What is rural land for?

Les Firbank from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and Tony Burton from the National Trust respond. Tell us what YOU think – post your comments at the bottom of the page.

Les FirbankLes Firbank Head of Soil, Environmental and Ecological Sciences Department, Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research

We are asking more from our land than ever before. The post-war emphasis on food production from agriculture was at the expense of the environment, which was partially redressed during the times of food abundance in the 1980s and 1990s. But the new requirements for bioenergy and increasing global demand for food are forcing up prices, and encouraging increased production again. But this time the industry needs to deliver environmental quality too, while rural land is also expected to provide space for more housing, better water management and better provision of leisure.

The concepts of “One Planet Living” and “the ecosystem approach” help to frame the land use debate from an environmental perspective. The idea of one planet living is that people should not require more natural resources than the earth can sustainably deliver. We in Britain should aspire to be self-sufficient in terms of natural resources. We are a long way adrift from this goal, and rely on imports of food, energy and even water that will become more expensive as global demand increases. The idea of “the ecosystem approach“ is that land has multiple functions, so farmland can help manage flood risks, provide habitats for wildlife and help mitigate climate change, as well as producing food. It therefore makes sense to recognise, value and manage these functions together. Again, this is easier said than done, because ecosystem function, profitability and planning regulations do not readily coincide.

It should be possible to use science to design future landscapes in which land is used according to its potential to deliver food, fibre, housing, habitats, water and so on, according to the climate, soil type and topography. Such landscapes would optimise ecosystem function, making the best use of our natural resources and help us on our way to one planet living. They may involve radical changes to the design of both cities and countryside. But how do we achieve these landscapes in the face of the many constraints of planning, land ownership and (especially) the history, heritage and baggage of urban and rural development? How can we keep alive the elements of choice and freedom? And suppose we no longer have enough land to provide everything that we as a nation would like, that there is no scientific, logical solution, that we have too many people, wanting too much, to be resourced from a country as small as ours…. then what?

Tony BurtonTony Burton, Director of Policy and Strategy, The National Trust

The climate is changing. The pressure on land use is increasing. People’s needs and desires are in flux. So what does this mean for our land? What do we really want from it in the 21st century? And who decides?

As the largest private landowner in the UK (managing over 250,000 hectares across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation) we’ve been thinking a lot about these questions. And we’ve been working some things out on the ground.

One thing is clear – despite the policy and media air time devoted to agricultural production the debate is moving on. Land not only provides the nation with food, but also with clean water, protection from flooding, carbon stewardship and green space for the health of us all. We all need more of these environmental services, but they are not adequately valued or provided for. Agri-environment schemes have an important part to play, but they are no panacea and attention should turn to other sources of funding for the answers we need.

The National Trust is advocating imaginative private and public sector investment to find new solutions. We believe water companies should be allowed to invest in catchments to improve water quality at source, rather than relying on expensive and energy intensive treatment end of pipe.

There is potential to reduce water quantity problems at source too. Every parcel of land can play its part in absorbing and storing water, reducing the risks of flooding downstream. The Trust is therefore advocating investment in land management that makes significant space for water. And as the UK adopts a carbon currency, we are lobbying for trading in land-based carbon which rewards land managers for carbon stewardship.

The connections between access to green space and our health and well-being are also becoming increasingly recognised. You can get the National Trust on prescription! Promoting and providing places for green exercise is needed more and more and the potential for extra support from health funding remains largely untapped. We should also expect more by way of green space provision on the back of new development.

By aligning public and private investment from water companies, developers, the health service and a new carbon market as well as better support from farm payments we can move towards a more sustainable future for land use, and deliver multiple benefits for the whole nation. Why not?

Read more in the National Trust’s Nature’s capital, available free from policy&campaigns@nationaltrust.org.uk


36 Responses to “What is rural land for?”

  1. Ian Bateman, Professor of Environmental Economics and Principal Investigator of the RELU ChREAM project, University of East Anglia. Says:

    What is rural land for?

    What is rural land for? Well the problem is that it’s for this, that, and the other! – and rightly so!! Rural land is one of the most flexible and (potentially) valuable resources we have available to us. It can provide livelihoods, food, timber, carbon storage, a place to play, a spot to relax, etc., etc. However, these differing outputs are often in competition and cannot be provided in all locations. In trying to address these competing objectives our decision making systems fail in two vital respects.

    First, we are often very poor at valuing all of the different benefits and costs which can arise from different land uses. This is typically for fairly straightforward reasons: food and timber tend to have market prices and so deliver rewards to land users, in contrast carbon storage and recreation frequently go unpriced and therefore are often provided just by accident or from good will – and sadly that will always be squeezed in any modern, competitive rural economy.

    Second, while there are schemes to try and redress this balance, they tend to be relatively untargeted. Decision making typically finds it difficult to identify the best places to implement a policy. Consequently we see housing developments hemmed in by intensive agriculture when spatially sensitive policies would allow us to release the substantial values which can be generated by targeted land use change.

    The potential for addressing both problems exists. Research projects (such as those sponsored by RELU) is developing tools to ensure that the full value of competing land uses can be better assessed and policies to release that value can be targeted. Those tools are sensitive to the needs for production of food and other marketed goods, to maintain rural incomes and to not place increased burdens upon the taxpayer (redistribution of existing support being a key theme here). However, for whatever reasons we are still some way from such tools leaving the research bed and being applied in every day use. The quicker that changes, the better for all.

    Ian Bateman, Professor of Environmental Economics and Principal Investigator of the RELU ChREAM project, University of East Anglia.

  2. Jane Cumberlidge Says:

    What is rural land for? Well, at the moment is seems to be too many different things that do not sit easily alongside each other, and so which ever way you turn someone (or group) is going to be unhappy with the outcome.

    Holistic approaches to evaluating the multi-functional demands placed upon rural land will hopefully be able to provide more satisfactory answers that can provide appropriate mechanisms for future development and use.

    One thing that I think rural land is not for is providing some type of sticking plaster to allow us to carry on consuming at current levels simply because what we are now consuming is “green” or “greener”. As populations levels continue to rise, we will end up back in the same situation where demand far outstrips supply – green or otherwise.

  3. John Lytton Says:

    Whatever meets the current balance of social, economic or environmental criteria. You cannot cheat the system namely to decide up front what it should be for as a matter of administrative fiat and then try to make all the other parameters fit the frame! Inevitably the resultant policies are insufficiently flexible and are out of date before the day they are brought into effect. What post-war conservation and social philosophers have been doing is to say that certain things should be protected in the public interest for their own sake [effectively forever, for free and usually for someone (anyone) other than the person with direct ownership and control], a sectorally malicious socio-economic model of zero credibility, cringe-making illiteracy and innumeracy and which long term, will always fail in practice.

  4. Bernard Whittaker Says:

    Environmental security is the prerequisite of genuine sustainable food security and therefore the environment must be protected and, wherever possible, enhanced in order to facilitate inter alia food production. It is profoundly unwise to think that we can trade off or “balance” damage to the environment in order to produce food;

    2. Rural land management and urban land management (including buildings, infrastructure, etc.) are equally, but differently, responsible for flooding problems in towns and cities. We need much improved ways of enabling rainwater to become groundwater (including aquifers) as directly as possible; and

    3. Rural land, especially in a crowded island like GB, must be managed and valued as a multi-purpose resource for the all the inhabitants (humans and all other species). Public funding and other types of support for rural land management should only be provided for the direct delivery of ‘public benefits’ (public goods and services).

  5. James Bond Says:

    I believe that contemporary international relations require Government to deliver an adequate and sustainable home produced food supply for the indigenous UK population to ensure that we are not vulnerable to international military (another priority for Government is adequate defence, and in a post Iraq world home produced food is less vulnerable to terrorist attack) or economic manipulation. That has been, is and will be the primary function of rural land. Energy is emerging as a probable secondary essential function. There is an implicit environmental and socio-economic balance required to achieve these primary objectives. The ability of the countryside to accommodate other desires will be established by the correct balance of economic, social and environmental considerations, once these essential functions have been met.

    Are consultees being asked to proactively condone spin?

    Complete lack of concern for the environment has been exposed by the proposal to open the 30% of the coastline protected from human intrusion to yet more public access, coupled with the provocative proposal that this should be effected without compensation to the landowner. Similarly the removal of 100% compulsory Setaside in 2008, albeit that this assists the priorities above.

  6. James Bond Says:

    It really is counterproductive to extend the playground if you do not have the fuel to get to school, keep you warm while you are there, or food for lunch.

    The question here is balance, what is reasonable. I have observed the Ramblers Association over a long period of time. Their approach has been ever expansive. Prior to the current Government a Definitive Plan had been established with which the majority were satisfied. There has been no compromise where for example a postman’s path crossed a country garden. The existing public access network is largely adequate for recreation requirements, particularly with the welcome economic input provided by permissive paths. Extension of access is an unnecessary burden on the public purse as evidenced by the grant of access rights over “open land”. There is no justification in our democracy for the taking of rights over private property without adequate compensation. Privacy has value. The use of rural land is and should be based on priorities and food and energy production should always receive priority for strategic defence and economic reasons. Far more challenging and so far elusive is the creation of urban environments that enrich life and wellbeing in the UK and take the pressure for recreation off the countryside.

  7. Sarah Monk Says:

    Rural land should be used for housing far more than it is at present. In many rural areas, local authorities have virtually placed a ban on all new house building under the misunderstanding that rural areas are unsustainable as places for people to live. This is nonsense and is simply increasing the divide between rich and poor, because the rich will always outbid everyone else for a chance to live in a desirable rural area.
    Even building affordable housing in rural areas is ruled out by many authorities, thinking that it will be occupied by nominees from the towns and cities. This is not only highly unlikely (most city types would refuse a rural home unless truly desperate, and would wish to move at the earliest opportunity) but means that the next generation of rural inhabitants will be unable to find an affordable home near mum, even though in the future they may be required to provide care for ageing parents.
    Another misconception is about sustainability including transport – but everyone in rural areas uses a car – and they are disobedient about how, where and when they use it. Those in affordable housing are no different from those in private housing. A car is a necessity, and until the government makes car use prohibitively expensive, which it won’t if it can help it because of political repercussions, we may as well accept that rural housing is just as sustainable as housing anywhere else.
    So, please can housing be included in the debate about rural land use? (and I don’ t mean huge new developments in the flood plains, I mean reasonably small scale projects everywhere).

