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Land is not a disposable asset

Land is a vital resource – all our activity is literally built on it. We depend on it for the food we eat, the water we drink, the energy we make, to build our houses, offices and roads, and our recreation - for mental and physical refreshment. Yet we seem to take it for granted.

March 2017

True, we have long-established systems for managing and making decisions about aspects of land use – we have many organisations that help ensure land use decisions are made with specific ends in mind; and our town and country planning system has helped arbitrate on built development in the post-war growth period.

But the current systems are reaching breaking point. Too often we see decisions being taken which fail to bring the promised benefit to communities: houses are built far from people’s workplaces and without the infrastructure needed; new roads increase congestion rather than reducing it; land management in one area causes devastating flooding in another. This failure is in part because this country is facing unprecedented pressures on its land: England is now the most densely populated country in Europe (bar Malta) with the demands for food, energy, housing, recreation and transport that accompanies that; climate change is altering England’s’ weather, agriculture and energy demands. It is no longer sufficient for decisions to be made in a piecemeal way, when there is simply not enough land supply to meet all the demands we have (Friends of the Earth’s UK Land Use calculator is a good way of examining how different scenarios affect supply and demand). We need a new system. Decisions can be made more efficiently in an integrated way.

In 2010 Scotland legislated for the creation of a Land Use Strategy in its’ Climate Change Act. The first strategy was published in 2011 and, building on the success of that, a second in 2016. It sets out principles that should guide all land use decisions, and has shown how these should be implemented through pilot projects. People often argue that what works in another country won’t necessarily work here. But I’d argue that if Scotland needs a tool to help it manage land better, then England, with all its far larger population, needs it even more.

Based on the Scottish experience, and on an excellent 2010 Government Office for Science Foresight report on land use (which sadly sunk without a trace due to being released shortly before the General Election), CPRE decided to look at the case for a new system of land use decision-making in England. We talked to a range of people with experience of various different aspects of land use and asked some influential thinkers on the subject to contribute their views. The result is our new publication Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land. In it Neil Sinden sets the scene, followed by contributions from Lord Deben, Professors Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman and architect Sir Terry Farrell, among others. Together these clearly demonstrate that not only is a new system needed but that with the data and tools now available, it is possible. Contributors also cite a number of local and regional projects such as the Thames Gateway, the Olympic Park and The National Forest which show how an integrated approach can deliver fantastic benefits.

At this time of change and opportunity, let’s hope the Government have the courage to develop ambitious initiatives such as an English Land Use Strategy. A first step has been taken through the establishment of the National Infrastructure Commission, which is overseeing decisions about nationally important infrastructure. The next step is for the forthcoming 25 Year Plan for the Environment to recognise the need for better decision-making and a new system. There is a clear role of Government in helping us get the most from this most precious resource: our land. As Sir Terry Farrell states in Landlines: "…population growth and global warming effects like sea rises and fluvial flooding, as well as temperature rises and rainfall changes, are making us think again. The scale, complexity and seriousness of these issues mean we cannot any longer proceed as before, treating land as a disposable asset. We have now got to plan – and proactively plan for rapid and radical change.”

Belinda Gordon

Head of Government and Rural Affairs, CPRE

Find Belinda on Twitter @BelindaGordon49

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Aspects of this blog appeared on the CPRE website. The opinions expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership