Reforming land use is crucial to a sustainable society
Rewilding, vegan farming, new social housing, energy crops, more urban green space, solar Farms, nature reserves, growing more fruit and vegetables, bio-dynamic agriculture, tree planting, food production, peatland restoration – there are many passionately championed ideas about what shape a sustainable society should look like. All of them require land, and they’re often seen as competing for the same land.
The UK, but particularly England, is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe. France has an area more than twice that of the UK, yet has a very similar population to the UK. Despite that, only 6% of UK is built upon as land cover analysis by Sheffield University shows. However, the vast majority of land in England is either farmland or woodland, and very little of our island could be said to be ‘empty’ or ‘vacant’. As many Greens would argue, the verges, hedgerows, scrub, rocky hill-tops and sand dunes are important habitats and all part of the complex web of nature upon which we all depend. Ultimately, to allocate land to growing energy crops for instance, means taking it away from some other use. There is no scope to make our island bigger, and due to sea level rise England may in fact get smaller.
There is also the challenge of land ownership. The majority of this island is owned by a relatively small number of individuals and organisations, as the Who Owns England? project has explored. Although subsidies and taxes have significant potential to influence land use, as Green Party of England and Wales policy already acknowledges. If the Green Party wishes to see more land-use for this or less land-use for that, it will need to, as Scotland has started to, review land ownership.
Good policy is surely about facing complex situations with honesty and transparency, but by its nature also involves making difficult choices. There is nothing “green” about centralized, top down imposed land use change, but “no-change” is not a viable land use policy for zero carbon let alone a sustainable society. We have to be prepared to think about how land is used and how we can achieve changes, working with land owners to ensure that transition is equitable. There may be some hard choices and difficult trade-offs between conflicting priorities, but part of this process is to work out what these might be and facilitate the conversation in a transparent and inclusive way.
Even once the zero sum game that is land use is acknowledged and accepted, the complexity of the issues involved cannot be underestimated. Land use change isn’t just allocating land to plant x million trees or build y thousand houses. It’s not even just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions or creating habitat. Land use is inextricably linked with cultural values, identity, regional inequality, food security, health, wellbeing, and many other aspects of a sustainable society. This is an evolving picture; those considering these challenges are starting to better understand some of the complexity around how previously considered “obvious solutions” are too simplistic and may have unintended consequences or fail to address the root causes of current problems. It is also crucial that land use change is integrated into a just transition, and doesn’t leave communities, demographics or regions scarred.
These are clearly complex discussions, but it is also key that the Green Party has a clear position on land use change. We must get away from the bidding wars about how many trees should be planted or where and whether new houses should be built. This is an area where Greens can and must lead. We can’t expect other parties to properly engage with this issue unless we’ve prepared to confront the difficult decision and layout a clear policy position.
The Green Party’s Land Use Policy Working Group is currently consulting internally on a frame work to allow the party to better engage with such discussion. As part of the Green Party’s democratic policy process there is a need for common language to define land use change proposals as well as consistent set of base data about how land is used today. Going forward the aim is for Land Use change proposals to be fielded from a diverse range of stakeholders as a foundation building step, to allow a stronger consensus on the nature and scale of land use change to be formed.
The consultation closes on July 10. Green Party members can feed into it here.
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Image credit: David McDermott – Creative Commons