  8. Wyndham Rogers- Coltman Says:

    What is land use for? A cynic could say it is for academicians to pontificate about whilst rarely setting foot on it. ( Are there any Agricultural Profs left or are you all Land Use and Rural Economy Profs now?) A cynic could say it is for fanatical single issue activists to earn a healthy living from whilst manipulating the thoughts and feelings of urban dwellers so that they may supply the cash to pay their salaries. A cynic could say that it is for dumping rubbish on now that it is so expensive to dispose of it legally. (I saw another load dumped in a gateway last weekend) A cynic could say that it for maintaining a veritable army of civil servants of doubtful competence in employment. And so and so on. Of course, as always, the cynic is likely to strike very near to the heart of the matter but, in fact, LAND IS FOR THE SUSTENANCE OF THE HUMAN RACE.
    After the ice age the land was covered mainly in forest. Mr and Mrs Hunter Gatherer reaped their harvest from the flora and fauna until it ran out and Mrs HG said she wanted a home and hot water. That did for the forest so now Mr HG tilled the land and harvested his produce storing it as best he could for Mrs HG to cook up for him on a cold winters evening. Lots of little HGs then required more and more land to grow more and more food and build more and more houses so that they could have lots more little farmers as they now where known. A lot later some clever dick invented machines and discovered fossil fuels and built factories for all their families and friends and lots others as well to work in. Prior to this Kings and Governments had taken a dislike to other Kings and Governments and waged mighty wars which required masses of timber and food so just about every acre of this little isle was either felled or cultivated and masses of people lived on the land to enable to this to happen. The advent of machines and factories allied to the creation of a great and productive empire and cheap food grown by slaves and other poor people flooded the market. Mr and Mrs Farmer ( they had changed their name in the interest of brevity) were no longer wanted and a series of great agricultural depressions occured. Farmers and Landowners were definitely non-u until, surprise, surprise, governments discovered all these new machines built in factories by townspeople (only recently countrymen) were brilliant for waging bigger and bigger wars. Alas, wars stopped imports so the empire sent all their people to fight instead of producing food and suddenly Mr and Mrs F were popular again. Every bit of land had to be ploughed to produce food for those who had not been killed by the wars and masses of forests had to be planted to grow the timber to build the houses and factories required for the war effort. Governments dont like seeing all their people killed as it upsets the people who are left who they rely on for voting them into all those cushy and bossy jobs which gives them their large salaries and enormous expense accounts. No wars meant more food imports from countries who could grow it at less cost using cheap labour. Labour is kept cheap by ensuring that all the profits from their efforts go into Swiss and other Central European bank accounts so that only politicians can get rich. However, there were some very wise men in a continent called Europe who said to each other ” Let’s have no more of this. Let’s get together and design a system of government and co-operation which ensures that we never fight each other again and, what is more, we never starve again”. For many years Europe filled its granaries and cold stores every harvest keeping an even supply of grain and frozen food for their people. In 1969 a terrible warning shot was fired. The Russian harvest failed and in one day their traders bought all available supplies of wheat in the western world. The price of wheat doubled and shortly after that the price of land doubled and shortly after that the price of everything else doubled. It’ll never happen again the pundits said. Not like that it did’nt but as the production of staple grains world wide dropped due to the increased cost of growing them and the reduced market price discouraged farmers from growing them, noone seemed to notice that the two countries with the highest population in the world were cleverly emerging as the two greatest industrial countries in the world. As in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries the mass movement of people from the countryside into the towns to meet the needs of the industrial revolution resulted in an increased demand for food in the new towns of the new industrial world. All of a suddden there was not enough food in the world to feed these new workers. International traders, always quick to spot market trends, began to corner the market. Prices soared and all of a sudden Mr and Mrs F are suddenly good guys again because they and only they have the expertise and commitment to produce the food essential to the industrial worker. Suddenly all those who bang on about the environment, access and all those other green issues which the middle classes chatter about as they rattle the silver and crystal on their dining tables across the country also find that their food is soaring in price. The only thing is that it takes them a long time to notice this as they are so well off whilst the poor notice straight away because things are so tight.

  9. David Harvey Says:

    What is land for?

    This is an even more pointless and ridiculous question than the previous two.

    The only sensible answer is: “Whatever.”
    It is whatever we, collectively and individually, choose to want it to be for.

    Any other answer only betrays the particular (and therefore vested) interests and socio-political agendas of the respondents, and even then only very imperfectly and noisily.

    The answers generate no additional understanding or knowledge about the real issues, and cannot be tested, either in debate, the laboratory or the computer. In other words, it is a completely nonsensical and useless question.

    Where does that get us? See, for an outline answer, my response to the first question.

  10. Hetty Selwyn Says:

    Perhaps we might also ask WHO is rural land for? not for the majority – it remains the exclusive zone of those rich enough to afford the peace and quiet and isolation and yet I think it could accomodate many more without necessarily ‘ruining’ it. It used to provide livelihood for coomunities but now does little more than provide dormitories for commuters. Time to allow those intensively reared people a chance to return to practical occupation. I am surrounded by young people without direction in small towns and cities where the jobs are purely to support pointless endless consumerism (working in a supermarket or other shop or paper pushing). Skills that involve creativity and adaptability are squeezed out because there simply are not the materials to work with. For example, traditional crafts linked closely with land management that simultaneously supported specific habitats. Some of these can be revived but planning is often resistant to enabling people and infrastructure to do so.

  11. Mark Reed, project manager, Sustainable Uplands RELU project Says:

    I think that David Harvey has made an important point, that we must understand if we are to answer what I believe is a crucially important question. I believe that we will be asking ourselves “what rural land is for” more and more as a society, as growing populations try to feed themselves under significantly different climatic conditions (fighting against the pests/pathogens this brings), on a shrinking island (due to sea level rise), competing with the rapidly growing appetites of the Indian and Chinese middle classes. Some have even raised the spectre of uplands being transformed into arable landscapes and future Governments nationalising vast tracts of land.

    If as David Harvey suggests, rural land is “whatever we, collective and individually, choose to want it to be for”, then who is “we”? Who has the right and who has the power to decide what the land is used for? In a democratic society, we might think that this should be “the public” – indeed the right for the public to be involved in environmental decision-making is enshrined in EU law through the Aarhus Convention. But who really makes the decisions that affect how the land is used? Your average member of the public rarely has any direct influence. But should we just accept that those who hold greatest power will shape future land use, if this marginalises groups of people who are significantly affected by the decisions they take, but have no power to influence what happens.

    The word “stakeholder” is often used to describe people who are affected by or who can affect a decision-making process. To understand what rural land is for, in a comprehensive and transparant way, without being biased by our particular “interests and socio-political agendas” (to quote David Harvey), we need to understand what the full range of stakeholders think the land is for. And we need to consider the views of the marginalised alongside those of the powerful. Only on this basis can we hope to negotiate any form of shared understanding or goals for the land we all depend upon.

    I think that the word “stakeholder” can be used as an effective metaphor to illustrate this point. If you imagine a group of people putting up a tent together on a hill-side, each with a different kind of peg or stake (metal ones, different coloured plastic ones, wooden ones, angled ones…). Each person is holding a different stake (their interest), and trying to drive their points home as they push their stakes into the ground. But stakeholders who have mallets have the power to drive their points home more effectively than the others. Working alone, the tent might take on the shape of the mallet-holders, and likely fall in the first wind. But working together the mallet-holders can position their stakes to keep the tent up, and may even be able to help some of the other stakeholders with their stakes. By all stakeholders working together, it is far more likely that the tent will withstand the storm.

