Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to introduce this important topic today. I do not often win things, but I did win the ballot. I am grateful to all noble Lords who signed up to speak, including the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, whose maiden speech I much look forward to. Alas, some of the usual suspects—the usual contributors to debates and questions on land use issues—cannot be with us today. We are without the noble Lords, Lord Krebs, Lord Cameron of Dillington and Lord Teverson, and the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Devon, all of whom have sent their support for the debate. Several noble Lords are unable to be here because it is, as we speak, the memorial service for the late Earl of Selborne, who is much missed in this House as a man of huge expertise and commitment to land-based issues. I hope we can honour his memory here in the Chamber through the quality of our debate.
I am delighted the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh, will be replying from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I hope he does not mind if I hereafter refer to it as the Department for LUHC, since that is the way the initials pan out. It is refreshing, because we have heard a lot from Defra Ministers during the passage of the Environment Bill about their perspective on land use; it will be good to get the Department for LUHC’s perspective, which I hope will be different.
The UK is a small island—its land is finite—and the pressures on it are increasing. Everybody appears to want more land. In this time of focus on climate change, for example, we need more land to restore peatlands, to plant many more woodlands—I should declare an interest as chair of the Woodland Trust—possibly to grow biofuels and to develop solar and other low-carbon energy generation. We also need to respond to the other half of the climate change-biodiversity twin challenge: biodiversity recovery. The Prime Minister has urged world leaders to pledge 30% of land and seas to be protected by 2030, and says that that will happen in the UK. That would be quite a major shift in land use.
Agriculture currently accounts for 72% of our land use, and we need to feed a growing population; we are going to have 5 million more people in this country by 2040. We may want to decide whether we want to become more self-sufficient in food production and, likewise, in timber production; we currently import the vast majority of the timber we use. Both these questions for agriculture and timber would mean substantial land use changes.
The built environment also needs more land to provide for the Government’s new homes and jobs targets, which is also enhanced by population increase. The ambitious programmes of infrastructure investment that have been promised will need land. A University of Cambridge sustainability initiative study showed that predicted land use pressures mean we will need a third more land than Britain currently has—and we are not making any more. Indeed, with climate change, we may lose some.
The issue is not just growth in needs for land use. We are standing on the brink of some major shifts in policy affecting land use. The tectonic plates are on the move, and a substantial shift in the way we use land is going to happen. These tectonic shifts will increase the tensions that are already being felt by people, communities and government—both local and national—as typified by the result of the Amersham by-election, as competing policies and needs jostled for land. These tensions will be heightened, as pretty well every relevant policy area is on the move. Let me just outline some of those.
Major carbon incentives are driving tree planting and land use for energy generation, including bio crops, and the decarbonisation of agriculture will mean major shifts in land use patterns. Carbon will drive change, as the Climate Change Committee has outlined. A total change to the farming subsidy system is also under way post Brexit, and the national food strategy should change the way that we eat, the way that farmers farm and the use of land.
The Government’s commitments in the 25-year environment plan and the Environment Bill to such policies as net biodiversity gain, the “30x30” announcement by the Prime Minister and nature recovery strategies will mean major changes in the pattern of land use. We also anticipate major planning system reform once the new Secretary of State at the department gets his head around the unpopularity and impracticability of the original proposals. However, I suspect that they will still focus on a major increase in housing, with the unpopular land-take that that represents. The major investments in infrastructure that we have seen announced need to be climate-positive and biodiversity-positive in the way that they use land.
So, the tectonic plates of land-use policy are on the move but for the most part, in the past and right now, these policies are developed and operated in silos with modest or no overview of the whole picture and of how the best decisions can be made to optimise decisions on competing land-use pressures. The biggest flaw is that the rural and urban land-use processes have little connection with each other. The planning system is called the “town and country planning system” but it does not actually do much for the country.
Several of the current policy changes are establishing quasi-alternatives to the formal planning system, and in my view that is quite dangerous. For example, we were told by the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, during the passage of the Environment Bill that nature recovery strategies will map and cover the whole of England, proposing what land uses will be best for nature and where. How will that relate to the planning for land for housing use and development, and indeed to all the other economic uses that the formal planning system covers? Conversely, decisions on agricultural land use will be made by 100,000 individual farmers. How will that fit in with these nature recovery strategies and with the formal planning system?
I can say from personal experience that the whole issue of tree planting right now is like the Wild West out there. I declare my interest as chairman of the Woodland Trust, which is trying hard to create more woods in the interests of biodiversity and climate change. However, major commercial operations are buying up bare land at very silly prices to plant trees and exploit carbon subsidies. The big question arises: would some of that land be better for food production, forestry, housing or solar arrays?
My thesis for today—indeed, for the years that I have banged on about this, which have been many—is that we need two principles. One is integration: an integration of decision-making and processes that sees the big picture of competing pressures and helps to encourage the best land use in the right place. That does not just mean chat between departments about whether they can live with each other’s policies; nor, at the other end of the spectrum, a top-down masterplan; but a set of principles to guide thinking and decision processes at the right scale nationally, locally, at community level and for landowners. The Government’s foresight study on land use, which was published in 2010, called for an integrated approach, and we now need to deliver that.
The second principle that I want to promote is multifunctionality. How do we get our scarce land to work more than once for its living—for example, with wildlife and carbon on agricultural land—and how do we get that integrated in development proposals? That is where the planning system reform proposals particularly jarred with me. Zoning is too broad-brush. What we need in order to accommodate all the pressures is multifunctional land use, not land zoned for one particular purpose.
The time has come for change to achieve an integrated way forward, to relieve the pressures, to reduce the tensions in decision-making—particularly public tensions—and to ensure that land is developed multifunctionally. Otherwise, we will have a collision in land uses, some unhappy communities, some grumpy developers and stressed-out local and national government.
I was amazed to discover that the Community Planning Alliance, which was launched in March this year, already has 525 local community campaign groups across the UK, all concerned about land-use conflicts. That in itself is a stark indicator of the concern about pressures on land. It is a bit like a pressure cooker, frankly, and the lid will blow at some point if it has not already done so.
There are good examples of integrated approaches for us to learn from on both the national and local scale. Wales and Scotland have developed land-use frameworks. Both are very different, as their local land uses and politics determine. Scotland stresses the need for people to have opportunities to participate in debates and decisions about land use that affect their lives and futures. Wales is shaped by its future generations legislation. I discovered from the Chinese Ambassador that even China has a land-use framework, although possibly not a great one since it appears to involve the forcible moving of a quarter of a million people off the land from time to time. That is not the sort of top-down masterplan, integrated approach that I am advocating. Perhaps we should look instead at the southern Ireland version, which is much more sensitive.
At the local level, there are many experiments in the Oxford-Cambridge arc. There is an integrated land use pilot in Devon, supported by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, and I declare an interest as a commissioner for that commission. Various local authorities are trying natural capital approaches. The spatial scale at which such initiatives are appropriate will vary but they all need some sort of strategic framework from government. If areas next door to each other are using different systems and approaches, it will be difficult to get the higher-level spatial scale that is needed for some of these issues to be resolved in a way that is understood by local people.
Many organisations far more reputable than me have called in the past for an integrated and multifunctional approach. I have already mentioned the foresight study in 2010. I was trying to remember last night how long in advance of that study I had been lobbying for one, and it is now probably 20 years since I started banging on about this. But I feel that we are on the way, and I hope many more speakers today will say that too. So, the foresight study was the first formal emanation, in 2010. The Select Committee on the Rural Economy in your Lordships’ House also proposed an integrated and multifunctional approach, as did the Climate Change Committee; I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Deben, is contributing today. The Royal Society’s Living Landscapes programme has long promoted such an approach, as has the commission on food and farming and many others.
In view of the rising pressures and the lack of join-up, what current mechanisms are there for integration across these issues for all land uses? In view of the huge changes in policy that are on the move right across land-use issues, what proposals will the Government make to produce a national framework and a more integrated prioritisation and decision process for all land use? We cannot continue in these silos. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness. As ever, she has set out her stall very wisely, with many facts and elements that we need to take on board. It is clearly madness that we do not have a land framework strategy. It is a bit like trying to build a house without deciding where you might want the kitchen or the bathroom.
My remarks will concentrate on food, as that is the area I probably know best. As the noble Baroness said, land is a scarce resource. We have used it for three purposes: housing, recreation and food production. The latter currently takes up 70% of English land. That is clearly too much if we are going to hit our climate change targets. As the noble Baroness has just said, we need to get multifunctional in the way we use all our land.
The Climate Change Committee has estimated that approximately 21% of agricultural land in England has to change its function to forestry, energy crops, peat land or agroforestry if we are to get to net zero on the timetable we have laid out. However, that does not mean taking land out of agricultural use entirely. It is about the right kind of farming, such as no-till, mob grazing, almost zero application of pesticides, letting hedgerows grow and herbal leys—a whole range of things that can encourage wildlife and carbon sequestration on land that is also producing food. It is about being, as the noble Baroness said, multifunctional.
I am anxious that we go down this route as if we do not and we agree that we cannot grow enough food to feed us, we will end up entering into trade deals with countries far away. That not only means that we outsource our carbon footprint, but that we lose jobs and undercut our own farmers. Indeed, in Questions in the House yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Deben, made this point very strongly in relation to the Australian trade deal.
However, all land is different. Some of the land that could deliver the greatest environmental benefits might not be that good for food growing. The most productive 33% of English land produces around 60% of our total output, while the bottom 33% produces only 15%. Similarly, making farming more environmentally sensitive has many other gains: reducing runoff from just 5% of agricultural land that produces the most water pollution could reduce phosphorus and other sediments in our rivers by 25% and the nitrogen load by 13%.
Food and food growing has dominated our landscape for hundreds of years. Indeed, the phrase “eat the view” is intended to encourage us all to eat more British-grown vegetables, fruit and grains. It was coined some years ago and I think it is a good phrase, but it misses out key elements, such as which bit of land should we be using for this and which bit for that? This is why we need a framework.
I advised a little on Henry Dimbleby’s food strategy. We recommended that by 2022—soon—Defra ought to devise a rural framework. What does this mean? First, Defra should work with local nature recovery networks to prepare basic maps of what is what right now. These maps should include data on how productive the agricultural land is in the network’s area—something we can glean from the agricultural land classification system. There should be an assessment of local priority areas for the environment. For instance, is there peat or ancient woodland? Areas with significant levels of pollution should be identified, together with ideas on what to do. All this needs to be linked in with local tree strategies, the peat action plan and any existing local nature recovery strategy.
Once all this has been collected, Defra then actually has something to work on. This is something it lacks. It will provide a framework for us to decide how we want to use our precious and extremely tiny amount of land. We can tell which land is most appropriate for semi-natural land, low-yield farmland and high-yield farmland, as well as land that is better for housing and economic development such as business parks. At all stages, this report will make clear how this model can help meet the Government’s legal commitments to reach net zero by 2050, while at the same time protecting 30% of land for nature by 2030 —the 30x30 target.
Land change cannot be imposed by central government. Defra should make its national land map freely available to land managers and councils, which can then decide how they will best use it. It should form a guide for how the new environmental land management scheme is delivered and managed. It seems to me that currently, the Government are pinning everything on ELMS in terms of the countryside. I am the first to agree that it is a tremendous advance on the CAP and a step in the right direction. However, a lot of questions remain. ELMS has nothing to say on land management more generally, what happens to land outside of the farm, housing, roads and areas of outstanding natural beauty—or, indeed, on planning decisions. It cannot do all this because it does not have the remit.
For ELMS to truly function in the way that it should, it has to sit alongside an overall land management strategy. There are currently at least eight schemes influencing how we use land—from the England Trees Action Plan through to ELMS itself—and they control funds ranging from £10 million to £2.4 billion. It is a lot of money. We need a framework: it would help shape priorities such as improving areas of outstanding natural beauty. It could help us decide the best place to grow crops and, indeed, which crops, and where to graze cattle.
It could also give us information about where to build new houses. The additional land needed for new housing is relatively small for an issue that attracts so much distress and anger. Just 2.2% of UK land is needed by 2060 to fulfil all current calculated needs. If we had access to a bird’s eye view, we would not need to keep building on flood plains or next to sites of scientific interest like the rewilding project at Knepp, which noble Lords will know I have banged on about. In fact, in a minute I am going to come back to it.
A rural land use framework will outline the most effective way to get to net zero by 2050 and to 30x30 by 2030. We need better data if we are to achieve these goals. If we are to reduce the amount of land we use for farming by a steady 1% a year, while maintaining our food security through healthier and more sustainable farming management, we need a really good plan. We need to know which areas are the best to grow on and which are possibly the best to be rewooded or rewilded.
I want to finish with a story of something that happened in the last few weeks at the recent Tory party conference. Isabella Tree, the environmentalist behind the rewilding project at Knepp, attended the conference to speak on a rewilding panel. As noble Lords know, given how many have spoken on this issue, she and her husband have been fighting a battle against Horsham District Council to prevent it building 3,500 new houses on the border of their land, which would destroy the carefully planned wildlife corridors that connect Knepp and other places like it to the sea and deep inland. The builder is Thakeham, which has given more than £500,000 to the Conservatives in the last three years. Thakeham had the most prominent stand at the conference, sponsored meetings, hosted a drinks party and—which was really shocking to me—had its company name on the lanyards of every single delegate at the four-day event. As Isabella Tree said:
“This isn’t democracy … There is a lot of money … shouting for more housebuilding. Where is the money shouting for nature?”
However, there is a small, good note. Buglife has just discovered a very small snail—the little whirlpool ramshorn snail. It is in the water catchment area underneath the development that Thakeham plans to build. This tiny creature—just 5 millimetres in diameter—is so rare and so in need of protection that the planning has been temporarily halted. Talk about David and Goliath! It shows what a crazy system we live in. Just as it has taken a footballer to get the Government to agree to feed hungry kids in the holidays, so it has taken a miniature snail to get someone to look again at a really ridiculous planning project.
This is an urgent situation. We only have one planet. We have to start now. A rural land framework and a land use strategy is an essential part of our journey forward.
I thank the noble Baroness for bringing forward this debate. If Thursday afternoon debates were a novel, they would certainly not be a bodice-ripper or an edge-of-the-seat thriller, but more a literary heavyweight: challenging, sometimes difficult to get to grips with, but always an opportunity to learn and to explore difficult issues. The noble Baroness’s subject matter today is very much in the latter category, and I have to say that I admire her staying power. I also look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech.
As a former elected mayor and a vice-president of the LGA, I will be looking at this issue through the lens of local government and from the planning perspective, while being confident that other noble Lords will be sharing their considerable expertise on the environmental and broader issues.
What has surprised me in my reading for this debate is that there has been a fairly steady and consistent appeal for a land use framework over many years and, indeed, several reports with recommendations to adopt one or something similar. Indeed, such a tool exists in all the devolved Governments. Can the Minister say whether there has yet been any capture of the benefits or otherwise of the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish experiences, each of which appear to have involved slightly different approaches? I believe we should be looking to learn from them.
It was, therefore, surprising to me that the Government are resisting this and, indeed, going further and saying it is not really needed as other policies and plans, in effect, do the job of such a strategy. Hearing the responses of the noble Lords, Lord Gardiner of Kimble and Lord Goldsmith, during consideration of the Environment Bill confirmed my belief. However, to judge by the evidence presented by these various reports and inquiries, it appears it is often not happening at all, and where it is it could be better.
In its recent study, Planning for a Better Future, the Royal Town Planning Institute points out that there are already many spatial instruments and plans in places, but—the “but” is important—they treat the environment in siloes, not connecting issues such as water availability and quality, social quality, flood mitigation, biodiversity and habitats. They are often administered and financed separately, with problems of single-issue streams of finance, and managed on short decision timescales, with notable gaps. They seem distant from and unaccountable to local people. Our current situation calls for something far more radical and potentially game-changing. This proposal will seek to address some fundamental key dilemmas and challenges of land use: will it be possible to grow enough food, restore biodiversity in nature, decarbonise the economy and adapt to climate change, while building all the homes, transport and infrastructure that the Government have promised over the next decade?
While such a framework would, by necessity, be very high level, it is also important to address the concerns of ordinary citizens. When I speak to residents, usually when they are bitterly complaining about development, I ask them, “What percentage of land do you believe is built on?” They always get it massively wrong and are shocked when you say, “Less than 20%, and half of that is parks and gardens”. In tight urban areas, it certainly feels that high city densities, while highly sustainable, are built to protect someone else’s view of a field that once grew food. So a fundamental question to us all is: how is it decided whose quality of life is more important? Is it the person in the tower block or the village dweller? Another question is: is that really the best use of the land? Could it not be used for something better? How could that be determined?
It is now generally accepted that we could never again build to the densities of, say, Milton Keynes or the garden cities, yet there has been no attempt at all to take the public with us on this challenging journey. At his party conference, our Prime Minister recently declared that there should be no need for houses to be built on green-belt land, to cheers from the party faithful living in the leafy shires. But what are the implications for those living in urban settings? Must the ever-growing numbers of tower blocks increase, not only in number but in storeys, to accommodate government targets for housing need? Where is the land-use discussion here? They are popping up now in suburbia and Metroland, not just in the city smoke. Do we need new settlements? Where, what type and when? Perhaps a land-use framework could usefully flush out these difficult issues and contradictions and provide a context for these conversations.
