RERG: UK land use strategy

Rural Economy Research Group

Tuesday 28th October saw the fourth meeting of the Rural Economy Research Group (RERG), which meets once a year in the Palace of Westminster to discuss rural economics and development. The initiative, historically chaired by Lord Wade of Chorlton, is now chaired by Professor the Lord Trees of the Ross and is generously sponsored by the University of Liverpool until 2015.

In 2013 the group discussed ‘mega-farms’ (‘Too big to ignore – are mega farms the future?’) and one of the conclusions was that although valid demands for UK land use were numerous, there was no obvious nationwide planning strategy to clarify planning decisions. Following on from this, the subject for discussion in 2014 was ‘How do we resolve competing demands for UK land use?’

How do we resolve competing demands for UK land use?

The speakers this year were:

  • Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office
  • Professor Ian Hodge, Land Economist at the University of Cambridge
  • Andrew Montague-Fuller, Consultant to the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership
  • Alistair Cargill, Director of Cargill Farms Ltd, Norfolk

Professor Hodge opened the discussion by summarising the growing demands on land in the face of a decline in productivity increases. Describing the complex systems governing the use of land it became clear that local and national planning; energy policy, forestry policy, agricultural policy and other policies; UK legislation and EU legislation all impact upon land use decision-making. Integration across all these different groups and within the many different Government departments involved is key to a coherent strategy for land use and all its facets.

Mr Montague-Fuller spoke on the Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership Report, ‘The Best use of UK agricultural land’. The report used a supply and demand analysis based on population estimates and concluded that by 2030 there will be a shortfall on all demands made on land (Figure 2: Rising demands on UK land). He concluded that a clearer vision on land use would be beneficial and highlighted that Scotland already have a land use decisions framework that might be useful. A joint Government and industry group might be a good first step to advise on a UK framework.

Figure 2: Rising demands for UK land (A.Montague-Fuller, University of Cambridge).

Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, said that land use had only recently made it onto the agenda due to events in the East. He asserted that he believes there is no short to mid-term crisis in the UK, but admitted that the long term might prove to be more problematic. He used the meeting to address frequently vocalised concerns that all UK land is being turned over to housing and suggested that if we built 200,000 houses a year it would take 100 years before we used up 1% of UK land.

The Minister argued that the term food security relates to ‘food strategy’ in the UK because the people of Britain have the security of enough food. He related this to cross Government ‘resilience reviews’ – if there was a shut down of UK ports, could we feed ourselves? The reviews concluded that whilst there may be an avocado shortage, there would still be plenty of fruit and in the short term the UK could feed itself. However, if we could not import energy we would face very considerable difficulties as a country. He concluded that food security issue in the UK is largely an economic one rather than a threat of starvation. It would be helpful if different administrations did not change the direction of this sort of policy – it needs to be a long-term cross-Governmental strategy.

Mr Cargill was the final speaker and aimed to present a boots on the ground view of land use in the UK. He regarded his land as a business asset for housing, food production, environment and energy and conducts a biannual review on the best use of this asset. Farmers have had to look at the costs of production and innovate and have done studies on the use of GPS and intensive sustainability. Cargill Farms are on Grade 1 & 2 land that yields well and thus they can survive, but in the west of the UK it is unlikely that this would be the case without the single farm payment. They have solar farms on Grade 2 land, but Mr Cargill questioned whether it should only be allowed on Grade 3 or 4 land and higher grades set aside for food. In summary, he said that farmers will grow for price, but supermarkets racing to the bottom are making this increasingly difficult. He argued that the nation is not prepared to pay for British food when it can be imported from abroad for less money.

In conclusion, the group found the Government resilience studies reassuring, but felt that they failed to address the lack of strategy. The main points that came up in the initial discussion were re-capped: (1) this is a growing problem that will not go away; (2) a cross-Government strategy for land use would greatly aid decision making and forward planning; (3) it is impossible to food production from energy production; and (4) that food production strategy or an absence of one will impact upon a number of other important areas, not least health. The event was followed by dinner and further discussion around the role of the supermarkets, public health, food waste and innovations such as GM-foods. Currently, there isn’t an answer to how we resolve competing demands for UK land use, but a food security strategy would be a great complement to the energy strategy. We will look forward to the forthcoming Government Natural Environment White Paper on national ecosystems, which has been due to follow in the footsteps of the UK National Ecosystem Assessment and Report of 2011,  and hope that it sheds some light on the situation.


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