  12. Ian Brown – Land Manager and Sec of State appointee to Regional Development Agency One NorthEast and the Environment Agency Says:

    One of the conclusions I came to as a tenant farmer on a diverse 400 acre (160Ha) lowland farm in North Northumberland is that I could produce a range of public goods and market ready products from a single piece of land. I am also a LEAF demonstration farm and as such was convinced that integrated farm management was the optimum way to produce food for the growing population, while taking account of the environment. I became very good at producing high intensity cropping in the middle of the field and high intensity bio-diversity in the gaps and field boundaries on the farm. The problem on a national and global stage is, who decides on what goes where?

  13. Lord Cameron of Dillington Says:

    We live in interesting times. The turnaround that is happening in many agricultural sectors looks set to continue into the future. The world population is growing by 90 million a year. China believes it is best to focus on producing industrial goods while providing for its ever wealthier population by buying in its food, and thus its water, from the rest of the world. Nor is China alone in eating more meat, with all its waste of resources, than it used to. Meanwhile the USA has temporarily gone down the blind alley of 1st generation biofuels. Furthermore, just round the corner climate change threatens to burn up the equatorial belt and flood some of the world’s most productive alluvial and low-lying soils. The respected Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reckons that only in Northern Europe (and parts of N America) will agricultural production improve as the planet warms – S Europe for example will be too hot and dry. In theory at any rate, these changes mean that many of the traditional problems of agriculture could disappear – problems such as low economic returns, businesses run by old men and a lack of young entrepreneurial new-entrants and even, on the continent, desertification. But new pressures could also easily emerge: in the rush to produce food will the environment suffer? Will man, with his usual lack of balance, believe that risks to his planet and its diversity are worth taking in the race to produce ever more food for his own uncontrollable species?

  14. Professor John Moverley, Chief Executive, Royal Agricultural Society of England Says:

    Achieving both energy and food security where land area is limited is both a challenge and an opportunity. Agriculture must strike a balance between contributing to efforts to reduce the effects of climate change and achieving sustainability. Energy crops, viewed as a key way of reducing carbon emissions, compete for land used for food and producing food from fewer acres will require intensification. The UK must therefore tackle the debate on Genetic Modification. Could GM allow intensification without the risks associated with traditional intensive agriculture (such as extensive pesticides use)? The debate on GM in the UK last time was hijacked by pressure groups and not helped by commercial interest, but it must return to the agenda for debate at least.
    The EU target for bio-fuel to meet 5.75% of its fuel needs by 2010 is testing. In the UK today, bio-fuel accounts for just 0.5% of fuel usage. Demand for bio-fuel is expected to have a major impact on the supply of food such as wheat. With increased profits from arable farming likely, first generation production methods of bio-fuel will look increasingly uneconomical. The USA is already moving forward with second generation bio-fuel production and increasingly they are looking towards the experience of UK Engineers. There is therefore a significant opportunity for investment and rapid expansion of this technology here in the UK.

  15. Professor John Oldham Head of Research, Scottish Agricultural College Says:

    In the most basic terms rural, and indeed other, land is used to meet the needs of our, and other species. It is only in relatively recent times that our species has reached a point of development at which we have exercised indulgent use of land. That is we have begun to use land to meet our ‘wants’ rather than simply to meet out needs. During that period, effectively from the start of the industrial revolution, we all now recognise that our population, and our use of land-based resources, has grown to the point of excess. That is, we now need more land to meet our wants than there is land to meet those demands. So perhaps we are on the point of having to change from a position of viewing rural land for what we WANT it to supply, to one of having to reflect much more critically on what we need.

    It is interesting to see how many of the comments recorded here refer to ‘wants’ and how relatively few to ‘needs’. This debate may therefore reflect quite effectively the position of indulgence in perspectives on use of land that are now central to the difficult challenges that our species will face in balancing use of land to meet our real needs over the next decades and centuries.

    Ultimately rural land is for the meeting of human needs (for our species). Central to that is the provision of food to eat, space to live and fuel to support.

  16. Fran Ryan Vice Chair Oxfordshire Community Land Trust Says:

    We who are members of community land trusts would like to see more land, including rural land, in local community ownership. Then the the people local to that land could decide what to do with that land: use it for affordable housing. agriculture, work or leisure. At the moment there is a great need for more rural housing, but it won’t be long before the food security issues overtake affordable housing and flooding, as major worries for us all. A recent report suggested that food security issues will bite more quickly and much sooner than major climate change! I am amazed that local and national government are not thinking more proactively about how we are going to feed ourselves in the coming years, especially as more land (all over the world, not just in UK) is turned over to biofuels.
    I would like to see the government take steps to support community land trusts particularly in rural areas, as the Scottish Assembly has done (legislation to support community rights to buy and funding to enable local communities to buy land at a fair rate). See http://www.hie.co.uk/communityland.htm. To find out more about community land trusts, visit http://talk.communitylandtrust.org.uk

  17. Hilary Burrage Says:

    A small aside, but one which perhaps has resonance for the large number of us who now live in cities…

    Sefton Park, almost in the city centre of Liverpool, is large (almost 2 miles in circumference) and has been abysmally neglected for many years. Just a month or so ago, however, the Heritage people moved in and began to renovate it, removing huge numbers of trees and generally sweeping away what they obviously regard as clutter which impedes sight lines to monuments etc.

    Some of this work is essential if the waterway which runs down the middle of the park is to be cleared; other work is either very badly timed (all the small islands have been denuded just as nesting starts for the swans, grebes and herons) or in the view of some people simply odd or wrong.