We have a Government determined to build 300,000 homes a year to meet an obvious housing crisis. Surely that aspiration needs some big thinking about land use. The Government’s own figures show that enough brownfield sites are available to build 1 million homes. That sounds like a lot, but it is really only three years’ supply. Even local authorities have to provide a five-year land supply. The Government have their disingenuous housing delivery test—it is disingenuous because it seeks to punish local government for the lack of delivery of homes, over which it has no power, and not over the number of planning applications granted, over which it has power. Perhaps the Government should revisit their own Letwin review.
Add to the pot the fact that we have a public who sometimes seem to have gone from nimbies to BANANAs —build absolutely nothing anywhere near anybody—as a glance at any local news media will prove. Yet, when knocking on doors and talking to people, once they have got their, “We don’t need any more flats, and no one can afford these homes anyway” off their chest, their heartfelt concerns are usually around the quality of the environment: “Too many cars. The traffic is a nightmare. Where will I be able to park?”, or “I can’t get my child into the local school” and, “My GP waiting times are far too long because they have so many patients on their books”. These are the soft infrastructure issues yet they are very important to the public, for obvious reasons.
From my local government perspective, the Motion calls for land-use planning to be integrated with other land-use activities. At the moment, we have no regional or sub-regional land-use planning, so there is nothing to integrate anything with. That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but the scaffolding that might support such a proposal has been lost to us over the last decade or longer, to the detriment of wider place shaping and planning across a much larger economic region. In short, we have become too parochial, which can work against changes for the greater good. There are too few opportunities for too few councillors to engage with these bigger and broader issues in their area.
It seems that many of the problems associated with planning have arisen because strategies have not been based on a wide enough area. This is most apparent in two-tier areas, where each council has its own local plan, yet the reality of issues and problems to be addressed can cover three or four, or even a whole county or wider economic region.
I still have the scars from trying, while I was mayor of Watford, to work across borders with several authorities around a wide range of issues, where the provision of new infrastructure needed to be built in one area to serve, as they saw it, the needs of another—I would say of the wider area. The recent emphasis on making efficient use of brownfield sites has pushed the level of housing growth in Watford upwards to the sky, so a new secondary school is needed, which cannot be met within the town’s narrow boundaries. We already have a primary school where there is no play space for the children, except on the roof. But when it is proposed in the neighbouring districts, there is opposition on the grounds that, “It’s Watford’s problem. It’s their children.”
There are ways to resolve this, and sometimes it works better than I have portrayed, which is why I am particularly interested in the outcome of the powers and freedoms given to regional mayors and city regions in this regard. I wonder whether there is any possibility of expansion and further development.
“What about the duty to co-operate with each other?”, you might ask. It is well documented that the duty to co-operate does not operate as effectively as it needs to in practice—or indeed at all. However, there is a pressing need for it to be replaced with a new mechanism to deliver joined-up thinking and action for climate change, transport, infrastructure, housing provision and nature recovery. Does the Minister yet have any idea whether that duty will be changed, strengthened or weakened in the new reforms? Finally, why not have a national spatial framework?
My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to be speaking in your Lordships’ House for the first time. This is a defining moment for me personally, but I join the House when it is also a defining moment for our country, as we seek to face, head on, the triple challenge of the pandemic, our independence from the EU and climate change. These are serious responsibilities.
Over the past few months, I have taken the advice to listen and observe proceedings, rather than diving straight in. I have been hugely impressed by the contributions in your Lordships’ House in debates such as those on the Environment Bill, the passionate but courteous deliberation in the Assisted Dying Bill of the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, and the heartfelt and moving tributes paid to the late Sir David Amess.
I place on record my thanks for the help given to me by so many: the doorkeepers, special advisers, the clerks and Table Office staff, the librarians, and the catering and security personnel. I am also grateful for the mentorship of my noble friends Lord Borwick, Lady Bloomfield and Lady Sanderson, and for the support from friends in the other place.
The Harlech barony was created in 1876. My forebears were a distinguished lot: MPs, Ministers, soldiers and public servants. I take my duty seriously to follow their example. I will also take inspiration from Lord Elton, a distinguished servant of your Lordships’ House, to whose place I am proud to have succeeded.
My grandfather David, both as MP for North Shropshire and as a Foreign Office Minister, worked hard to bring countries and peoples together. As British ambassador to the United States during the Kennedy Administration, he fostered the personal relationships upon which the special relationship grew, ensuring that British views were given proper consideration during events such as the Cuban missile crisis. Can personal relationships still prove decisive today? I suspect they can.
I had a rural upbringing in Shropshire and Wales, where I would accompany my father on his duties around the estate. We frequently stopped at farm kitchens thick with smoke for non-stop cups of tea. Like his father, he understood the importance of building personal relationships, listening to people, giving them time and always making them feel valued. It is no secret that my father had his afflictions, but he always championed Wales and rural issues, and cared deeply for the countryside and its people.
My mother did an incredible job of raising two children—essentially as a single parent, while forging a successful career as a consultant to some of the pre-eminent designers of her generation in the fashion houses of Europe. Her incredible work ethic, creativity and passion for all the arts greatly influenced the career path I took.
After completing school, I moved to London to study design at Central St Martins. The rich and diverse culture of the city, its music, people and places, had a profound impact on me and shaped my views as much as my rural heritage did. After graduating, I went on to work in medical communication, media production and property management.
On my father’s passing, I returned to north Wales. There, we have invested in organic farming, implementing renewable technology and undertaking the vital restoration of heritage assets. It was on a platform of being a voice for Wales, its people and the rural economy, that I stood in the hustings.
I should also mention that I am an Army reservist. The Army teaches the importance of courage, discipline, teamwork, integrity, respect for others and selfless commitment. These values shape my approach to public office and my duties to this House.
I turn to today’s debate, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone. Allow me to state the obvious. As a country, we need to produce more food; grow more trees; better manage our forests; and reverse the decline in biodiversity. They are serious challenges—but, to judge by Tuesday’s debate on the Environment Bill and, indeed, by today’s debate, they are ones about which we are no longer in denial. I sense that, as a country, we are readier than ever to pick up the gauntlet.
I began by saying that this was a defining moment—a time of monumental challenges for Britain, the world and this House. I want to end on an optimistic note. Like so many of my generation, I see monumental opportunity in these challenges, and this is especially true of the challenges facing the British countryside. Treat the countryside with the respect it deserves; listen to it; understand its complexities and possibilities; and decide that you will give it half a chance. Above all, give it the connectivity and digital connectivity it needs, and I guarantee that the rural economy—and, with it, rural community life and culture—will spring into action in ways and to an extent that will surprise you. We can do farming and tourism very well, but that is by no means all we can do or wish to do.
My Lords, I first welcome and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harlech. He is a worthy successor to those ancestors he mentioned. When I first saw his name on the list, I thought that he was the bloke who used to stop me seeing all those films I wanted to see—but, in fact, he brings much wider talents to the House. I welcome his obvious commitment to the subject matter of this debate and to the wider points he raised. It shows that the rather odd system by which all of us get here can throw up an asset to this House. He is very welcome.
I will also mention briefly the reference by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, to Lord Selborne, whose memorial service is today. He was a great champion of many of the matters to do with the countryside and beyond that we are addressing today.
Our land—whether urban or rural—is subject to multiple pressures, and our planning system is supposed to be the arbiter. The Town and Country Planning Acts of the 1940s are some of the unsung achievements of that Labour Government. By and large, they protected the English countryside from the more ravenous designs of developers, industry and tourism. For a long time, they also prevented more egregious development in our towns and cities. They significantly limited ribbon development and urban sprawl—particularly through the invention of the green belt. At the same time, that system allowed positive development in those post-war years—massive increases in the building of decent homes, the development of our infrastructure and the facilitating of industrial change. It did so within a context where key decisions were in the hands of elected authorities, which allowed the public to have a direct, clear say.
We would be foolish to dispense with that system, but it would also be foolish to deny that there are considerable pressures and problems both in our cities and countryside with which the planning system is now struggling. I do not mean what is—I fear—the knee-jerk reaction in certain parts of the Conservative Party and the press, encouraged by some property developers and their apologists, that the planning system is run simply by bureaucrats on behalf of axe-grinders and nimbys. That attitude seemed originally to be behind the Government’s intent to bring a planning reform Bill to Parliament. I hope that they are now thinking again.
Previous speakers have focused on the countryside. It is true that 70% of our land is designated for agriculture and only about 10% to 12% is built on. That is not the assumption of most people. In reality, the look of our countryside has developed. It has not been preserved in aspic by the planning system; nor should it have been. It has changed over the past 80 years, but the planning system has limited and directed that change in a way that has benefited our countryside and our ability to enjoy it. The detailed changes have not been determined by the planning system but by, for example, successive agriculture policies through the post-war Ministry of Agriculture, the EU and now the Agriculture Act that we have just passed, which will have significant effects on rural land use, so that the look of our fields and the configuration of our hedgerows will change again.
