Frameworks and functions

The Royal Society report Multifunctional Landscapes – Informing a Long-Term Vision for Managing the UK’s Land poses some important questions. There is much to admire in it.

Its admirably concise Executive Summary – just four paragraphs to introduce a 66-page report – includes a statement that should be tattooed on everybody in Whitehall and the devolved administrations. And held up to view by the politicians who are, theoretically at least, responsible for directing their work.

“Now is a critical moment for land use policy globally, but especially in the UK,” it says. “A confluence of environmental and geopolitical drivers necessitates a strategic rethink of the way decisions are made about how landscapes and the services they provide are managed, not least the need to design replacements for EU agriculture, environment and trade policies by which the UK has been bound for decades.”

As with so much else, of course, the concept of “multifunctional landscapes” can be abused. All land carries out several functions, although paved areas are usually pretty hopeless at the biological and hydrological ones.

Even intensive farmland – the so-called “green deserts” – will support food production, but they will also facilitate water infiltration, control run-off (or both) and will support some biodiversity (even if they could and should do more).

Such concepts, however, are likely to be abused, especially by the development industry. It was quick to jump on ideas like biodiversity net gain as a way of persuading us they can dump suburban development on previously undeveloped land and actually increase the biodiversity (one way or another). The wheels are starting to fall off that one, but it was a good game while it lasted.

The Royal Society makes five recommendations:

  • Mulitifunctional land-use decisions must consider market and non-market outputs;
  • Sustainability needs more R&D;
  • Land manager skills need developing;
  • A science-driven evidence base is needed.
  • National spatially explicit land-use frameworks should be developed.

Amen to all that; but sustainable, over-arching, land-use frameworks are key.

Scotland and Wales have dipped toes in this water for some time and now, belatedly, DEFRA is talking about a land use framework. Meanwhile, over at DLUHC, baby-steps are being tried to tame the unsustainable mess that is the National Planning Policy Framework, with more radical action to come – allegedly anyway.

The Royal Society recommendation here is key.

“The UK countries should develop and coordinate spatially explicit national land use frameworks to ensure coherence across different areas of land use policy and between national and local scales,” it says.

Most human activities (and natural processes) impact on land in some way, but universal theories of everything, as George Eliot pointed out in Middlemarch, are doomed to failure. At the moment, most of the interest in frameworks centres on the vital aspects of agriculture, biodiversity and the land aspects of energy production.

Farmers and market-gardeners are obviously land managers. So are those who manage conservation of nature and landscape as well as production of energy (both sustainable and unsustainable) from our land.

Yet we need to go still wider.

Planners are land managers and must surely be included. The NPPF devotes pages to platitudes about sustainable development, while setting out powerful ways of undermining it. That has to change and any land-use framework has to be meshed with its reform, including the spatial aspects of economic development.

Transport planners and managers are also land managers. Just look at the ongoing debate about high-speed rail, or cars’ and HGVs’ role in sprawl. This function must be included if the frameworks are to make any sense at all.

The water and wastewater environments are also emerging as key issues for land use management, at least in many parts of Great Britain. We really cannot go on forcing development into areas which are already acutely short of water.

Then there’s flooding, drainage and sea defence. I’ve lumped them together because all are critically important both in the context of climate change and development.

We could, of course, spend hours arguing what should or shouldn’t be included. But those are the key ones and we need to get on with them, and not just farming, nature and renewable energy.

There’s plenty to do. But try at least to dip into the Royal Society report. It really should be on every politician’s desktop.

Jon Reeds