    All this sudden activity has however provoked a civic interest in the role of parks in cities. And this is my question:

    When our park was designed over a century ago, it was an oasis of gentility for wealthy city dwellers, but within a mile or two there was farmland and open fields / woodland galore. Now it is surrounded by houses and so forth for mile on mile, with no other large and ‘natural’ space like it.

    In this changed context is it reasonable to treat the park as a Heritage site, or should it rather now be seen as a precious bit of ‘wild’ / rural land in an otherwise very urban context?

    This large park, near areas of deprivation such as Toxteth, is completely open to everyone. It has fields, coppices, daffodil lawns, streams, a tennis court and bowling green, and is the venue for many sporting events. Everyone can visit it at no cost other than the bus fare.

    It may not sustain food or other essential production commodities, but it does act as a lung for the city (surely we need more trees, not fewer?), and it offers solace and enjoyment for many. If it is once again made ‘formal’ (as opposed to just tidied up) it will probably lose its rural feeling / character… at present it really can seem one is taking a walk in the country. There are not many other opportunities for people in Toxteth to do that.

    What do others think? Is it important to keep some ‘rural’ space in cities? And, whatever you decide, why should or shouldn’t Heritage take second place to (managed) ‘wild’ areas which are easily accessed by everyone, now that the real thing is so far away, and not just down the road?


  18. Hilary Burrage Says:

    PS Sorry, should have said, if you’d like to see some photos etc of Sefton Park, there are some here:
    They’ll give you an idea of what the park is like.

  19. Dr Steve Carver, University of Leeds Says:

    An interesting discussion and one that Aldo Leopold would have enjoyed. At first reading, it seems to me that there is a great deal “Christian” land ethic here, i.e. that of the land being for the sole benefit of humans be it as a provider of food, timber, clean water, building space, recreational space, etc. and one to be ‘tamed’ and exploited. I’m sure we’ve all read it at some point, but we might do well to revisit Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” and especially the chapters in Part IV where he talks of a “Land Ethic” and our place as humans within the wider scheme of things.

  20. Chris Lea, Welsh Assembly Government Says:

    One of the major driving policy concerns is the need to tackle climate change.
    • What is the role of land use in tackling climate change?

    • What can landmangers do to reduce our impact on the climate?

    • How can we best achieving reductions in agricultural emissions and what adjustments may be needed to land management practices?

    • What opportunities could potentially arise from climate change-will we be able to grow a more diverse range of products?

    • So there could potentially be new income streams for land managers not only from producing a differing range of crops but also should land managers be paid for providing services such as carbon storage and capture?

  21. John Varley, Clinton Devon Estates Says:

    Land based businesses have been structured and genetically coded to survive by reacting to circumstances (or not reacting at all), but now must look to the future and think imaginatively about their changing roles and responsibilities. The last few years of CAP reform have resulted in a polarisation of perspectives. At one point of the compass has been the NGO, environmental / public benefit agenda and at the other the farmer and land manager with a predominantly economic agenda. Both have co-existed, initially in a tense environment, and now in recent times, in relative harmony. Debate has been about how far to move along a continuum, without undermining either’s “polarised” objective. This game is over.

    Tomorrow’s winners will regard the management and ownership of land, not as an increasing liability, but regard it as an asset to be used in new, innovative and challenging ways which deliver appropriate value to those who have an interest or investment. This investment will be driven by global trends and markets, not by governments and quangos. The traditional model is blurring and is no longer fit for purpose. All those with a stake in the management of land assets need to realise this and clear their minds for a fresh debate.

  22. Wyn Grant Says:

    Any discussion of what land is for needs to take account of the philosophies/strategies of integrated crop management/integrated pest management which have informed more than one project in the RELU programme. They offer, at least potentially, a strategy to reconcile tensions between the need for land to be productive and for land to be used in a way that is consistent with environmental goals, not least reducing GHG emissions. In our particular project we looked at the potential contribution of biopesticides/biological control agents to environmental sustainability. This topic has also been examined at the EU level by the REBECA policy action in which we participated. Biopesticides are not a ‘silver bullet’ but they should form part of an ICM strategy.

    One of the overriding difficulties is the tension between different perceptions of what land is for, as exemplified by the recent debate over polytunnels. Polytunnels make cheaper soft fruit available for longer periods of year without relying on imports – hence, potentially, they may reduce GHG emissions and also contribute to the ‘five a day’ preventive health objective. But there is no doubt that they intrude on the landscape, particularly on sites on slopes in areas of landscape perceived to have an aesthetic value. Reconciling the resultant conflicts between growers and local residents, particularly retired residents, is not easy.

  23. Peter Jones Says:

    What’s rural land for? For most of those who own it, it’s for making a living off. We (including lots of contributors here) forget at our peril that land is property and with it come the rights to use it (to the extent that society allows).

    We’ve come used to managing/massaging the landscape through the CAP – those powerful price signals and market support mechanisms changing landscapes almost overnight (witness the increase in oilseed rape from nothing within a decade, due to price support, and the tripling of sheep numbers in Northern Ireland within 5 years or so due to the sheepmeat regime). Remove that distorting influence and it will essentially be the market which drives farmers’ decisions.

    Yes, we will be able to regulate to stop the worst excesses of land management (assuming we have the staff available to do those inspections, which is a big assumption). But let’s not pretend that farmers will be able to afford to manage land for non-production reasons in the post-CAP world.

    Our ability to find new sources of funds to encourage ‘positive management’ is also surely going to be very much reduced. The state simply won’t be able to afford it if it has to be funded 100% from UK tax income. This is where the ‘third sector’ and amenity-minded landowners come in. In the new market-led world, if the public want biodiversity, farmland birds, nice SSSIs and other habitats to enjoy, it is going to be the National Trust, RSPB and wildlife trusts who are going to have to deliver it – by buying and managing the land using the funds raised from their members and the public. They will be supplemented by a small but growing group of owners who buy and use land for recreational purposes (to create woodland, restore old habitats, maximise shooting income, keep horses), with farming as such being very incidental and not a source of income.