While past agriculture policies have, through incentives and regulatory structures, largely determined the balance and shifts of agricultural production and the look of our land, they have also been subject to increasing constraints and objectives for environmental and public health reasons. These too have had an effect on our countryside. With the new Agriculture Act, these incentives and regulations will be targeted principally at environmental outcomes. Food and material production will be determined largely by the market and, regrettably, by some unfortunate trade agreements. State intervention will be primarily on behalf of the environment, rather than food. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and others have said, it is true that the ELMS are not broad enough to deliver that prospect, but we know the direction in which we are moving.
There have been problems with the past effects of planning. Sometimes agriculture has been overconstrained in development—for example, on the use of old agricultural buildings and cottages. But in general, it has worked well for agriculture, as well as for those of us who enjoy the countryside.
Of course, the planning system itself is overladen by other interventions—on designating SSSIs, on AONBs and on national park regulations. They have all helped to preserve and enhance our countryside, but they are not always directly compatible with the principles of the planning system. There is renewed attention to biodiversity; all this preservation of the look of the countryside has not preserved the non-human inhabitants of the countryside, plants or animals.
The planning system has also often been overladen with national priorities. We have overarching commitments to road and railway infrastructure that run roughshod over some of the planning and protection of our countryside. In principle, I am in support of the full HS2 project, but I do not think its route should have endangered so much of our woodlands. That was not in the nature of the relationship, and that is why we need a more overarching framework.
We also need to control the quality of our waterways, the effect they have on the countryside and what we put into them from our agriculture processes—fertilisers and pesticides—and from domestic use. We need the regulation of that to fit in with the planning system.
Meanwhile, the other side of the coin is urban areas. Massive changes have taken place with the planning system’s permission, with public involvement and with a relative clarity and consistency of those planning decisions, but that is weakening. I have often complained in this House that we now have a whole sequence, particularly in urban areas, of unnecessary, carbon-emitting demolition and rebuild, when more sophisticated methods would retrofit those buildings to meet current objectives for the environment and public health. In many cases, that has destroyed the ambiance of our cities and towns and the look of our urban areas. You do not have to go very far from here, to the south bank of the Thames, to see what I am talking about.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, said, part of the problem in rural areas is that the planning resources of rural councils amount to a man and a dog, particular in two-tier areas in England. It is also true more generally, in both urban and rural areas, that the relationship between local authorities, developers and large builders has changed dramatically. When Harold Wilson was building 300,000 houses a year, he could deliver it and decide on it because local authorities were in the driving seat. They were dealing with hundreds of small builders; there was competition, and the local authorities were giving out the contracts. Now the balance of power has shifted dramatically. Local authorities, often with minimal planning staff and in most cases—even in rich urban areas—with no housing department, architects’ department or direct labour organisations, are dealing with massively resourced developers and an oligopoly of half a dozen or so housebuilders, all backed by multinational finance. In those circumstances, the balance of power is very substantially with the developer. The planning system as it is can have only a limited effect, although I acknowledge that in some cases it has a key one.
I am not saying that the old system made all the right choices in either town or country. I am saying that it is no longer strong or integrated enough and that it needs a new framework. The developers that have transformed our cities, not always for the better, now have their eyes on agricultural land. A change of use from food production may follow, particularly with the reduction in extensive grazing if, for one reason or another—because of green consumer choice or trade agreements—we eat less British-reared red meat in this country. The outcome for that land that is no longer used for agricultural purposes is unlikely automatically to be rewilding or forestry, as environmental outcomes would require. At least some of it will be taken up by developers, and mostly in inappropriate parts of the country. If we are not careful, that will happen, and in a way that does not take in the local authority, and the local community and its representatives will have no part whatever.
We need to revert to the basic principles of the Town and Country Planning Act, but to put it in a wider context, one that is relevant for a modern age in both our towns and our countryside.
My Lords, I declare my interests as a farmer and landowner as set out in the register. I am absolutely delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and to hear his excellent and informative maiden speech. He is a shining example of the ability of the much-criticised hereditary election system to introduce young, experienced and highly qualified new Members. I welcome the noble Lord.
Like others, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for bringing about this debate. It follows her interesting amendment to the Environment Bill, which unfortunately I was unable to support as I thought it might be too prescriptive and therefore have undesirable side effects when it came to farm diversification and other issues. However, I think she is absolutely correct to explore the need for an overarching land use framework. The devil will inevitably be in the detail—hence a broad framework is a sensible aim. I agree with so much of what she said during her excellent speech, together with that of just about every other noble Lord and noble Baroness who has contributed to this debate.
The need for some top-down planning has been identified by a number of people, including Henry Dimbleby in the recent National Food Strategy, although I do not agree with his complicated three-compartment model for land use, which takes no account of the requirement for land on which to build houses, infrastructure and industry. However, top-down planning on its own and on the scale envisaged is not practical. Careful thought needs to be given to how a land use framework will overlap with the local nature recovery strategies that the Environment Bill already introduces, as well as planning and housing White Papers and legislation and much more—and, of course, the Agriculture Act. We do not want to see a conflict or duplication of effort in any of these areas.
The need for a framework is absolutely clear, as we have three broad areas of economic activity pressing for their share of the land cake—an asset, as has been pointed out, that will never increase in area but will increase in value, which is a further complication and consideration.
First—and to my mind probably the most important, in view of our experience in two world wars and more recently with Covid—is the production of our own food, rather than relying on imports maybe at lower costs but almost certainly produced to lower standards and coming from considerable distances, with logistical dangers as serious possibilities in an unstable world. According to a recent NFU survey, 60% self-sufficiency in food seems to be a sensible guideline. In addition, as has been pointed out, agriculture occupies 70% of our land.
Secondly, there are the environmental activities, so important with climate change, which may be complementary to farming but may also be in direct competition. By this, I mean tree planting or solar or wind farms on arable or pasture lands.
Finally, there is the most important requirement of housing, industry and infrastructure, often driven by demographics, technological change and the whole levelling-up agenda. Who can drive up the M1 through Buckinghamshire and not be amazed by the work they can see being done on HS2 or the number of new sheds being built around Milton Keynes?
Inevitably, as a farmer my greatest concern is the maintenance of sufficient land for food production. Currently, as the old basic payment system of support for farmers is phased out, farmers are in a sort of hiatus until the environmental land management scheme is rolled out in 2024. They have insufficient detail on ELMS, particularly on profitability. This was confirmed in the recent report from the National Audit Office and has caused the NFU to call for a delay in the reduction of the basic payments.
The result, not surprisingly, is that most farmers are sitting on their hands. This is greatly encouraged by the current high prices for many commodities that farmers sell, such as wheat, barley, rape and livestock. Why risk uncertainty until details of ELMS are known? Why enter the unknown unnecessarily when you are still making a decent profit, although most would accept that the high prices may not last for ever? There is an old adage in farming that sticking to what you know how to do best is the safest course of action in uncertain times. Farmers, on the whole, are there for the long term, not just for a year or two.
Those looking at stable high returns are likely to be exploring such activities as solar or wind farms or housing, which could remove good agricultural land from production. This is the point: whether we are talking about high-return activities such as housing, solar and wind or lower-return activities such as tree planting, rewilding or carbon storage, all these may be difficult to reverse back into commercial agriculture if a food crisis occurs; hence the importance of protecting productive agricultural land.
Any land use framework should be positive and enabling, allowing land managers to deliver more from their land, whether for the environment, food or other economic activity, rather than negative and restricting the progression of farming and the diversification of farming businesses, let alone other rural businesses. However, a fixed land use framework can never succeed in circumstances where there are going to be changes in technology, climate conditions, consumer demand and business viability, to name just a few considerations. All this could happen in very short order. Hence, a land use framework needs to be flexible, with top-down and bottom-up input.
I believe that the basic presumption in the planning system regarding land use should be that productive agricultural land graded 1 and 2 should stay in food production, while grade 3 should be considered for wider uses. Lower grades should be the favoured areas for non-farming activities, although I am thoroughly aware that some species of trees are likely to thrive better on good land rather than chalky banks. Obviously, small parcels of land, field corners, land adjacent to hedges and existing woods—whatever the grade designation —should be exempt and available for environmental planting, including trees, as envisaged by the Agriculture Act and ELMS.
It is particularly worrying that there have been an increasing number of land sales, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, to purchasers with no doubt worthy environmental backgrounds who have converted the land from arable and pasture to rewilding or trees. This certainly may be the correct usage in some cases, but the economic use of land should be dictated not by the whim of the new owner but by the correct classification of the most suitable use of that land. Integrating the planning system with building, agriculture and environment through a framework of land use makes perfect sense.
Very careful thought needs to be given to bring all these competing uses for land together and decide on the criteria of suitability, viability, necessity, strategic considerations and much more. Nothing should be set in stone, as flexibility is essential as circumstances change, but clear guidelines on a land use framework should be set, based on consultations with all stakeholders in these various sectors. I would therefore welcome the setting up of a committee or commission to explore the land use framework issue in greater detail. I would be most interested to hear the Minister’s views on this.
My Lords, I begin by welcoming the comments in the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, on the urgency of the climate emergency. I note that we are seeing a real change in the balance of the Benches opposite as more new and younger Members join them. I hope they will have an influence on the Government, particularly the Treasury.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, for securing this absolutely crucial debate and for her clear, informative and powerful introduction. As she and other speakers have noted, Wales, Scotland and Ireland already have land use strategies. We often hear from the Government that we are “world leading”; here we are obviously trailing, even on these islands.
If we are thinking about a land use framework and, more broadly, regulation and management of our land, there are three sides to this triangle. One is a strategy, approach and plan for how we use land. Another is to encourage good use of the land, something we mostly hear about from the Government—the sustainable farming initiative, the local nature recovery scheme and the landscape recovery scheme, all of which come under the ELMS banner. The reality of these schemes is that they are all voluntary. They are trial schemes in which people can invest, but we do not know how many people and landowners will invest in them.
We hear a great deal less about, and undoubtedly need to hear a great deal more about, how we stop deeply detrimental, disastrous land uses and management. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, referred to pesticides and nitrogen and phosphate runoff scarring our rivers and oceans. We have seen the impact of this, and a great deal of public concern. We need a strategy. We need to stop doing the things we should not be doing and to encourage the things we should be doing. That should be the Government’s overall approach.
I will pick up on a couple of issues that have been raised. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, who asked a good question: “Why not a national strategy”? However, I disagree with some of her comments about local management and decision-making. We have a national green-belt strategy, and we also have lots of communities who are desperate to defend their green spaces. I have visited quite a few communities who have good cause to question new “executive housing” being built. It is going into a very doubtful market and will not feed into the communities or be part of them. I am thinking in particular of a green-belt site in Sunderland which, at the time of my visit, was the only city in England that was losing population. Yet here was a patch of green land, hugely valued and much used by the public, on which executive homes were to be built for people who would commute on the motorway to work in other cities. I do not believe that that is a good use of valuable land.
It is worth looking at and trying to learn from what has been done elsewhere on these islands. Of course, as a number of noble Lords have referred to, Scotland has had two land use strategies since the Climate Change Act came into force there in 2009. They brought in a vision of sustainable land use, objectives and principles for decision-making. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, made clear, this is not saying, “We are going to allocate every piece of land to be used in a certain way”; it sets out certain principles.
I agree with pretty well every word that the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, said about food production, particularly healthy food production. I will add to that a little by looking at what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement takes a human rights-based approach to land use. It talks about the relationship between the people and the land. That is something that I do not think any noble Lord has really addressed yet. I am sure the Minister will be delighted to know that, should he be looking towards developing a land use strategy, the Green Party conference held just last weekend considered a draft land use strategy, an entire new chapter for the policy for a sustainable society. I would be delighted to share with the Minister the draft plans there, which set out our vision for land far more than I have time for today.
One thing I really want to focus on is that how we use land needs to address what I might call the other pressing issue. The maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, focused on climate; many other noble Lords have focused on biodiversity and the state of nature. I want to focus on poverty and inequality, and how we need a land use strategy that tackles those. The issue of the right to roam is something else we talked about at the Green Party conference. The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, talked in her introduction about how there are multiple pressures. We need about 130% of the land we actually have for all the uses we need it for. One answer to that is very clearly multiple uses: using land to grow food, to store carbon or for nature but also making it available for recreation and public use is one way to double our use of the available land. In that way, the Scottish approach really does look forward.
Looking to Wales, as a number of noble Lords referred to the approach there is driven by its Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act—something that the noble Lord, Lord Bird, has been championing in your Lordships’ House and that we have seen a lot of support for. If we look to that, we can think about managing our land in ways that improve it for the future. We come back to the state of nature, but also, if we are thinking about the human rights approach, to improving the health and well-being of our population. That is where we come not just to issues of recreation and access of land, which we know are so crucial to human health and well-being, but to thinking about what kind of crops we are growing on that land. This is where I take issue, to some degree, with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and the idea that what we need to do with arable land is grow the kind of crops that we are growing on it now.
To take just one example, a large amount of some of our very best land is devoted to producing sugar beet, despite the fact that we consume vastly more sugar than we should be eating for public health and well-being. Were we growing fruit and vegetables on that land, perhaps in a mixed system that was managed in ways that were excellent for biodiversity and nature, then we would see a human rights approach, a nature-based approach, and an approach to land use that all fits together.
This comes back to the question of how we think about the ownership of land. Again, I refer back to the Green Party draft strategy. It talks about people in control of land being the stewards of that land. That is an approach that I believe we need to take forward and advance. It needs to be managed for the common good. That means profits can be made, certainly, and returns can be taken off, but we need to see all our land use managed under a strategy that works for the common good.
Finally, I come back to the noble Lord’s suggestion about energy generation. This is one of the great practical debates we are seeing now, particularly the issue of solar farms potentially being put on arable land and issues of biofuel crops. I have great concerns about those issues, but it is worth looking at the history. If we go back about 150 years, about one-third of our arable land was actually used for energy production. It grew hay and oats, producing, very literally, horsepower.
What we need is a land use strategy. We need rules that stop the damaging use of land. We need ELMS to be systems encouraging positive uses of land. It is really quite a challenge for the Government to fit those three sides of the triangle together into something that really works for people and nature, but that is the challenge that we need the land use strategy to cater to.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a small organic farmer, as someone who is involved in sequestration of land and as the chairman of a company that advises quite a few food companies. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, for what I thought was a remarkable maiden speech. I ticked off all the things I agreed with him on and found no crosses, so I thank him very much indeed.
I wonder if I may say something to the last speaker. We often get more by saying “thank you” for what we have been given and then asking for more than by constantly attacking. That, I must say, I find an unattractive part of the Green Party. The truth is that this Government are doing more than any other Government in the world, and I say that as a man who spends most of his time holding their feet to the fire and pointing out where they get it wrong. I do not think you help your case if you do not accept, first, that we have set targets which others have to reach and, secondly, that we are now doing the next step, which is seen in the net-zero strategy, the heat and buildings strategy, and the absolute decision that there will be no cars sold after 2030 which are not electric or equivalent. All those are extremely important and good things, and having said “thank you” for them, I hope the Minister will accept one or two criticisms about where we could go further.
I think my noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, thinks I am sometimes a little critical of a land use strategy. I always worry about the word “strategy”, because sometimes it becomes enclosing rather than releasing, but she explained very clearly what she means by this and I am therefore entirely on her side. There is no doubt that this Government, like previous Governments, are benighted by their silos; they do not seem to be able to break out of them. This is a serious matter when it comes to land use. If you read the Net Zero Strategy, there is very little about land use, mainly because it was written by BEIS, and Defra appears to have had no influence on it—it could not, because it has not got a policy. The trouble is that there is no Defra policy, just general comments about what will arise. I repeat what the EFRA Select Committee of the House of Commons said: you cannot move from one system of support to an entirely different one in a haphazard manner. That is precisely what we are trying to do at the moment.
As the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, asked, how does a farmer make any decisions today? He is told it will all be in the ELMS but we do not know what will be in the ELMS or how it will affect them. We do not even know how it will integrate with private decisions outside. What will be the terms? How do we deal with this? There is none of that in the present circumstance.
I do not blame Defra for finding this difficult; we found that in debating the Environment Bill. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith, who we know is on the side of the angels, found it very difficult to argue the soil issue, because the real answer is that Defra has not got its act together on that and therefore did not want to put it in the Bill. We have to recognise that “siloisation”—if there is such a horrible word—is almost endemic; it is a problem of government generally, not just this Government. There is therefore a need to, somehow or other, bring together the parts of government when that is so essential that we can no longer resist it. It seems to me that that is exactly the point we have reached with land use.
The Climate Change Committee said very clearly that we cannot meet net zero unless we have a significant amount of land use which brings carbon out of the atmosphere. I always want to remind people of the reason we managed without all this before: historically, balance was created. Human beings, animals and plants all have emissions; we do not have zero emissions, which is why the concept of moving to a zero-emission world is nonsense. We are emitting at this moment—I am, particularly, because I am speaking. We need to remember that the world balanced that: for the emissions that came out, there was sequestration taking carbon in. That balance is the issue; a point made in the wonderful book by Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. We have to get back to that balance of nature.
