On 25 July 2023 the House of Lords is due to debate the following motion:

Lord Cameron of Dillington to move that this House takes note of the report from the Land Use in England Committee ‘Making the most out of England’s land’ (HL Paper 105).

1. About the committee

The House of Lords Land Use in England Committee was appointed as a special inquiry committee in January 2022. The committee invited views on current and future demands on land use and how government decision-making on this issue could be improved. It took evidence from witnesses including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Natural England, the National Farmers’ Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the Woodland Trust and the Ramblers. It published its report, ‘Making the most out of England’s land’, in December 2022. The government responded to the report in April 2023.

2. Committee recommendations

The committee found that land use in England was in the process of moving away from being predominantly for food production. It highlighted uses for land that were increasing in prominence, such as nature and biodiversity restoration; carbon sequestration; new development and infrastructure; energy; access to nature; and wellbeing.

2.1 Land use commission

In the committee’s report, it argued that there were aspects of the current system that stood in the way of making the best decisions on land use. These included:

  • siloed working and conflicting priorities
  • lack of coordination between national, regional and local government
  • policy uncertainty
  • gaps in evidence and poor access to high-quality, user-friendly data
  • inadequate monitoring and evaluation of policies
  • lack of understanding of multifunctionality (combining different functions, such as development and nature restoration, in one piece of land)

To combat these issues, the committee recommended the government create a land use commission to enable the development of a land use framework. This would help landowners, managers and other decision-makers “make the most appropriate decisions for land”. The committee said such a commission should not be able to direct other bodies. It would instead support and facilitate effective land use, with a focus on multifunctionality.

In its 2022 food strategy the government said it would publish a land use framework in 2023. This would, it said, ensure the country meets its net zero and biodiversity targets at the same time as helping farmers adapt to climate change while continuing to produce high-quality, affordable food. In answer to a written question in June 2023 the government again stated the framework would be published in 2023.

2.2 Environmental land management schemes

Environmental land management schemes’ (ELMS) refers to three schemes through which farmers and land managers can be paid to deliver environmental goods:

  • The ‘Sustainable farming incentive’ (SFI) pays farmers to carry out farming activities in a more environmentally sustainable way so they can produce food alongside environmental goods and services. The SFI was introduced in June 2022 and is being expanded in 2023. The full scheme will be available in 2024.
  • The ‘Local nature recovery’ scheme will pay for actions that support local nature recovery and meet local environmental priorities. It replaces the ‘Countryside stewardship’ scheme in England. The government has stated it will be fully rolled out by the end of 2024.
  • The ‘Landscape recovery’ scheme will fund projects that contribute to improving biodiversity or water quality, or achieving net zero. The funding will focus on projects running over a long period and making substantial changes to land use and habitats. The government said in May 2023 it would launch the application process for the first round of up to 15 pilot projects “shortly”.

The ELMS are currently in development or pilot phases. The committee found that a “significant barrier” to high take-up of the schemes is uncertainty about how they will work, particularly for tenant farmers. In addition, witnesses highlighted the need for trusted people to advise farmers on the schemes. The committee said that to give farmers the confidence to invest in the ELMS the government needed to provide more clarity on how the schemes will work.

2.3 Local nature recovery strategies

Local nature recovery strategies (LNRS) are a system of spatial strategies for nature and environmental improvement. They are required under the Environment Act 2021. LNRS must agree priorities for nature’s recovery, map the most valuable existing areas for nature, and map specific proposals for creating or improving habitats for nature and wider environmental goals.

Under the act, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs decides the area each strategy covers and appoints a responsible authority to lead on it. Responsible authorities have to work with other organisations and partners in their area to agree what should be included in their LNRS.

The committee said the government must ensure LNRS are “properly resourced” and have local cooperation and coordination. In addition, the government should strengthen planning rules so that LNRS “have sufficient weight in the planning system” to make sure they are effective.

2.4 Biodiversity net gain

Biodiversity net gain’ (BNG) is a government strategy intended to develop land and contribute to the recovery of nature. It aims to ensure the habitat for wildlife is in better condition than it was before it was developed.