    This investment in amenity farming is going to have to happen quickly and on a huge scale if it is to safeguard the biodiversity hotspots at risk from marklet-led farming (either because they will be converted to cereals or biomass crops or because they simply won’t be managed at all and will revert to scrub). The bodies concerned should be looking at every SAC, SSSI and wildife site to see what needs to be done to secure the property rights and the funding needed to manage it. Maybe we need a successor to ‘Enterprise Neptune’ to galvanise the public to raise money to buy land on the same scale as the National Trust has used to safeguard the coast?

    It will be a more polarised world but also arguably one that is much more efficient. On the one hand there will be farmers motivated by, and focused on, producing for the market, restrained only by basic environmental regulation (e.g. from measure to implement the Water Framework Directove). On the other hand there will be ‘Amenity providers’ (for want of a better term) owning and managing land for its non-marketable benefits. The balance between the two will depend essentially on the extent to which the public funds the amenity providers.

    The development of market-led agriculture really will focus us on our priorities. We should be getting ready for the post-CAP world now – and putting property rights, and the freedom to purchase them to secure the control over land which they provide, at the centre of the debate.

  24. Andrew Donaldson Says:

    Certainly, a comprehensive answer to the question ‘what is rural land for?’ is “whatever”. I’m not sure that I consider that to be ”the only sensible answer” as David Harvey states above. Another comprehensive answer that seems as sensible to me would be “life”. The point is that such answers only serve to raise more questions. Any more partial or specific answer does, of course, betray something of the values and agenda of the respondent, which also serve to raise more questions. Does this endless questioning matter? Does it make the asking of the opening question pointless?

    I apologise now for I am about to get slightly more abstract – I will get to a point!

    The late Niklas Luhmann – a German sociologist who spent his career investigating the way in which we organise and govern – viewed communication as the basic element of social systems. Luhmann considered the modern era to be based on uncertainty about the future, which leads to conflict between different value-laden viewpoints and prognostications. As Luhman put it: “That the future is unknowable is expressed in the present as communication. Society is irritated but has only one way to react to its irritation in its own manner of operation: communication”

    This debate certainly seems to offer a forum for the expression of irritation and has surely been spawned from concern about an uncertain future as rural land use stands at the intersection of so many emerging concerns and demands. But, more importantly, the ways in which we organise, govern and communicate are inseparable from processes such as this of posing and addressing questions. Generating more questions is not a problem if it gets us moving.

    Let’s put this question into context. It is a simple question which cannot be answered either comprehensively or in detail without raising more questions from other commentators. It is a question which exists as part of a debate run by a large research programme. It is part of a system of communication and part of a giant social experiment. If this experiment is successful it will answer some questions, render others meaningless and, most importantly, provide fresh irritation and raise a whole set of new questions. When that happens, it will be time for another debate.

    I do not have an answer to the question except to say that is seems an issue around which all too often opinions are both sedimentary and sedentary – thickly layered and non-moving. There is a desperate need to change the terms of the debate. I actually think that responding to the question with a “whatever” may be the best way to indicate an openness to new possibilities.

  25. Ian Brown Says:

    Owning/having rights over land means that a part of this countries potential is with an individual or legal structure. If that asset is not used for the good of mankind it is a shame, in certain circumstances even a tragedy! Alas, in the same way that we must look at a citizen who wastes their god given gifts we have to accept in a free trading world it is up to individuals with the land to decide and weigh up the ‘sticks’ and ‘carrots’.
    Lastly each landholding should perhaps have an audit so when varying demands are made – be that food,fuel or biodiversity or a mix then the computer can vary the incentivisation to gain what is required. The market will also be working as it does and farmers will react – some predictably others not…..that’s what makes it such a good topic for debate by academics and indeed all of society.

  26. Tony Hams, Board Member, Natural England Says:

    Our aim should be to ensure that the use of land respects and maintains our biodiversity, landscape and access interests, and how a well managed environmental resource can contribute to our economic and social wellbeing and thereby to sustainable development. To do this we need to:

    • Identify where land is critical for wildlife conservation and important natural processes, and ensure that the conservation and enhancement of the natural environment is its primary purpose.

    • Advocate a planning system which includes planning for the future of the natural environment, including in particular its resilience to climate change.

    • Identify key areas that have particularly high environment values and deliver essential environmental services, and ensure that economic and social development occurs in a way which maintains and enhances these values.

    • Ensure that the value of the natural environment is fully recognised in spatial planning and land use decisions.

  27. Geoff Whitman Says:

    When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.” [Desmond Tutu]

    Debates such as this are vital if we are not to close our eyes to important questions only to open them and find that ‘others’ have had the debate, taken the decisions and appropriated the ‘land’ for purposes that we subsequently don’t agree with. Rural land is not for any one thing and it is only for “whatever” if that is the decision that we take after the debate or if we consciously step out of the debate and leave it to others. If this is the case, like our apathy for voting, then we have very little recourse to complain about the outcomes. For too long rural areas have been the preserve of agriculture and the environment these two sets of “missionaries” have in a very real sense preached to society about what rural land should be used for, or not used in some cases. The debate and the questions posed by RELU are not “pointless” or “ridiculous” and neither does it seem problematic for the interests and positionalities of the respondents to come through in these answers. What else would we expect? Academics can and do raise important questions for society but surely it is not then our job to subsequently shut the debate down because we don’t like the questions? The questions, like RELU itself are experimental and designed to try and provoke and encourage ‘society’ [whatever this is] to think of new and novel ways to tackle both old and emerging problems in rural areas. This debate might ‘fail’ in one sense in that nothing new emerges but the bigger failure would not be to at least try in the first place- complacency does not strike me as an attractive option here.

    There are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers here and I certainly have no prescriptions for how rural areas should be used. However, I think the emphasis should be on movement and not stasis in these debates, they need to be kept dynamic as without the questioning rural areas will most likely find themselves in the hands of those powerful interests that have always dominated. The very fact of RELU’s existence and this debate suggest that ‘we’ are not entirely happy with how these have managed our rural areas in the past. As a final point for those of us involved in debates and issues surrounding water perhaps the debate could be widened to ask about the relationship between rural land and water- we could ask ‘what is our rural water for? What should we use rivers, canals, stillwaters, lakes etc for? And how can these uses be dove-tailed into what we decide for land?’