Land—the earth and the soil—will play a big part in that. Therefore, I was very disappointed that the amendment fell which would have insisted on setting a date at which the Government would treat soil with the same concern as they claim to have now for air and water. We in the House of Lords have certainly changed the attitude to water—suggesting that we should not contaminate it with sewage—so now let us get to soil, which is so important.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and I am very pleased that she secured this very important debate. If we are going to do this, I would like to see a department of land use. We really need to bring agriculture, the natural environment, forestry and planning together. As the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches said, planning is crucial here. It is important to have a land use strategy—and I would like to go further and have a land use department—because the planning system we have at the moment does not address in any way some of the major issues of land use. There is no connection with the net-zero strategy. This is the crucial issue. Unless the planning Bill which we are told we will have makes clear that the principal issue of planning is to help us meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement and our statutory commitment to deal with climate change and get to net zero by 2050, it will not have done its job properly.
We then come to the arguments which I have heard from others on both sides. It was extremely helpful to have my noble friend Lord Carrington speak first and then the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, second. I like to be in the middle, and I come between the two of them. I have to say to my noble friend that we must have a big change among farmers; it is not a question of just going on as we are. We cannot go on farming in the way we have. We have done great damage to the land, using things we should not use, and we will not be able to do it again. The appearance of flea beetle, black-grass and all the rest of it has shown what we have done and how we have ceased to deal with nature as we should. All of us should take some blame for that.
On the other hand, I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that the idea that somehow or other some great hand would decide what should be grown, how it should be grown, what it should be and all the rest of it seems thoroughly despicable. We really do not need that. We have to create the circumstances, as all Governments should, in which people find it easier to do good and more difficult to do bad. That is a very important mechanism that we have. We do that by having a proper planning Act, by helping farmers to move to responsible and regenerative agriculture, and by moving away from the use of artificial phosphates and the other things we have been doing, particularly poisoning so much. This has made us the worst country among developed countries for biodiversity. That is a terrible statement. I am afraid that part of that has been the fault of agriculture. We have to recover from that point of view.
To finish, I merely say this. If we are going to deal with these things, we have to deal with them holistically, but there is no means of doing so at the moment. I hope we will move to a Government with a ministry of land use, but, until we do, it seems we need a proper framework, within which each department can work, and which will help Defra to stand up and be counted on these issues and be more able to influence the decisions made by the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Education, BEIS and the Treasury than it appears now to be. This is important for Defra, and I hope it will take this opportunity.
My Lords, it is somewhat intimidating to follow the noble Lord, Lord Deben, whose comments I agree with. I declare my interests as set out in the register as the unpaid chair of the Community Land Trust Network and a vice-president of the LGA. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, on securing a debate on this important topic and thank her for her extensive and knowledgeable introduction to this extremely vital subject. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and congratulate him on his excellent maiden speech. I am sure we will hear many more excellent contributions from him in future.
Land and the uses to which it is put should not be a haphazard process but properly thought out and part of an overarching strategy, not confined by zoning. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has raised these issues on several occasions, especially during the passage of the Agriculture Bill, in which I believe it would have been most usefully included, as agriculture takes up 72% of land. I agree with the majority of the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Carrington.
The House of Lords Rural Economy Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Foster of Bath, called for a spatial plan for land use in England back in April 2019. In March 2020, the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, called for a special inquiry committee into a land use framework for England. The NFU, Green Alliance, Wildlife and Countryside Link, and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission are all calling for a land use framework, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Young, and those of us present here today. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, spoke eloquently about infrastructure and the reuse of buildings instead of demolition.
Land is a finite resource and the many claims on it need to be planned in order to make the best use of it. Land swallowed up by private equity and businesses for forestry and carbon subsidies, without any thought to the strategic impact or democratic assessment, is unhelpful. How is the country to reach net zero by 2050 if all the elements of land use are not pulled together in a cohesive land use strategy?
Food production and food security are vital to the country. We have seen in recent weeks the effect on our food supplies of having insufficient lorry drivers to bring produce in from Europe. I have seen notices on supermarkets’ shelves saying how sorry they are that the usual choice of foods is not available for their special offers due to the difficulties of obtaining produce. The public have been used to a secure supply of food and find it unacceptable when this is not available. We must provide more food for ourselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said.
The Agriculture Act introduced environmental land management schemes to replace the old CAP system of payment. ELMS reward farmers for increasing biodiversity on their farms, improving the soil and hedgerows and encouraging wildlife back into the field margins—all excellent outcomes. The scheme does not provide financial reward for growing more crops and food but encourages higher yields; this is to come through selling produce in the marketplace. I fully support the return of a more environmentally friendly way of farming at the same time as encouraging food production.
I remember with horror the stories of farmers who had been contracted to produce a crop for a well-known chain of supermarkets only to be told that their crop was not sufficiently uniform in size or that the supermarket had decided that it did not need it. The result was the farmer ploughing their crop back into the ground. We cannot condone this and must attempt to do everything that we can to prevent food waste. A land use strategy that clearly covers the production of food is essential. I note the adverts on the Tube for boxes of vegetables delivered to your door from a company using produce that is too small, too bendy, too many and too ugly. We must use all the produce that farmers and growers provide, not just the shiniest and most uniform in size.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, has long been a champion of forestry and ancient woodlands. Tree planting has moved up the Government’s agenda, but we need to plant the right tree species in the right places where they are likely to thrive and grow. The science behind this is extremely important and should be part of a proper land use strategy.
The provision of timber is likely to become the next big environmental issue as paper replaces plastic bags, but this does not help the country’s carbon footprint, as paper uses more carbon to produce than plastic. However, it does degenerate far more quickly and the waste has less impact on the earth.
Trees are, of course, important for carbon sequestration. However, how many councils set aside areas in their local plans specifically for tree planting and carbon sequestration? Of those councils that have peat moors and peat levels, how many have specific reference in their plans to carbon sequestration? Those with peat levels, such as Somerset, spend time licensing businesses to allow for the abstraction of peat for garden use. It is time that the Government banned the sale of such peat for garden use completely. There are, after all, alternative products to enrich the soil in gardens without the use of peat.
On the upside of this, there are brilliant reclamation schemes in place for extinct or redundant peat workings. I have visited some and seen the return of birds and wildlife to the refilled ponds, rhines and banks surrounding these areas. What was an eyesore is now a pleasant place to walk and relax and for a family to spend time together in the open air.
Planning departments are involved in all the above and have a positive role to play, but it is currently up to each individual planning authority—whether on a district, county, unitary or metropolitan council—to decide to what extent it plans for the whole land use in its area or just housing numbers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, mentioned. It would be remiss of me, given the passage of the PCSC Bill, not to mention the need for all local authorities to include the provision of sites for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in their plans.
The Government make a lot of noise about providing homes, both by private developers and for social housing. However, they do not provide the continuity to give local authorities, housing associations, developers or registered social landlords any indication that they are serious about the subject. I have been the chair of the Community Land Trust Network for six years and come to the end of my term of office next month. During this time, we have seen seven Housing Ministers—a turnover of over one a year. During the six years we have had Brandon Lewis, Gavin Barwell, Alok Sharma, Dominic Raab, Kit Malthouse, Esther McVey and Christopher Pincher. This does not inspire the housing providers with confidence and definitely not continuity.
While the Government are talking about how local authority planning departments are too slow in processing planning applications, there are over a million extant planning applications in the system. I am sure that the Minister is fed up with hearing that statistic, but extant planning applications blight the land. Developers offer landowners an option and, years later, the developer puts in a planning application. During this time, the landowner is unlikely to make any investment in the land. Once an application is submitted, local residents, depending on where the land is, mount a counterattack to preserve their green space—if it is green space. Residents are overruled, planning is granted and then what? Nothing. The land may sit there for years. A drainage ditch may be dug, some posts and markers may be put into the ground, but often not even that happens. No homes are built. Sometimes detailed plans are produced, but still no homes are built. While the country is suffering a housing shortage, this situation is a disgrace, but it could easily be tackled by legislation.
I want to raise the role of community land trusts in helping to provide housing led by the community in both rural and urban areas. Very rural hamlets and villages are nervous of overdevelopment, but taking charge of providing the housing that they need through a CLT is a brilliant way of achieving a win-win situation. CLTs do not only serve the smaller communities; there are other larger developments operating under the CLT banner.
Kennett CLT is working with East Cambridgeshire District Council to take forward a 500-home garden village which will own the public space and 10% of the homes when completed. The architects who did the master plan commented on how refreshing it was to codesign it with local people who were thinking about the long-term stewardship of their community. Walterton & Elgin Community Homes owns over 600 homes in north Paddington. Two council estates were transferred to its ownership in 1993 and since then it has invested over £37 million to renovate, demolish, replace and build new homes. Additionally, it has a new community centre, nursery and commercial space. It is one of the most highly rated social landlords in the country and is entirely community owned and run. These are brilliant examples of where communities think about the land use in their area and ensure that it delivers for their needs. Why are the Government not doing the same?