Under the scheme, developers must try to avoid loss of habitat on a piece of land they plan to do development work on. If they cannot do this, they must create habitat either on site or off site. Off site means either land owned by the developer in a difference place or on ‘biodiversity units’ sold by a land manager.

‘Biodiversity units’ represent the value to wildlife of a piece of land. They are calculated using the size of the habitat, its quality and its location. Land managers can sell biodiversity units to help other parties fulfil their BNG obligations.

Local planning authorities will have to approve a BNG plan for development work before it can start. The scheme is scheduled to begin in November 2023.

The committee said that BNG policy must be accompanied by proper monitoring and enforcement, and that planning authorities should be given the necessary resources to achieve this.

2.5 Other recommendations

The committee made other recommendations, including that the government should:

  • review incentives, support and regulation for afforestation
  • prioritise access to green space in the forthcoming land use framework
  • change planning rules and guidance to stress the need for sufficient provision and protection of green and open spaces that are actively managed to deliver multiple public benefits (known as ‘green infrastructure’) in new developments
  • consult with those who would be directly affected by a future land use framework, be transparent in gathering and sharing information in support of it and improve data collection to inform it

3. Government response

The government replied to the committee on 3 April 2023.

The government did not agree with the committee that a land use commission would be necessary. However, it said that a group of experts might be needed to oversee the land use framework once it was published. It said the framework would support “the delivery of resilient, multifunctional landscapes” but would not prescribe specific activities or uses of land.

On ELMS, the government said since the report had been published it had set out the next steps for these schemes, including how farmers would be rewarded for enhancing biodiversity and reducing emissions. It said that many of these actions would also improve sustainable food production.

The government agreed with the committee that LNRS should have a “robust status” to allow them to promote nature’s restoration in the planning and land use system. The government said guidance on BNG was being developed for those involved in implementing LNRS and BNG, including local planning authorities. It also highlighted that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill (which, at the time of writing, was in report stage in the House of Lords) includes reforms to strengthen the planning enforcement regime.

On funding for BNG implementation, the government said it had provided £4.18mn of funding to local government and would be providing up to £16.71mn between April and November 2023 for local planning authorities to prepare for mandatory BNG.

The government said it was supporting afforestation through the £750mn ‘Nature for climate fund’ tree programme, which it said had been designed to deliver tree planting and establishment “at scale”.

On access and green infrastructure, the government said it recognised the importance of connecting people from all backgrounds with nature and said this was reflected in its 2023 ‘Environmental improvement plan’. It said it was undertaking measures such as opening the England coast path and coast to coast national trail, piloting green social prescribing, and using the ‘Farming in protected landscapes’ programme to support projects promoting access and engagement.

4. External commentary

In December 2022 the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), a membership association for rural businesses, responded to the committee’s report. The association said it was opposed to the recommendations of the committee and argued that a land use framework was not necessary. It said a land use framework was “not the only possible solution” to competing demands for land and risked leading to unintended consequences, such as limitations on land use “that could stifle both farming and environmental innovation”. The CLA said the LNRS would be a more effective route to “bring[ing] data together to achieve local buy-in and motivations to deliver”.

In February 2023 the Royal Society published a report making recommendations to increase and enhance access to science and innovation relevant to land use. In the report, entitled ‘Multifunctional landscapes’, the society analysed the government’s policies and targets relating to land use. It found that if existing land-based policy commitments were added together the UK’s land risked being “overpromised”. Its calculations, which were based on assumptions about overlap of different functions and demand-side drivers, found that up to 1.4mn hectares of additional land could be needed by 2030 to meet current policy targets for net zero and biodiversity, if current agricultural production and food waste remained the same.

Campaign group Rewilding Britain welcomed information about ELMS that was made public in January 2023. It said that the scheme was “a big win for farmers and rewilding”. It said the ‘Landscape recovery’ scheme was particularly important because its landscape-scale restoration component could “deliver the step-change needed to reverse declines in biodiversity and mitigate the impacts of climate change”.

5. Read more

Cover image by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash.