Kevin Beaty, Director, FERN (Future Economic Rural Network) – Written Evidence (LUE0034)

Pressures and challenges 

  1. What do you see as the most notable current challenges in relation to land use in England? How might these challenges best be tackled? How do you foresee land use in England changing over the long term? How should competing priorities for land use be managed?

Land use has traditionally been seen by the general population as Development (Housing, Employment, and Infrastructure) or Farming. There have always been land use initiatives in government, but no specific framework has been developed.

Land use is coming under increasing pressure in the 21st Century and farming is not the only

Housing

England has a changing population which although slowing is still set to grow and pass 70.5 million by the mid 2030s (ONS Census 2021). The ONS says the main driver is immigration, and the main recipient of the immigration are urban areas. This is driving a need for housing for the growing population.

Evidence from a Consultation at Eden District Council in 2018 showed that in rural areas and in particular market towns there is growing for need for homes that are for 1 or 2 persons, this is due to modern trends and a growing retired population.

Increasingly evidence that more people are looking for properties in rural areas with bigger gardens is a growing trend that the pandemic has increased according to the Centre For Economic Performance (LSE The pandemic and the housing market March 2021) with pressure on the green belt as a result.

A host of consultations across a large number of organisations (NFU, CALC, LDNP etc) cite a lack of affordable homes in rural areas as a key challenge.

Environment

Government and opposition manifestos at the 2019 general election included environmental recovery on many levels as an important policy area to be addressed as we left the EU and the remit became a UK competence. The government has plans to create an increased level of woodland, including a national forest in the north of England

The reform of Agricultural Support includes payments for public goods which will require farmers to deliver environmental benefits which some argue will have an impact on production in some areas. Conversely, government is promoting productivity through grants. This two-pronged approach may reduce productivity in marginal land areas set aside for environmental recovery through tree planting or reduced inputs while also putting pressure on more productive land to produce more.

There is a conflict between the need for food security, highlighted by farmers unions following the Ukraine Conflict. The first published opportunity to apply for the Sustainable Farming Incentive Scheme is designed to help recovery of soils by planning alternative crops and careful management. Further parts of the scheme will address biodiversity and landscape recovery and will require smaller farms to work together.

The recent National Food Strategy addresses land use by suggesting a Rural Land Use Framework based on a £ Compartment model of Semi Natural Land, Low Yield Farmland and High Yield Farmland. The Food and Farming Commission are promoting a strategy to increase food production and food security through lower inputs and regenerative farming methods.

An associated grants scheme from DEFRA is designed to increase productivity, which on the face of it would seem in conflict. But could fit with the plan in the National Food Strategy.

Leisure

The pandemic has increased the interest in “Staycations” or UK based holidays and short breaks. The trend is expected to continue and will put pressure on areas of land to be open to the public. Many honey pot areas and popular walking routes have become congested and environmental damage is resulting alongside crop damage and general littering.

This trend is likely to continue and indeed has benefits for the wellbeing of the nation as well as the economic benefit of the rural countryside.

Experiential short breaks are a growing trend, and this opens up a need for areas of land for new enterprises that can sit alongside existing land use as well as compete for land use.

 

2. What are the key drivers of land use change which need to be planned for, and how should they be planned for? What is the role of multifunctional land use strategies in implementing these plans?

There is conflict between farm profitability, food security and nature recovery.

Recent events in Ukraine have highlighted the long-term belief held by farmers and their unions that Government holds environment and regulation above food production

NFU Calls for Government to prioritise food security (21st August 2020).

FERN believes that the government’s two pronged strategy to straddle the two conflicting problems of food Security and Nature Recovery is the correct way forward.

DEFRA is targeting nature recovery through delivery of public goods for nature recovery through a roll out of schemes aimed at environmental benefit, (Countryside Stewardship, Sustainable Farm Incentive, Local Nature Recovery etc) while simultaneously providing grants towards innovation and technology adoption to increase productivity. (Farm Transformation Fund, Farm Innovation Programme)

FERN would like to see the government continue its current dual  strategy of Nature Recovery and Productivity gains as part of a well communicated plan for agricultural land use based on Recommendations in the National Food Strategy. It should be Science led and well communicated.

