Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land

CPRE’s new pamphlet, Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land is one of our best.

Neil Sinden’s ‘long read’ introductory essay gives a great overview of the issue and why it matters. All the short pieces that follow are worth reading, but I would particularly highlight the contributions by Lord Deben, aka John Gummer (“we need a Department of Land Use”); Corinne Swan (“there is undoubtedly something missing within England to shape and guide development”); Barbara Young (“the one silver lining following the EU referendum is the opportunity to design an integrated land use strategy from scratch… in the context of climate change”); Georgina Mace and Ian Bateman (“decisions driven solely by market values have much lower aggregate values for the UK population than decisions that take account of the wider range of benefits from the land”); and Sir Terry Farrell’s rousing concluding essay:

“British cities and towns have hugely benefited from 1000 years of relative peace and stability…. But population growth and global warming effects like sea rises and fluvial flooding, as well as temperature rises and rainfall changes, are making us think again. The scale, complexity and seriousness of these issues mean we cannot any longer proceed as before, treating land as a disposable asset. We have now got to plan – and proactively plan for rapid and radical change.”

I hope Landlines will stimulate a debate on how England could benefit from a land use strategy, to sit alongside the forthcoming 25 Year Environment Plan. Here is my Foreword to Landlines.

Why are we not more interested in the land? Newspapers carry stories about where to put new houses, roads and runways; about flooding or hosepipe bans (sometimes at the same time); about the cost of food, water and energy. Climate change is acknowledged, but usually as distant threat, rather than as something already threatening homes and our most productive farmland.

But all these issues come back to the question of how we use land, and we seldom discuss that. Even in ‘land use planning’, we muddle through. As Corinne Swain notes in her essay in this collection, there are “significant risks of flooding, water shortages and other environmental constraints in the very parts of the country subject to the greatest housing growth pressures” – those where we are now planning to build the most houses.

In the early twentieth century, the Land Question (then largely a question of land ownership) dominated British politics. Now it is almost forgotten. It is the contention of this pamphlet that we should start to ask it again, to think seriously about a strategic, long-term approach to land use to help address the challenges the country faces. Thinking seriously about how we get the most from our land will help produce better outcomes not just for the environment, but for society and the economy.

The pamphlet has thought-provoking contributions from a number of individuals: thanks to all of them. We hope it will provide the basis for a broad coalition to press for a new land use settlement for the twenty-first century.

Such a strategy need not amount to a national spatial plan, though that has some supporters. But it should at least enable us to ask the right questions. It should advance the Government’s valuable work in developing a 25 year plan for the environment, but go further by encompassing all land uses. It is a sad fact that a 25 year plan for the environment is unlikely to hold much sway with the Treasury, even though Treasury officials and Ministers occupy the same environment as the rest of us.

Neil Sinden’s introductory essay proposes a Land Use Commission to develop the strategy. Why not a Royal Commission? The Prime Minister has shown that she is willing to dust down some good ideas from earlier times, and she has spoken of moving beyond “laissez-faire liberalism that leaves people to get by on their own”. Leaving land use to take its course with only the haphazard and poorly integrated interventions now in place will have an ever more damaging effect as our population grows and we cope with the multiple pressures of globalisation, technological change and climate change.











6 Responses to “Landlines: why we need a strategic approach to land”

  1. 1 Andrew Carey March 5, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    Based on the last sentence, you’d think Great Britain was already a damaged place and the NPPF, National Parks and successive national interventions didn’t happen. How you wrote that Shaun without your head falling off defies science.

    • 2 sspiers March 5, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      Andrew, there are lots of interventions, many of them good, most of them well-intentioned. But they are poorly integrated. The way we decide how to use our land does not adequately equip us to cope with climate change, to ensure food or energy resilience, to tackle regional inequalities and so on. We can do better. The point of the CPRE is pamphlet is to encourage a discussion about these things and, we hope, so action.

  2. 3 Tim Lund March 5, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    One reason the Land Question no longer dominates British politics is because a broad consensus emerged mid 20th century with the Town and Country Planning Acts. You may think land should also have been nationalised, but the control of land made available for development has acted like a government backed cartel for landowners. As Toby Lloyd says in his recent report, New Civic House Building, “developers compete to offer landowner most”, which implies the lion’s share of the economic value added by new development goes to landowners, although they are largely passive in the whole process.

    I’d be interested to read your thoughts on the Uthwatt Report, and what became of betterment. This seems the question which, if not dominating British politics, should at least get more focus. Some quick googling got me to this piece, which seems interesting, but I’d welcome other links you might be able to give.

    • 4 sspiers March 5, 2017 at 4:17 pm

      Tim, I’m not advocating land nationalisation (perish the thought). I’m not the person to comment on Uthwatt and ‘what became of betterment’ – try Toby Lloyd of Shelter or Hugh Ellis and Kate Henderson of the TCPA, whose book ‘Rebuilding Britain’ I reviewed in an earlier blog. But I don’t believe that the Town and Country Planning Acts, and the effective nationalisation of development rights, make inflated land prices inevitable. Nor is this suggested by Shelter’s excellent ‘New Civic House Building’ report, snappily summarised in this video:

      In any case, what is the alternative to a planning system in a country like ours? I do not believe a development free-for-all would significantly bring down land prices, but it would come at a great environmental cost.

      • 5 Tim Lund March 5, 2017 at 4:53 pm

        You may not be advocating land nationalisation, but the Shelter proposal seems to depend on the power of national government setting a price at which a developer would buy land to implement a locally approved development plan. It’s debatable how many local communities would be prepared to build enough houses for newcomers to their neighbourhoods, but in any case, the proposal seems to be saying that most, if not all the betterment should go to the local community, assuming the developer gets no super normal profit.

        The possibility of ‘New Civic House Building’ implies that inflated land prices are not inevitable, but the description of the current system implies that this is what is happening. Following the TCPAs, attempts were made to capture betterment, but seem to have failed. If this failure was not inevitable, you need to explain what is different now compared with the 50s & 60s.

        What is the alternative to a planning system in a country like ours? Answer, an alternative planning system. The problem should not be framed as a binary choice between the system we have now and free-for-all.

  3. 6 Dave Blake March 7, 2017 at 8:27 am

    We hear a call for thoughtful discussion and long-term or landscape-scale thinking and planning in many areas: nature conservation, town & country planning, social development, education, health …

    What it pre-supposes in every case is that parliament is capable of this and that there is the leadership is in place in the various key agencies and NGO to engage in it, deliver on it and monitor it.

    “Short-termism” (horrid phrase) is not just a disease of government.

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