David Miliband’s Vision for the Future of the Land
We’ve got a summary of the speech David Miliband gave at our 80th Anniversary Conference for you to read and comment on- just click on the “continue reading” link below. Shaun Spiers, our Chief Executive, will be posting up his response to the speech shortly. We’ve also got a record of all the questions and answers that were asked at the conference, and will be posting up some of these next week.
A Land fit for the Future
How do we reconcile competing social, economic and environmental pressures on land use? Is it a simple zero sum game, or can we find a way of improving the economic value from land alongside the environmental and social value we get?
While there will be difficult trade-offs and tensions, it is possible to envisage a Britain that progresses on all three dimensions of sustainable development. But to achieve that goal, it will require significant changes in patterns of land use.
Over the next 80 years, I can imagine seeing five main changes in our land use. I set these out not out of a desire to create for some masterplan to reshape our countryside, but as a way of stimulating debate about how our land can cope with the challenges of a crowded country, the dangers of climate change and loss of biodiversity, while enhancing beauty.
First, there will continue to be a need for development; the question is where should it take place, and what sort should it be. In 1998 we set a target for concentrating 60 per cent of development in brownfield areas, to avoid urban sprawl. 77 per cent of development is now taking place in brownfield areas. The lesson is clear: the best policy for protecting rural England is urban renaissance. The progress of town and country go together. Of course, there are cases when brownfield development is not best. Nevertheless, the priority must be to continue to increase our housing supply in brownfield areas.
A key departure must be the move towards zero-carbon development. And here we need the consensus that can only be forged by a united environment movement. You cannot be serious about protecting the countryside unless you are serious about protecting the planet from climate change – that means welcoming zero-carbon homes and recognising that new wind-farms will be needed.
Second, in future we could see major changes in agricultural land – with more land used for energy crops, for natural flood management, for carbon sinks, such as wetlands and new forests, and for re-wilding – as woodlands, heathland and fenland. After the Second World War, our priority was food security. In the future, our challenges are more linked to environmental security.
Third, the majority of land in the country will remain farmland, but the environmental footprint of farms must change. The goal I have set out is for farming to become a net environmental contributor.
Fourth, we could see green belts turning a deeper shade of green. Some of our current green belt is of low quality in terms of wildlife, beauty and recreational access. Green belts are in some ways a misnomer. They were created to restrict urban sprawl rather than to mark out land as being of a high environmental quality. However, there is potential to put the green back into the green belt. This is surely an important priority for the future.
Fifth, we could see the development of what you could call ‘turquoise belts’ – strips of green space next to rivers. Rather than building expensive concrete barriers to insulate ourselves from flood risks, we could create what could be called ‘turquoise belts’. If and when the water spills over into the green space, it would not matter. These could be used for leisure and to improve biodiversity.
Creating a country where we get more economic, social and environmental value from our land will require reforms to our systems of planning, land use and agriculture. I want to begin a debate on what sort of principles we must establish for a new system. I would suggest five main principles that should underpin our approach.
First, we are now beginning to value environment assets that in the past we have thought of as a free good. Carbon is the most obvious example, but carbon is just one environmental public good. There are range of eco-system services that regulate the climate, protect us from floods, purify water, and provide aesthetic and recreational value. We need to think through how we build in the idea of ‘environmental limits’ within the planning system.
Second, we should aim to develop a more proactive and positive to approach to land. The environmental focus on planning is often the control of development. Environmental value is protected and preserved rather than proactively enhanced. We need to think of quality green space as a sort of infrastructure, about how funding mechanisms can be used to invest not only in brown infrastructure – roads, railways, and power stations – but ‘green infrastructure’ in and around our cities and towns where most people live.
Third, we need to ask where should power and responsibility lie for improving our green infrastructure. Local authorities have a big role to play. We need to work with local government to ensure they create and improve green spaces within urban environments as a way of attracting and retaining people and businesses. Footloose companies do not choose to locate their high-paid employees in unattractive locations – however good the airport links.
Fourth, we must think how our farming subsidies can deliver the maximum level of environmental public goods. We will need to be increasingly clear about understanding what environmental goods we want to subsidise and how we can use the CAP to enable farmers to become net environmental investors.
Finally, If we are to make the transition towards a more sustainable countryside, we must address some traditional divisions in the environmental movement between those most interested in biodiversity and those most interested in landscape. We have created a powerful new champion of the countryside, Natural England, with a mission to promote nature conservation and protect biodiversity, preserve and enhance the landscape, and contribute to social and economic well-being. It will have a key role to play, especially at local level, working with communities and businesses to secure solutions which achieve environmental benefits and provide long-term economic and social improvements.
When it was founded the CPRE led a new national consensus on how we manage land in the future. It avoided what Anthony Bertram in 1938 describes as ‘the sort of arid conservatism which tries to mummify the countryside’. In the next 80 years, I hope CPRE can forge a similar consensus. The only given in this debate is that land use will change. What is up grabs is whether this happens in a way that ensures environmental, economic and social objectives go hand in hand, or at the expense of the other.
I have set out my views on some of the ways we might reshape the way we think about land. But this is not an agenda that should be left to political parties or politicians. It goes to the core of the way we live, the country we want to build and the legacy we want to leave for future generations. It can capture the imagination and passion of people for whom politics is often a remote concern. Government can help to spark a debate, but if we are to get a more mature, engaged debate, we must mobilise a broad coalition of interests, from citizens and community groups to farmers, developers, and local government. I look forward to working with you in the next year to do just that.
The full text of David Miliband’s speech can be viewed at DEFRA’s website:
> A Land Fit for the Future