Professor Ian Hodge – Written Evidence (LUE0033)


Devolve decisions to represent local priorities and integrate delivery

The land use challenge

We are at a critical time for land use policy.  We face an increasingly urgent need for land to deliver multiple benefits, often now characterised as Nature based Solutions, and we are now in a position to design policy specific to our particular circumstances.  We must take this opportunity to direct land use towards delivering the greatest social benefit indefinitely into the future. 

Rural land can deliver a broad variety of both public and private benefits, extending well beyond the core issue of food production: nature conservation and climate change, flood protection and water management, physical and mental health, welfare and outdoor recreation, space for transport, housing and infrastructureThe benefits, often characterised in terms of ecosystem services, have been brought into sharper focus by the war in Ukraine and the experience of Covid.  These ecosystem services may be private goods or public goods. Private goods, such as wheat, have characteristics that mean that they can be sold in a market and hence provide revenue to the supplier.  Public goods, such as biodiversity conservation, have characteristics that prevent the development of a market.  Enjoyment of a good by one person does not prevent the enjoyment by others.  Once a good is provided it is not possible to exclude people from its enjoyment.  It is these public goods that have become increasingly important.  In practice, there is a continuum between these extremes; goods are commonly neither purely private or purely public.  Two key consequences follow from this:

Government has set a series of objectives for the natural environment, particularly through the 25 Year Environment Plan and Environment Act.  Each of these ambitions requires planning and direction.  National targets are important drivers but they leave very many questions unanswered.  For the target for the creation of wildlife-rich habitat, for instance, what sort of habitat should there be, where should it be located, who will provide it and how will it be funded?

But beyond a focus on these single issues, there is a need to appreciate the potential for integration and synergism across the delivery of different ecosystem services within particular placesEcosystem services often have the characteristics of joint products that are more effectively produced together rather than separately.  These interactions are rarely captured through the operations of government agencies primarily focussed on narrow sectoral remits such as biodiversity, flood protection or forestry.  This was recognised, for instance, in the 2020 review of the Treasury Green Book[1] that commented “Central government departments also frequently fail to work together across organisational boundaries and ring-fenced funding streams to develop, appraise and deliver truly ‘place based’ strategy. This means that interdependencies between different interventions owned by different departments, and the benefits to a place to be expected from the interventions working together are not given proper consideration.” So a further question is: what combination of services can best be provided together, e.g. food, biodiversity, flood protection and public access?

Decisions about land use need to reflect a combination of national and local prioritiesNational government signs international commitments, particularly on climate and biodiversity policy.  It sets targets under national legislation.  But it cannot know the best locations and configurations of land use that can deliver on those targets.  Similarly, a local land use framework or nature recovery strategy is an important stage in the development of a rational approach to land use.  It can capture local priorities; it can articulate the demand for ecosystem services, although the demands expressed may be unconstrained by the possible cost and feasibility of delivery.  But such a framework or strategy lacks information on the ‘supply price’ or the costs and motivations facing individual landholders whose actions are needed in order to deliver on any strategy. Landholders can assess both the direct costs of particular land use choices and their opportunity costs.  For example, decisions about the type and location of wildlife habitat that can be enhanced enhance will depend on intimate knowledge about the land such as where soils are less productive or most liable to flood, what other uses could be adopted, as well as on the ecological suitability of the areaDecisions will also depend on the preferences and experiences of the individual landholder in choosing whether and in what way to diversity a farming system.

There is thus a missing element, a governance gap, in the process of delivery that can establish incentives to represent local interests and then resolve the balance of demand and supply of ecosystem services.  Under agri-environment policy, demand is expressed at a national level by central government through scheme design and payment rates.  Supply is predominantly from landholders individually volunteering to join a scheme.  This fails to represent priorities as expressed by local communities, fails to develop a body of knowledge about local resources and opportunities, fails to integrate the delivery of different types of ecosystem service within a local context and fails to offer safe space for the exploration and negotiation of potential options for the delivery of Nature based Solutions in a local context.

We thus lack institutional arrangements that can resolve these issues within particular local areas.  There needs to be a system of governance that


Local environmental governance

There are effectively two distinct movements responding to the demand for nature conservation.  One is the national, top down approach that has been developed through agri-environment policy under the Common Agricultural Policy, now being replaced by Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes.  This is further supported through legislation for Nature Recovery Networks, Local Nature Recovery Strategies, Biodiversity Net Gain and so on.  However, the public funding to incentivise change on the ground remains largely through agri-environment and ELM.  The other movement is bottom-up, often pioneered by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as the Wildlife Trusts.  While there is some national level planning by NGOs, such as the Wildlife Trusts Living Landscapes, the action is essentially at a community level.  Initiatives are often stimulated and coordinated through partnerships, such as Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs).  A number of areas, such as in Devon or Cambridgeshire, have active LNPs that are building shared objectives amongst local stakeholders, initiating information gathering and planning towards the adoption of Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LRNS).  Some have raised funds to support local environmental actions, often at a parish level.