The UK has not been self-sufficient in food since the mid-18th Century. FERN believes that more emphasis and funding should be targeted on technology development to develop technology in sustainable land use in areas such as

FERN believes that Agri-food business should concentrate more on added value and quality as an opportunity in world leading sustainable food as its USP to be used in export of food products.

Future Trade deals should not impose food standards but emphasise the mutual benefit of UK Technology in Sustainable Land Use as an export to other food producing nations in return for trade in food products and commodities.

 

 

 

3. How might we achieve greater and more effective coordination, integration and delivery of land use policy and management at a central, regional, local and landscape level?

FERN believes that the current strategy of the government is sound. However, it is badly communicated and tries to placate pressure from groups on all sides of the argument.

The current strategy could be better communicated by the creation of a government Department for Sustainable Food and Land Use to manage, coordinate and integrate schemes across many departments of government that compete for attention and funds. The Department would oversee schemes led by Natural England, Innovate UK and Food Standards Authority and LGA to name only a few.

This would allow better joined up communication to Land owners and Users so that the UK as a nation could drive  forward as one under one aim.

Farming and land management

4. What impacts are changes to farming and agricultural practices, including food production, likely to have on land use in England? What is the role of new technology and changing standards of land management?

There is a conflict with farmers beliefs and experience that damage to the ecosystem is due to farming practice, although there is a willingness in the sector to learn and be a part of the process of recovery. Farmers should be educated and encouraged to be part of the solution to biodiversity increase and soil recovery by involvement in all aspects of the debate. Information is key for adoption of new practice, and it is not clear that this conflict has been addressed.

We are concerned that the evidence base for delivery of increased food security through lower inputs is driven by ideology rather than science and would encourage government to seek research into some claims around regenerative farming and what it can deliver in food security before they are adopted as mainstream practice.

New technology should be encouraged and Innovate UK, BEIS and DEFRA should work in harmony with the business community to create new technology to allow food production with lower impact on the environment. A new NGO with this remit which works with farming supply and production sectors funded by government using both public funds and levy currently used by AHDB and investment from the supply industry.

 

5. What impact are the forthcoming environmental land management schemes likely to have on agriculture, biodiversity and wellbeing? What do you see as their merits and disadvantages?

FERN is supportive of government measures to deliver environmental recovery through carbon sequestration in land recently announced in the Sustainable Farm Incentive Scheme. We look forward to the growth of these schemes. The government should be more open with its plans and evidence and involve farmers in the promotion and delivery of the current Environmental Schemes that replace direct subsidy. The farmers support if key and the schemes should not be seen as a back door for Environmental Pressure Groups to impose ideology onto land use. A science-based approach should be used and encouraged at farm level.

A carrot approach to adopt new farming practice should run hand in hand with a stick approach to bad practice. New Regulatory should be delivered with grant aid to bring farms up to standard before the standards are imposed.

 

6. What do you see as the key threats to nature and biodiversity in England in the short and longer term, and what role should land use policy have in tackling these?

Diffuse pollution is a key driver towards waterway degradation. Farmers and Water Companies are culpable, and we are pleased that government is about to announce grants towards storage of farm “waste”. We would like to see a move to using more positive terms for farm waste, such as “farm based nutrients” which would better describe their value.

Monoculture cropping, particularly in modern grassland is a key problem in the reduction of pollinators, this exacerbated by the use of multi-cut silage where grass is not allowed to flower. Environment Schemes could encourage greater use species rich grass and less cutting in the early season to allow pollinator activity.

We agree with the approach towards the Three Compartment Model of land use but advise caution in imposing a plan without land user interaction. The model will need to consider leisure and other economic activity including housing

7. What are the merits and challenges of emerging policies such as nature-based solutions (including eco-system and carbon markets), local nature recovery strategies and the biodiversity net gain requirement? Are these policies compatible, and how can we ensure they support one another, and that they deliver effective benefits for nature?

