Sustainable land management: managing land better for environmental benefits

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UK at historical crossroad for the governance of land and the natural environment

4 minute read

Posted: 01/10/2021

MEDIA
UK Food Council

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Contact:
Arno de Bruin



INTRODUCTION
Actions for addressing and adapting to climate change, achieving food security and tackling the biodiversity crisis are all embedded in and depend on how land is managed. Existing Government policy and targets have so far failed to address many of these complexities of land, farming and the natural environment.

Since the Government Office for Science Foresight report “Land Use in the UK in the 21st Century” was published in 2010, many environmental indicators, such as those for biodiversity and water quality, are still in decline. In 2018, the 25 Year Environment Plan (25 YEP) set out the Government’s ambitions for the natural environment under separate policy areas. Yet the Environmental Audit Committee have stated the 25 YEP does not provide sufficient direction to leave the environment in a better state, and that existing Government policy and targets are inadequate to remedy historic and current rates of biodiversity loss – which characterises the UK as the most nature depleted nation in the G7. Over the past decade, the UK has failed to meet a raft of international targets to prevent further declines in the state of nature.

Existing policies and targets are not joined up across government to address biodiversity loss.

CHALLENGES
The challenges arising from interactions between discrete policy siloes have been discussed through integrated decision making frameworks like natural capital accounting, payments for ecosystem services and Nature Based Solutions. There are also examples of more specific ‘on the ground’ opportunities, such as integrating policies that both support bee populations and improve food production. For example, policies that encourage planting flowering strips in combination with lower pesticide use (through integrated pest management) can provide both crop yield benefits for agriculture and provide the environmental benefit of enhanced bee biodiversity, which supports other ecosystem processes.

There is also the example of tree planting, which if done in the right locations, can mitigate flooding (POSTNote 623) and sequester carbon dioxide (POSTNote 636), but if in the wrong place, will undermine these efforts. These and other examples illustrate the need to integrate policy across the discrete environmental sectors.

As part of its efforts to tackle these challenges, the Government is designing frameworks to replace the former subsidy arrangements under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, with the Environment Bill setting out a new regulatory framework for environmental targets and objectives.

Defra has identified what sustainable use of available land area looks like and the full suite of natural environment considerations and outcomes that are desired, while highlighting the major challenges to be addressed, and is developing new schemes to shape land management practices.

As part of the Agricultural Transition Plan, Defra are proposing the Sustainable Farming Incentive, the Local Nature Recovery (POSTnote 652) and Landscape Recovery Schemes to act as the main mechanisms for tackling the environmental challenges of climate change, ecosystem and biodiversity recovery and sustainable farm businesses. However, there are significant levels of uncertainty within the farming community and the proposals have faced substantial criticism by a wide range of conservation, farming and political organisations.

Sustainable Land Management (SLM) could be a way of addressing the criticisms the Government’s schemes face. SLM is a broad framework to help decision making around how we manage our land for greatest societal benefit. It emphasises local buy-in, stakeholder and community engagement as part of a larger coherent national scale spatial plan showing what to do and where.

It is a cross scale approach recommending that actions are supported by adequate knowledge transfer, data, monitoring, funding and democratic participation. SLM could also be a key tool for Government to integrate frameworks to address multiple land use pressures.

It is important to acknowledge the scale of the evidence base for SLM; which is limited to only a small number of targeted environmental outcomes in developed countries. Most examples of SLM as land policy are often found in developing countries where food security have been central concerns within processes of environmental and social change.

THE WELSH GOVERNMENT

The Welsh Government has recently adopted SLM in its land management strategy. The ambition is a transition towards landscapes that are multifunctional. This means that they: produce healthy food; protect wildlife; provide clean water; help to address climate change; provide protection from hazards; and they reflect cultural heritage values. This approach will require drawing on the full range of approaches that SLM offers to support land managers with adequate data, know-how, appropriate policy frameworks, financial support and other enabling conditions.

This brief describes how SLM frameworks can bridge the gaps between institutions, deliver cross-sector communication between partners and sets out 10 key principles common to these frameworks. It demonstrates the relevance of these principles in five key areas across food and farming, nature recovery, water management, climate change, culture and heritage
.

To bring context to these principles, the report takes a broad review of the challenges in implementation in these areas that have emerged from the evidence base. An annex also provides an overview of the history of agricultural land use in England, identifying key factors that shaped these landscapes.

Key Points in this brief include:
Land management is a complex challenge that requires integrated approaches across science, technology and economics, while being strongly shaped by cultural and social values and local traditions.

• Around 75% of land in England is farmed, which makes farming and farm-land managers central to the Governments’ environmental ambitions. Farming policy is itself undergoing generational changes in connection to Brexit and the Agricultural Act 2020. Conditions facing farm businesses will also change substantially over the coming years.