Setting national environmental targets or producing an LNRS strategy still leaves open the question as to how these targets and strategies can be implemented through direct incentives for landholders on the ground.  This governance gap can be filled by Local Environmental Governance Organisations[2] (LEGOs)

LEGOs would build on this bottom-up groundswell of action.  They would have a remit across the range of ecosystem services, promoting Nature based Solutions within their areas.  They would build a close working relationship amongst relevant stakeholders, including local authorities at different levels, farming and conservation organisations, utilities and other locally significant corporate and civil society interests.  Interactions amongst these organisations over time would build trust and generate confidence that decisions they make do provide a fair representation of local priorities.  LEGOs would lead the assembly of evidence on natural capital resources and explore options for environmental protection and enhancement.  This process might adopt techniques such as opportunity mapping or systematic conservation planning.  Evidence assembled would include the priorities of local communities for improvements to landscape and public access.  This might, for example, include information from surveys undertaken in connection with the development of Neighbourhood Plans and other local plansThis evidence would form the basis for a deliberative approach to the adoption of a Local Nature Recovery Strategy, setting out agreed priorities. 

We might note the apparent divergence in perspective towards public access from central government and local opinion.  The Treasury has apparently recently stopped the Agnew review of public access[3].  In contrast, in Neighbourhood Plan discussions as to potential priorities for the countryside, enhanced public access was the overwhelming priority.  Improved public access will give the public greater opportunity to witness and appreciate the benefits of the other public expenditure on the rural environment.  In the absence of this experience, it may be hard to maintain popular support for this public expenditure.

A LEGO may be seen as a trustee on behalf of the natural environment with a responsibility for its maintenance and sustainability indefinitely into the future.  It would take a long term perspective and have the powers to enter into long term agreements, potentially using conservation covenants to secure environmental benefits into the future.  It would adopt management principles, such as those set out from the experience of the North Devon Pioneer area[4]:



LEGOs would be allocated funding from central government but would also lead locally-based fundraising from the private sector and granting awarding bodies.  This procurement fund would then be allocated to incentivise land use and land management changes for the implementation of the LRNS.  Using the leverage of the fund, the LEGO would act as an intermediary for the negotiation of long term landscape recovery contracts.  A LEGO could act as a clearing house to match the various demands for ecosystem services against the potential supply from landholders.  It would facilitate interactions and agreements amongst the interested parties.  The agreements reached would seek, where appropriate, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services in addition to nature conservation, such as flood mitigation, carbon sequestration and public access.  Funding could also be sourced from the range of stakeholders that would stand to benefit from the delivery of these services, supplemented by central government funds where projects also address national objectives. It would be possible to use the certification criteria of the woodland and peatland codes to enable the creation of carbon credits that could be sold as another funding stream. 

Delivery contracts could be with individual landholders or with groups of landholders working together.  The options for the supply of ecosystem services can be enhanced where local landholders collaborate to develop plans across a larger area of land at a landscape scale.  This can achieve the scale required to sustain a wildlife populations or help to link up areas of habitat across ownership units.  A number of farmer clusters have been established in recent years to develop and formalise this collaboration.  This appraoch has been supported by the Facilitation Fund under the Countryside Stewardship scheme and should be extended under ELM and in local initiatives. 

Funding could also be used to support the research that is necessary to underpin delivery planning, such as on hydrology or ecology, and to support bringing groups of stakeholders together to explore and elaborate new delivery opportunities.  It would also need to support monitoring of actions and outcomes and enforcement action where rules or agreements had been breached.

In allocating funding, LEGOs will inevitable have to make hard choices about what to fund and what not to fund within a constrained budget.  This adds an element of fiscal discipline to the decisions taken and would on occasion, no doubt, lead to tensions amongst the stakeholders involved with the LEGO.  The LEGO would administer the procurement fund, monitor its use and report regularly on outcomes.  This would be an adaptive process, identifying outcomes from previous interventions and following emerging priorities amongst local communities to inform future rounds of funding.  It would provide full audited accounts of income and expenditure on an annual basis

Requirements for policy

We need a national framework for the establishment of LEGOs across the country.  This would build on the experiences of successful initiatives such as by National Parks, LNPs and many others.  Central government needs to provide guidance, drawing on this experience, and a process for devolved funding.  Further work is needed on processes and procedures for the operation of LEGOs.  The approach could follow that for Local Enterprise Partnerships, and the lessons that have been learnt from them.  There needs to be a national system for monitoring, reporting, publishing and reviewing progress over time.  LEGOs may benefit from further powers, such as to hold covenants or own land.  But such developments may be adopted over time as we gain more experience of their actions and potentials.


The coincidence of the climate and biodiversity emergencies, and Brexit present the UK with a unique opportunity to be genuinely world leading in its governance of rural land.  The UK has often led the way in rural planning through the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, through its particular approach to National Parks in largely man-made and privately owned landscapes, and through its development of novel approaches to agri-environment schemes.  The creation of a new policy towards rural land use and management now presents an opportunity for more radical change.  This is the moment for a new approach to the integrated delivery of ecosystem services that responds to local interests and priorities and capitalises on potential synergisms across the delivery of ecosystem services.


Professor Ian Hodge

April 2022








[1] (p.4)

[2] Gawith, David and Hodge, Ian (2019) Focus rural land policies on ecosystem services, not agriculture. Nature Ecology and Evolution. 3, 1136-1139;


[4] Sunderland, T., Rice, P., Lord, A. and Traill Thomson, J.A (2020) Natural Capital Strategy for North Devon, Natural England Research Report 083.