Land is scarce and has to be stretched to provide a very wide range of facilities in order for the country to be a leader in biodiversity, carbon sequestration, secure food production, safe and secure homes for its residents and sufficient open spaces for those residents to be able to live healthy lives. Surely now is the time, on the cusp of COP 26, for the Government to take steps to ensure that a land use framework is in place for England as it is for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Can the Minister tell the House why the Government are dragging their feet on this issue and are out of step with the devolved Administrations?
My Lords, I should begin by declaring an interest as a board member of the South Downs National Park, which is the planning authority for that protected landscape.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Young for tabling this debate today. I must say that when I saw the speakers’ list for this debate, despite the fact that there are some regrettable but understandable absentees, I knew that we would be in safe hands—and this has proved to be the case, because we have heard a number of wise and thoughtful contributions, for which I thank all noble Lords.
I particularly thank and welcome the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, and congratulate him on what I though was a very inspiring speech. He clearly has a great deal to contribute to our rural debates. I hope that his passion for organic farming and renewable technologies will indeed help to shape our policies for the future. I absolutely agreed when he said that we need to treat the countryside with the respect that it truly deserves.
As my noble friend Lady Young said, we debated the issue of land planning at length during the passage of the then Agriculture Bill and again during the passage of the then Environment Bill, and, on each outing, I am pleased to say that she has won more converts to her cause. She has certainly persuaded me along the way.
The fact is that in the UK, and particularly in England, we have an acute shortage of land and the demands and expectations of what the land will deliver are becoming intense. On the one hand, we want to set aside land for habitat renewal, to plant more trees for carbon sequestration, to provide more green spaces for recreation and to become more self-sufficient in food. On the other hand, as we have heard, the pressure for more housing, schools, hospitals and infrastructure competes with our love and respect for those green spaces. Add to that the fact that land is scarce, expensive and its ownership is concentrated in very few hands, and the pressures become insurmountable.
During the passage of the Environment Bill, we debated these pressures at length. My noble friend Lady Young talked about the Bill’s proposals for nature recovery strategies, which are intended to map and provide a nature recovery framework. Local government is intended to be a key partner in this, but we also know—and have heard again today—that it will be conflicted by pressures to build. As my noble friend Lord Whitty, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, and others have said, sadly, the balance of power between the environment and development now lies firmly with the developers.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, made a further important point, which is that even when developers get the right to develop, they do not—and it is an even worse use of land when it is just left moribund.
Meanwhile, as we know, in future, through the reforms of the Agriculture Act, landowners and farmers will be incentivised to renature their land. The sustainable farming incentive will replace the basic payments scheme and, we hope, will move away from intensive agriculture and change the face of our landscape. We can all see the sense in this, and it is essential that we use this opportunity to work with the farming community to halt the decline in biodiversity and ensure that it plays its part in achieving our net-zero ambitions.
However, I also agree with my noble friend Lord Whitty and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that in this model, sadly, there is a danger that food production will be increasingly squeezed, as the strategy is that it should be determined by the market, with the worrying trend for trade deals to undermine the environmental and economic stability of the UK farming community. So food production must be an essential part of our land use going forward.
I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, that we need to look more closely at the types of food produced and the need for more locally sourced fruit and vegetables. I did not see that as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, described it—a big hand coming down on the farmers—but as part of the incentives that we give for different developments in agriculture for the future. We have an incentive-based scheme at the moment.
The Environment Bill also encourages landowners to sign up to long-term conservation covenants: taking land out of agriculture to provide environmental offsets for the damage caused by building elsewhere. The private sector is already establishing institutions that can buy and sell those offsets, and new markets will undoubtedly develop, which many have likened to the wild west, with little strategic oversight of the outcome of that buying and selling; some indeed being done by overseas investors, who do not necessarily have an interest in the use of that land.
In the South Downs, we are already hearing of farmers being approached to provide forgo farming and instead provide carbon offsets for developments taking place along the coast, and the introduction of biodiversity net gain will ramp up those sorts of offers. This is so far happening on a piecemeal basis, outside any strategic plan for the preservation of the protected landscapes. Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union has already talked about conservation covenant stacking, where one farmer could be providing offsets for a number of developers, potentially having multiple commitments on the same piece of land. There is clearly money to be made from this—but is it really what we want? These developments seem to be taking place before we have had a hard look at what is the best use of this very scarce resource.
My noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, made a compelling case for a Defra strategic map, underpinned by proper-quality data, which would help determine that land use and the priorities for the future. The case was made that that should not be for just one use; it should be multifunctional. You can have more than one use for a piece of land.
Meanwhile, over in DLUHC—are we allowed to call it “D-Luck”?; I will be interested to hear how the Minister describes it, but I will stick with that for the moment—the Government are seeking reforms to simplify and speed up planning decisions in an effort to increase the number of new homes. As we know, local residents, communities and local councils would be the losers from these reforms and it is fair to say that, as a result, the proposals have not gone down very well.
The Government’s accompanying planning White Paper had virtually nothing to say about how the new planning system would work towards the Government’s goals around net zero. This concern was echoed by the HCLG Select Committee, which urged that any changes to planning should also address climate change and creating sustainable development, as well as dealing with the increased threat of flooding. As the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said, the latest net-zero strategy, written by BEIS, also has little reference to land use. He rightly made the point that that is because Defra does not have a policy on it and is therefore missing out on the opportunity to have any influence on it.
Of course, the appointment of Michael Gove to the new department in September has allowed the unpopular reform of planning to be paused. We are all curious to know how much of a rethink is taking place in the department on this matter, so can the Minister confirm that any revamped reforms will place local people at the heart of decision-making? With COP 26 about to start, can he say what urgent steps are being taken to ensure that our planning system is fit for purpose? Does he accept that our planning system needs to go hand in hand with tackling the climate crisis, whether in insulating existing homes, providing sustainable transport links or tackling the amount of carbon in the construction process?
All those issues come back to the impact of development on the environment and how we make the best decisions for land use. It is an issue which interlinks a number of government departments, all of which currently have competing interests and priorities. This is where my noble friend’s land use framework should step in. It would provide an overarching strategy for approaching the planning and investment decisions that impact on our land. It would provide head space to balance out the competing pressures, away from the day-to-day micro decisions that impact on land use—many of which, once taken, are irreversible. It would also help to address the important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, about the pressures and trends to be too parochial, rather than addressing the greater good.
I hope that the Minister, having heard this debate today, will agree to take my noble friend’s land use framework back to the Secretary of State as something that should underpin any future planning reforms. I hope he has also listened to the persuasive case made by the noble Lord, Lord Deben, for a ministry of land use, and that he can at least agree that we should use this “Gove pause” as a chance for a complete rethink of our approach to land use, and take into account that in future, a strategic framework should be key. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate. I did not realise that the first thing I would need to address is how to pronounce the acronym for my department. To my knowledge, it is not known as the department for “LUHC”; we tend to call it “DLUHC”. Some other people have called it the “DLHC”, but I think “DLUHC” is winning the day at the moment.
I thank the noble Lady, Baroness Young of Old Scone, for moving the Motion on this topic. I have listened with great interest to the various points raised and will address them in turn. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness for her continued scrutiny through her roles in the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, the Woodland Trust, the House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee and the Rural Economy Committee. She is certainly keeping herself extremely busy.
I thank the noble Baroness for her valuable work in ensuring that planning is considered alongside other infrastructure, landscape and agricultural land processes. There can be no doubt that these are all important considerations when making decisions on land use. The Government agree that a strategic approach to planning—alongside infrastructure, environmental, landscape and agriculture considerations—is absolutely essential. That is why we have a National Planning Policy Framework, which provides a streamlined, cohesive framework within which locally prepared plans for housing and other development can be produced. It must be taken into account by local authorities in preparing their development plans and it is a material consideration in planning decisions.
The framework supports a flexible approach that can be tailored to the specific nature and extent of the strategic issues facing each local area. It is complemented by a number of other measures right across government that set out planning, infrastructure, landscape and agricultural processes. This includes the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime, which applies to major infrastructure. It ensures that the environmental benefits or disbenefits, and the views of local communities and local authorities that may be affected, are taken fully into account by the Secretary of State, who makes decisions on whether to grant development consent.
I also know how important it is to local communities that new housing development is supported by the provision of infrastructure that benefits both new and existing residents. Contributions from developers play an important part in delivering the infrastructure that new homes and local economies require. My colleagues in Transport have set out a number of important measures to support the delivery of important transport infrastructure. England’s long-term National Bus Strategy, Bus Back Better, sets out a bold vision for bus services across the country, and the transport decarbonisation plan is the biggest piece of work we have ever done to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
We are confident that our planning system can and will enable multifunctional land use for the benefit of the environment, without needing to completely tear up the rule book and use a framework for all land uses.
I wholeheartedly agree with the statements made by my noble friend Lord Goldsmith when this topic arose in your Lordships’ House in September. It is critical that we take a long view on our natural wealth and ecosystems as part of our strategic approach. I echo his message that the Government are already taking a strategic approach to land use, particularly when it comes to environmental aims.
Again, I thank your Lordships for your contributions today and will now endeavour to respond to the points raised. I start by saying what a tremendous maiden speech my noble friend Lord Harlech gave. He will certainly grace this House for many years to come—far longer than I will, for sure—and will make some powerful contributions. I appreciated his comments about the importance of digital connectivity in rural settings.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, mentioned that today a memorial service for the Earl of Selborne is taking place. I got to know him when I was leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council and I asked him whether he would be able to conduct a commission for me. I know what a champion of the environment he was, in particular pushing the case for sustainable urban drainage as an alternative solution to grey infra- structure. He is a great loss to this House and someone I admired greatly.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, spoke about the current mechanisms we have in place to integrate decisions across all land uses. What we are hearing is a call for integration, and we are working with other departments. DLUHC is working with Defra and BEIS to ensure that our environmental goals are achieved in an integrated and efficient way. Trade-offs are being carefully managed and the Government are focused on achieving multifunctional land use.
I say in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—this point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—that I simply do not agree that the balance has tipped entirely so that powers are solely in the hands of developers. As someone who spent six years as a council leader looking to grow my borough, I simply do not accept that. We have recently reaffirmed that local authorities remain very much in the driving seat in designating, protecting and enhancing land use and protecting the green belt to prevent urban sprawl and encroachment on to greenfield and around towns and cities.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, also raised the question of how local nature recovery strategies relate to the planning system and decisions on agricultural land. Our approach to spatial prioritisation is intended to integrate with the local nature recovery strategies. Doing so will create policy coherence for land managers on the ground, as well as enabling environmental land management schemes’ funding streams from schemes that reward farmers and land managers for producing environmental benefits to dovetail with other funding streams such as biodiversity net gain.
A number of noble Lords—among them, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Young of Old Scone, Lady Boycott, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle—called for a new land use framework or a new land use strategy. In fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, offered to send over a draft strategy from the recent Green Party conference. I am sure our officials will be happy to take a closer look at that. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Deben called for another ministry, for land use. I am sure we will have to work out the acronym before we create another ministry, but that is a central thing that all the speakers were calling for.
The Government are already doing much to ensure a strategic approach to land use across England. They are also reviewing what more might be needed following the excellent food strategy report led by Henry Dimbleby. We have made a commitment to answer the recommendations within six months, so your Lordships will have to wait a while for a full response.
The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and my noble friend Lord Deben mentioned that ELMS will not be available until 2024, and that we will not know what is in it until then. It is fair to say that part of ELMS will be rolled out before 2024. We have been conducting tests since 2018, which will continue throughout the transition period. We plan to start a phased rollout of the local nature recovery scheme from 2023, so by 2024 we will have fully introduced our three new environmental land management schemes.
My Lords, this does not seem to me to have anything to do with the timetable of farmers. Farmers have to plant and then, when the harvest comes, plant again. This means that they will have no certainty about what to do when one system is phased out and the other is only half in. That is what the EFRA committee said and that is what we are trying to drive home to the Government: it is a question of the harvest, which the Government cannot change—that is the way the world works.
I recognise that, as we phase out the old system and bring in the new, we need to work on proper communication, so that our farmers have that framework. I am sure my colleagues in Defra will continue to ensure that there is a clear direction of travel. I take my noble friend’s point.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the need for a guide to how ELMS are being rolled out. We published the agricultural transition plan in November 2020, and a progress update in June 2021, setting out a timeline for how ELMS are being rolled out; we will be publishing more information later this year. I hope that also addresses my noble friend’s overarching point.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, raised the importance of having sufficient land for food. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, raised the question of how food is produced. I know she is an absolute expert on this, as the former chair of the London Food Board when we both served the then mayor in City Hall. The Government agree that there is an urgent need to protect the natural assets that are essential to food production in this country. Under our new environmental land management schemes, farmers, foresters and other land managers will be paid for delivering environmental public goods. ELMS will support farmers to increase productivity and enable the more efficient use of land. The farming investment fund and the farming innovation programme will support investment in equipment, technology and infrastructure.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, all pressed for a further update on planning reforms. It is clear that our planning system needs modernisation, to be one that embraces digital technology, benefits communities and creates places that we are proud of. I know that some aspects of the proposals have attracted great debate, so it is unsurprising that we are taking some time to review the reforms and listen to voices from across the sector. We will announce the next steps in due course. However, we are clear that the reforms must address the priorities of this Government: levelling up, delivering infrastructure, supporting communities and delivering the homes that we need in the places where we need them.
I point out to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornhill, that I think you can achieve more homes without necessarily having to build a future battery of high rises. It is quite obvious that we can learn from the Victorians, who used their pattern books and developed high-density homes—particularly mansion blocks, such as the one where I grew up as a child, in Fulham. They often had between 750 and 900 habitable rooms per hectare. They are not that tall but they are dense, and provide decent accommodation for many families. Housing typology does not always mean that you have to revert to the high-rise.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, there have been a number of housing secretaries, but I would point out that the current one, Chris Pincher, has been in office longer than I have. He had been there for a month before I was appointed a Minister in the February reshuffle of 2020, so we have already gone a good 18 months with some continuity. I am sure he will continue to serve for some time to come, so we have continuity in place.
I assure the noble Baroness that the Government already take a strategic approach to land use that covers urban and rural development. However, as the processes that I have outlined today cut right across multiple policy areas, it is only right that they remain separate and that we keep localism at the heart of our approach.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, once again for the topic of the debate. As someone who grew up in a city environment, I have certainly learned a lot about agricultural land-use planning. I thank noble Lords for all their expert contributions, and I look forward to continuing to work with this House on such important matters.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate today for the near unanimity around the Chamber on the need for a joined-up set of principles and a framework. I will come on to talk briefly about my reaction to what the Minister said, but I thank him for his response.
The very personal maiden speech by the noble Lord, Lord Harlech, was quite heart-breaking, really; I felt moved. I am sure that, with his range of backgrounds, he will be an adornment to our House. I particularly liked his identification of the potential for a variety of roles for land managers in future; this is indeed an opportunity for land managers to think about what they can do to deliver some of these pressing national priorities.
I turn to the Minister’s remarks. I feel that to quote the NPPF as the overarching set of principles that guide all of this is probably giving a role to the NPPF that it cannot really bear. There is no doubt that it has to be supplemented with a whole range of other regimes, some of them already existing and others non-existent. The Minister quoted the bus strategy, the transport plan and the nationally significant infrastructure project regimes; all of these are prepared by different parts of government, and I do not believe the NPPF brings those together. It does not bring together the particularly pressing issues of carbon and biodiversity, nor does it do much to try to bring some shape and direction to the changes that are going to happen in land use as a result of the changes in agriculture.
As far as ELMS are concerned, I think we are now piloting the pilots; it has been piloted again and again, and it is getting to a stage where farmers are beginning to despair and are looking for leadership. If we are not careful, we will stumble into a set of solutions for agricultural land, with no national or indeed local oversight, that is driven entirely by the perceptions of 100,000 farmers and what they think ELMS mean. That is quite a dangerous place to be.
Another dangerous place to be is illustrated by that heart-breaking statistic about the number of local groups that are springing up all over the place because they are very unhappy about what is happening with land-use decisions. I personally worry about being cast as a nimby, because I am campaigning in north Bedfordshire where—just to show the lack of valency in the local nature recovery strategy process—the recovery strategy has identified an area in need of protection as being a high-quality area for nature recovery, but it is in the local authority’s planning system as somewhere to put 6,500 new housing units, in an area badly served by transport and other infrastructure. So local nature recovery strategies are not proving to be the answer either.
It was a bit of a giveaway at the very end when the Minister, in his account of the objectives of the new planning system, talked about houses, infrastructure, development and economic benefit but did not once manage to mention climate change or biodiversity. I believe we are seeing a huge divide between the formal planning system and these many quasi-planning systems that are growing up around other bits of government policy, and that is not the way forward.
Still, having campaigned to get greater clarity in this area, I am not going to give up. What I heard around the House was that people agreed that there need to be some overarching principles that are not directive but enabling, and not prescriptive but releasing—they are the words that I heard—because the right outcomes will not happen by chance. So I urge all noble Lords who have been convinced of the value of the debate today to lobby their Liaison Committee representative. On 15 November, the Liaison Committee will make a decision on the next series of ad hoc Select Committees, and a land use Select Committee is on the shortlist. If noble Lords feel that that would be a good idea, I ask them to go and lobby their representative. That is probably against the rules of this House, but what ho.
I thank all involved today. I have now completely forgotten what form of words I am supposed to use, but I have already moved my Motion.