• Better land management can be incentivised through both private finance and public payments. But the “what”, “where” and “how” will be determined by the willingness of land managers. The challenge is in delivering a full range of public goods from land and balancing these so that one does not unduly affect others. For example, through generating unacceptable trade-offs between food provision and nature conservation. The National Food Strategy recommends that Government produce a Rural Land Use Map and Strategy to support spatial decision making for sustainable land use.

• Despite Government’s ambitions for land and the range of policy priorities in connection to this, the proposed frameworks such as the Agriculture Act 2020, the Environment Bill 2019-21 and the Planning Bill 2021, do not address or consider the trade-offs that inevitably arise from land management choices.

• SLM is a broad, holistic framework that seeks to align institutions, funding, knowledge and practice at all scales of governance and management. It could be an effective framework for managing the multiple pressures on English landscapes while facilitating the delivery of public goods. It emphasises local buy-in using demonstration sites and knowledge exchange, while building on existing decision support tools like natural capital accounting.

• Food and farming face substantial challenges. SLM provides a way of considering both farmers’ agency and consumer behaviour. The catchment approach for water is an existing example of collaboration between stakeholders, such as farmers, water companies and conservation bodies. Biodiversity and Net Zero policies are accountable to international treaties but delivery relies on management at landscape scale and depends on landowners working together. Culture and heritage are key to the value of landscapes and how they have been managed.

• SLM can benefit farming through agri-environmental practices that tie improving yields to environmental outcomes. Improved science and knowledge transfer that links agricultural practice to biodiversity and ecosystem service outcomes at different spatial scales with economic incentives is only part of the solutions. Incentives is only part of the solution. Institutional and cultural factors need to be considered to account for the way land managers see their role in delivering public goods. Current approaches currently lack sufficient knowledge of social science to understand land-owner motivation, cultural norms and historic information on the environment.

Land manager trust in the Government is low, and principles of SLM show ways of improving this.
• To deliver the Governments’ natural environment goals, land managers need to work with different actors and scales across the water, conservation and climate sectors in the private, government and third sector. There are challenges of scale, planning, skills and funding, since SLM plays out at landscape rather than field scale. Government funding and policy will need to address these challenges.

• SLM takes a root and branch approach to the underlying factors that shape landscapes and the public goods provided. It connects high level governance to the grassroots challenges of fostering working relationships within local community partnerships. Tensions between local parties and between the local and national governance are
foregrounded to support more cooperative approaches navigating multiple sources of funding and regulation.

• Optimising this complex arrangement is best achieved through polycentric governance where multiple authorities at different levels of governance (national, regional and community) coordinate coherently. Polycentric governance for SLM needs to be supported by adequate funding, aligned policy frameworks and improved knowledge transfer. The difference would be supporting managers with knowledge on the ground for “how to” do SLM rather than merely showing “what” the problems are.

The Dasgupta review recommended polycentric governance to deliver land use and management policy change. This allows local concerns and values to engage and negotiate with national environmental and biodiversity objectives.

Acknowledgements:
This brief was based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and was externally peer reviewed. We would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Dr Nick Isaac, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology I Professor Tom Oliver, University of Reading I Alice Lord, Natural England I Professor Mark Reed, SRUC I Dr Beth Brockett, Natural England I Professor Andy Purvis, NHM I Professor James Bullock, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology I Chris Uttley, Environment Agency I Richard Reynolds, Anglian Water
Professor Phil Haygarth, University of Lancaster I John Gorst, United Utilities I Vicki Heard, Sustain I Professor Ian Hodge, Cambridge University I Dr Mark Riley, Liverpool University I Danny Teasdale, Ullswater CIC I Dr Steve Carver, Leeds University I Emma Wright, North Pennines AONB Partnership I Professor David Powslon, Rothamsted I Jon Foot, AHDB
Adam Briggs, NFU I Professor Michael Winter, University of Exeter I Dr Charlie Outhwaite, UCL I Dr Tim Newbold UCL
Professor Mark Everard, UWE I Professor Jules Pretty, University of Essex I Professor Janet Dwyer, University of Gloucester I Rob Collins, Rivers Trust I Ciara Dwyer, University of Loughborough I Jonathan Baker, Defra I Richard Benwell, Wildlife and Countryside Link I Professor Edward Maltby, University of Liverpool I Professor Jim Harris, University of Cranfield I Steve Spode, Welsh Government I Professor Rob Fish, University of Kent I Professor Alister Scott, University of Northumbria I Kevin Austin, Environment Agency I Professor Joe Morris, University of Cranfield
Tom Finch, RSPB I Dr Chris Short, University of Gloucester I D-J Gent, Environment Agency I Charlie Burrell, Knepp Estate