FERN believes that farmers should have better access to carbon trading which is being developed without proper access at farm based level where carbon capture could add value to small farm businesses

There seems little regulation in the sector which has some government backed schemes, e.g. those governed by NGOs such as the Forestry Commission through the Woodland Carbon Code, but there is an unregulated and somewhat global market of other schemes.

Technology can deliver carbon sequestration through tree planting and soil improvement as a tradable asset to give landowners more liquidity and investment which could in fact augment or replace subsidy.

DEFRA and HM Treasury should encourage the use of blockchain technology to establish a National Carbon Standard to deliverer trade in carbon regulated by FCA and encourage the City of London to be at the centre of global Carbon Trading Futures

8. How will commitments such as the 25-year environment plan and the net zero target require changes to land use in England, and what other impacts might these changes have?

FERN believes that the governments 25-year strategy is well researched and that it commits to deliver improvements that are well known around nature recovery and issues such as flood alleviation and climate change. The communication of that plan has been lacking in coherence and that this should be improved.

Our opinion is that small to medium farms and farms on marginal land look set to be impacted financially as their support structure is removed with less opportunity to enter the replacement “public goods” schemes.

This could mean unprofitable farm businesses emerge and all evidence suggests that farm land that is unprofitable has a higher risk of bad management

9. How should land use pressures around energy and infrastructure be managed?

Land Based energy schemes are controversial. Land based Solar and Wind solutions present problems with local communities who feel that the visual impact outweigh the benefits, however financial incentives to invest in the community and sensitive planning can provide areas where these can be successful.

The crop-based Bio-Digester sector has been successful but since the reduction in subsidies (FIT/RHI) the sector has stalled.

With better technology animal slurry-based digesters could be part of the solution to ammonia emissions from livestock farms providing extra home-produced energy with low impact on land use.

10. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the existing land use planning system and associated frameworks in England? How effectively does the system manage competing demands on land, including the Government’s housing and development objectives? What would be the merits of introducing a formal spatial planning framework or frameworks, and how might it be implemented?

FERN believe that the current policy review of planning should allow for more development in rural areas particularly in relation to housing and working from home. Areas for development growth should be highlighted in rural areas where infrastructure connectivity is good (eg Penrith in Cumbria with links to M6, West Coast Mainline and A66 Trans-Pennine route). Development of more homes (in any class) is needed to reduce pressure on pricing to free up properties in the lower price bracket to become more affordable through market conditions. Some areas of the National Park network could be considered as exemption sites for development of homes and employment other than low paid jobs in the visitor economy. US Business and Tech Campus/villages are a good example.

 

11. What lessons may be learned from land use planning frameworks in the devolved nations and abroad, and how might these lessons apply to England?

Land Use Frameworks can be useful, the green belt is a land use framework. (https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn00934/)

However, they can become cumbersome, in the wrong hands can become too regulatory and in rural areas could frustrate economic development

Any move to land use frame working should be flexible and in the first instance voluntary.

FERN supports the policy in the recent planning review that allowed for Planning Authorities to designate land into zones for planning which allows for elected council members to adopt high level planning aspirations for their communities but removes their interaction on the finer detail which often holds up development and frustrates economic and social development. This is particularly true in small local authorities. Planning must remain flexible, and we agree with Baroness Young that a multi-use approach should be adopted.

“Stacking” various uses can benefit the environment, food production, leisure, and the local economy.

 

Conclusion

12. Which organisations would be best placed to plan and decide on the allocation of land for the various competing agendas for land use in England, and how should they set about doing so?

FERN is a fledgling organisation, but our remit is to develop better Rural Communities and Rural Policy through enterprise, connectivity, science, and technology.

We are currently developing technology-based solutions to Carbon Trading and Agri-tech with partners and are creating research and policy ideas for rural social and economic growth.

FERN Believes that all stakeholders in Land-use (and food production) should be encouraged to lead discussions on a new government Department for Sustainable Food and Land Use (DSFL) which would coordinate policy to the plethora of Government and NGOs that currently have influence over the UK Land use and Food policy strategy. This would allow clear communication of what we feel is currently a valid strategy within government that is being lost in multi-agency delivery.

 

Kevin Beaty

FERN (Future Economic Rural Network)

April 2022