  28. Phil Lyth Says:

    What is land for? It is there & it is up to us to use it responsibly/ sustainably for our own benefit – “sustainable exploitation” perhaps! We have a responsibility to not degrade or damage resources and biodiversity which make up our land, and ideally leave it in a better state than is was when we received it.

    I had the privilege to meet John Seymour, author of various books in self-sufficiency & related subjects as well as practical philosophy, some years ago. In his later life he was very interested in the idea of “Distributism” – a philosophy which was propounded by leading thinkers including G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc & Pope Leo XII – Basically it encapsulates the idea that the land and the means of production from it should be owned by as many people as possible on the basis that people will always work harder and have more attachement to the land and take more care of it if it belongs to them. Whilst I’m not particularly promoting the idea or saying it’s practical, I think it’s an interesting idea! People might like to read more about it & there’s plenty on the internet..

  29. Nick Gallent Says:

    There is compelling evidence to suggest that a great deal more land is needed for housing in rural areas, especially land which is opened up for affordable housing provision and holds back the march of gentrification, affecting much of ‘village England’. No-one wants to see the countryside ‘concreted over’ or large inappropriate developments in unsustainable locations in open countrysude, but more land for housing within and adjacent to existing villages and small towns (and not just ‘market towns’) needs to be brought forward for development. Affordability ratios are far worse for villages and hamlets than they are for urban areas and larger towns. And this cannot be attributed just to second homes. These are a signficant factor in some instances, but there is signifant demand for rural housing arising from a number of sources: especially from retiring and communting households . The planning system cannot simply restrict housing access: it needs to do something positive. It needs to see the countryside as the right location for the right kinds of development. Rural land is for communities, but some community members haven’t arrived yet. But they’re definitely on their way. Raising the drawbridge is simply going to concentrare pressure on existing resources, and will be reflected in worsening affordability ratios in the year ahead.

  30. neil sinden Says:

    It’s not sensible to consider the role of rural land without considering the land resource as a whole – urban and rural. While building more homes will have little impact on affordability, there is no debate over the need for more housing. The important question is where and how this need is met. Over the past decade we have seen major improvements in the reuse of brownfield land for housing alongside a gradual increase in overall output (although not enough of it subsidised, affordable housing). The planning system has played a central role in this and, as the evidence shows, continues to make adequate land available to meet housing needs in the future. Yet planning has been under sustained attack in recent years. If we are to deliver what society needs from land in then future we need to safeguard and enhance the role of planning. And we need to understand the complex job that it performs in seeking to secure the long term, public interest in the development and use of land. As a public interest charity that is CPRE’s main concern and what underpins our approach to developing our vision for the countryside in 2026. Visit http://www.cpre.org.uk to contribute your views.

  31. Catharine Ward Thompson Says:

    A contribution to this debate is to take a view of the ‘landscape’ as opposed to ‘rural land’. I accept that they are not synonymous, and the word ‘landscape’ implies a culturally derived perception of the environment. Nonetheless, we are all part of culture(s) and our perceptions, needs and desires are expressions of these cultures.
    The UK has now signed up to the Council of Europe’s ‘European Landscape Convention’. The Convention says some interesting things about the landscape that might help in thinking about the converging (competing?) demands on the environment, and about whether dividing ‘rural’ from ‘urban’ is useful or even meaningful in much of the UK today.
    I quote from the opening statements of the Convention:

    The member States of the Council of Europe signatory hereto,

    Considering that the aim of the Council of Europe is to achieve a greater unity between its members for the purpose of safeguarding and realising the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and that this aim is pursued in particular through agreements in the economic and social fields;

    Concerned to achieve sustainable development based on a balanced and harmonious relationship between social needs, economic activity and the environment;

    Noting that the landscape has an important public interest role in the cultural, ecological, environmental and social fields, and constitutes a resource favourable to economic activity and whose protection, management and planning can contribute to job creation;

    Aware that the landscape contributes to the formation of local cultures and that it is a basic component of the European natural and cultural heritage, contributing to human well-being and consolidation of the European identity;

    Acknowledging that the landscape is an important part of the quality of life for people everywhere: in urban areas and in the countryside, in degraded areas as well as in areas of high quality, in areas recognised as being of outstanding beauty as well as everyday areas;

    Noting that developments in agriculture, forestry, industrial and mineral production techniques and in regional planning, town planning, transport, infrastructure, tourism and recreation and, at a more general level, changes in the world economy are in many cases accelerating the transformation of landscapes;

    Wishing to respond to the public’s wish to enjoy high quality landscapes and to play an active part in the development of landscapes;

    Believing that the landscape is a key element of individual and social well-being and that its protection, management and planning entail rights and responsibilities for everyone….”

    (and so on)

    For details of the Convention, go to

  32. Robin Matthews, Climate Change Theme Leader, Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Aberdeen Says:

    What is land for? As Steve Carver has pointed out, most of the views expressed here see land as being there only for humans, as neatly summarised in Wyndham Rogers- Coltman’s view that LAND IS FOR THE SUSTENANCE OF THE HUMAN RACE. However, land was there long before the human race even existed, and probably will be long after we are gone as well, so without getting too philosophical, a better answer might be that it is for the sustenance of terrestrial life in general. In fact, there is a line of argument that it is this anthropocentric view of thinking that everything is for us that has got us into the problems we are facing now in the first place, and that humans need to see themselves much more as an integral component of landscapes and nature, rather than impartial observers, external drivers, or as users of them. I grant that a certain amount of anthropocentricity is probably justified on the basis that it is humans that are having this debate and not spiders or nematodes, and that it is human decisions that will result in changes to land use anyway; nevertheless, I think we could do a lot worse that thinking of ourselves in a slightly more humble way, rather than that it is all there for our benefit, and ours alone. To do this, I think we need to have a much better appreciation of how landscape, and the ecosystems it supports, actually function. How do all the processes contribute to the overall whole? What happens if parts of it are disturbed, or are removed altogether?

