Current policy risks UK land being ‘overpromised’ for competing uses, research finds

Existing land-based policy commitments in the UK risk ‘overpromising’ space to the tune of 1.4 million hectares by 2030 - equivalent to the whole area of Northern Ireland, the Royal Society has revealed in its latest report.

In the report titled Multifunctional landscapes: Informing a long-term vision for managing the UK’s land, researchers analysed UK policy on land use and found that this overcommitment could rise to 4.4 million hectares (ha) by 2050 if current agricultural production, diets and food waste figures remain static.

The policies analysed in the study include a commitment to increase woodland cover to 17% by 2050, the aim to restore 300,000 ha of peatland by 2050, to scale up bioenergy crop production to 23,000 ha per year by the mid-2020s, and protect 30% of land for nature by 2030. The researchers also calculated the area of land needed for agriculture and food production using population projections.

As a result of these competing uses, the report calls for a more productive use of land, better analysis of land use within a multifunctional framework to ensure land is being used to its full potential in a way that is compatible with multiple policy requirements, further investment into research on how to achieve this, and more joined up policy development across government departments.

The call for an overarching land-use framework to help 'competing priorities on land' was also made by the Land Use in England Committee following an inquiry last year. DEFRA is expected to unveil its land-use framework this year, as promised in its National Food Strategy published last year.

A DEFRA spokesperson said the framework "will help farmers adapt to a changing climate as they continue to produce high quality and affordable produce that supports a healthy diet" and added "more information will be available in due course".

Commenting on the report, Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link said: “The Royal Society is right.

“From the largest landscapes to the tiniest corners of our towns and cities, every patch needs to be productive to meet national needs for nature recovery, housing and healthy food.

“That will mean long-term, large scale investment in habitat restoration, from urban parks and allotments to huge peatland restoration and afforestation efforts.”

Benwell emphasised that the upcoming land use framework will have to “dock closely with day-to-day planning and development decisions, as well as with farming and nature-restoration”.

He continued: “The science shows that even with win-wins like nature-friendly farming, meeting different priorities with a finite land resource will be tough. Key nature recovery goals like the pledge to protect 30% of the land for nature by 2030 cannot sit apart from the development system, or opportunities to make the most of our land will surely be missed.”

The National Farmers Union has also previously raised concerns about “conflict” within the government’s land commitments.

NFU director of policy, Andrew Clark, said: “The government’s own land use strategy seems to conflict with its ambitions for nature as well as delivering on its self-sufficiency targets, as set out in the national food strategy.”