forever. '

And the truly scandalous part? The government didn’t even know. Hadn’t done the research. Doesn’t have the figures.

It’s high time we started properly valuing the ability to feed ourselves because in future, we may not be able to take imported food for granted. This research we’ve done is the first ever to quantify the scale of development nationally on the two highest and most productive grades of farmland.

What can we do?

But there is some good news: it’s not too late if we act now.

We need to move away from intensive farming, towards a more ‘multifunctional’ approach ensuring the most efficient use of our land. Because there are lots of things we require from it.

We already know that changes to planning policy could see 1.3 million homes built on brownfield land, saving the countryside for farming, recreation and nature restoration.

Not only do we have plenty of space for affordable and social housing, this research proves we can have food and energy security, too. The figures are encouraging. Barely any of our current solar capacity – less than 3% – has been installed on our best farmland.

We can house, power and feed the country sustainably.

'We can house, power and feed the country sustainably.'

Clearly, the right balance is there to be found. As a small island nation, we don’t have loads of land. But we have more than enough.

This is a pivotal moment. The next Prime Minister is going to have to take decisions that will shape multiple, interlinked crises. The cost of living, the climate; food, energy, housing – each of critical importance.

Policies put in place now will determine the success or failure of this country in the coming years. The glaring problem is that we need to know what to put where. That’s why we’re calling on the next government to produce a comprehensive, cross-departmental land use strategy.

We need a roadmap and we need it now.



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