    The next point that we have to appreciate better is that land is a more-or-less limited resource, there is only so much to go around, and that whatever we decide to use it for means that there will be less for something or someone else. The idea of a ecological footprint is a useful one, i.e. the amount of land that would be required to sustainably support our lifestyles. In Britain, the average ecological footprint has been calculated as 5.5 ha/person, but the biological capacity is only about 1.5 ha/person (http://www.footprintnetwork.org/), which means we are running at a massive deficit (×3.7, to be exact). For comparison, the global biological capacity is 1.8 hectares/person and the ecological footprint is 25% more than this. How long can we go on at that rate? An interesting question that doesn’t seem to have come up in this debate (pardon me if I have missed it) is that if each of us were given our share of 1.8 ha of land, what would we do with it, given that it has to provide us with food, water, clothing, fuel, waste removal, recreation, biodiversity, carbon storage, and all the other things we take for granted? Could we survive in the manner to which we are accustomed?

    A final point – any debate on land use needs to consider not just how land is used in the UK, but also the impact that this will have on land use elsewhere in the world. The recent biofuels issue is a case in point – while the US and Europe strive to meet their biofuel targets, what is it doing to land use in the rest of the world? Causing even more deforestation in Africa as farmers clear land to grow maize and sugar cane for biofuels? Or draining of the peatlands in Indonesia? A recent study suggests that clearing 1 ha of Brazilian rainforest to grow biodiesel would release enough CO2 for the carbon saving in biofuel to take 300 years to cancel out (Science 319:1235–1238). Is this the right way forward?

  33. Wyndham Rogers- Coltman Says:

    You are all so dull and earnest. As Robin Mathews says “The land had been here far longer than the human race and it will be here for a long time after we are gone.” We are so transient and land is so permanent. In the fraction of time that we are on this earth we can only be stewards holding the land in trust to sustain the human race and all the creatures great and small who share this earth with us.

  34. Kirsty Blackstock, Socio-Economics Research Group, Macaulay Institute. Says:

    I agree that when considering what land might be for, we should include thinking about ‘who’ land is for – who benefits, who has to pay, who influences and who is impacted by change. Central to this debate has to be non-human actors (to use an academic phrase) as well as future generations. But more pragmatically, I think it is important to remember that the past, current and future rural landscapes are shaped by decisions made at multiple scales by communities of place and interests (single or otherwise). This may be stating the obvious, but I am concerned at the relative lack of attention being paid to non-land owning actors who as consumers, voters and residents play a role in shaping how land is used and how we value these uses.

  35. Richard Hosking Says:

    What is rural land for?


    Metaphorical Island journeys

    Solitude Island 1 is uninhabited. Our priorities on arrival, dependent upon the weather, are food, water, shelter, heat and calling home on the mobile phone.
    Thousand Island 2 is uninhabited. We are hotly pursued by a tribe of cannibals. Our priorities on arrival are defence, food, water, shelter, heat and appearing unpalatable.
    Refuge Island 3 is inhabited by a non-hostile tribe; we are hotly pursued by a tribe of cannibals. Our priorities on arrival are diplomacy with the islanders, defence, food, water, shelter and heat. Assuming effective defence, we must then earn a living and obtain land for long term sustainability.
    Yum Yum Island 4 is inhabited by a tribe of cannibals. Our priorities are defence, food, water, shelter, heat and defence. Sleeping with the natives and lighting fires prove counterproductive.
    Whatever Island 5 is inhabited by a tribe of cannibals; we are hotly pursued by another tribe of cannibals. Our priorities are prayer, defence and recipes for cooking cannibals.
    Paradise Island 6 is inhabited by a sophisticated non-hostile tribe; cannibals were hotly curried a comfortable time ago. Food, water, shelter, defence and diplomacy are well organised and adequately supplied. Society provides opportunities for occupation dependent upon talent. We inherit and/or use earnings to purchase shelter. We pay taxes for defence and water and purchase food and heat. Organisation enables time for recreation. We have become familiar with indigenous monkeys and birds and protect surplus habitat for their survival. Many people prefer watching television. Size 0 is too small, drift into Size 1 and you are clinically diagnosed obese.
    The next thrilling episode of Metaphorical Island Journeys will involve currency, exports, imports, regulations, balance of payments……… It is a sobering thought that had the occupants of Yum Yum Island been less effective at defence population would not be an issue in the twenty first century.
    The successful provision of necessities over many generations can disguise their importance. Failure to ensure adequate indigenous supplies of food, water, shelter and defence would potentially leave a nation vulnerable to exploitation. These priorities apply to urban as well as rural land.

    I attempt a brief definition to answer the question “What is Rural Land for?”.
    Rural land is a resource to be owned and managed by the indigenous population to achieve the following objectives in priority order;
    (a) Allocation to sustainable provision of necessities through market forces and essential intervention.
    (b) Fulfilling livelihoods and a sustainable and excellent quality of life for landowners, occupiers and rural inhabitants.
    (c) Restoration, creation and conservation of beautiful landscapes.
    (d) Biodiversity through conservation of the environment.
    (e) Variety in recreation for the responsible and not in conflict with objectives (a) to (c).
    (f) Tourism at sustainable levels.

  36. Hilary Burrage Says:

    I read this article today; it seems to have a lot of resonance in terms of what actually constitutes ‘rural’ land, and who’s responsible for it….

    ‘In an interview with Public Service Review, John Watkins, Head of Garden and Landscapes at English Heritage, reflects on the value and importance of public parks and green space:

    I’d still suggest that the functionality/ies of the land is / are more significant than its location… i.e. the big question is, who are the major stakeholders?

    It’s been a good debate, thanks!

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