Government ambitions to boost food production, protect nature and fight climate change, risk ‘overpromising’ finite UK land because of a lack of robust data, and disjointed policy making, a Royal Society report has said.
Multifunctional Landscapes: Informing a long-term vision for managing the UK’s land, published today (1 February) by the UK national academy of sciences, sets out how science and innovation can help get the most out of land.
At the heart of this is a drive towards more sophisticated, data-driven measurement of the multiple benefits land provides; from marketable outputs, like food and timber; to essential public goods, like recreation, carbon capture and biodiversity, that typically don’t provide financial return.
To ensure land is used productively, efficiently, and sustainably, the report recommends:
- Developing a shared and accessible evidence base, incorporating the full range of information necessary to support robust land use decisions. This includes data from the natural sciences, such as soil quality, climate and ecology, and the social sciences, to ensure the values of people who visit, live and work in landscapes are factored into decision making.
- Establishing evidence-led, cross-departmental land use frameworks to join up policy and help manage trade-offs between multiple different land uses – and support policy coherence across the four UK nations.
- Reforming financial support to explicitly incentivise the delivery of non-marketable benefits, such as biodiversity, and ensure they are locally adjustable to reflect the varying suitability of land to different functions.
- Investing in skills, research translation and technology to maximise the combination of benefits land is delivering, drive up productivity, and enable land managers to innovate and capitalise on new income streams.
This is an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate global leadership, the report adds, as England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland continue to develop their new agricultural and land policies outside the EU.
The report’s recommendations for an evidence-led, multifunctional approach to the land-dependent issues defining the 21st century – such as food security, climate change and biodiversity loss – could be a model that is replicated worldwide.
This should build on the progress of the Office of National Statistics and Geospatial Commission, which lays the groundwork for a continually evolving and improving land information resource for all the four nations.
“The UK does not have enough land for any of it to be non-productive,” said the report’s steering group Chair, Sir Charles Godfray FRS, Director of the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford.
“Productivity is about much more than food, timber and products that can be sold on markets. It should encompass all valuable land-based outputs, such as biodiversity and carbon sequestration, that are of critical importance for the UK and for which market values don’t normally exist.
“This report sets out how modern data and analytics can refine our accounting of the full complement of services land provides. How research and technology help maximise the broad productivity of every acre. And, how a land use policy framework can ensure co-ordinated decision making is informed by the latest evidence on our landscapes, and the people within them."
The report draws on expertise from across UK academia, politics, land management organisations and the Society’s Fellowship, as well as examples of evidence-led, multifunctional land use changes already underway.
The Lower Otter Restoration Project in Devon is seeking to re-establish the meandering flood plain of the River Otter estuary, which was straightened and enclosed to provide agricultural land during the Napoleonic Wars.
The objective is to significantly improve flood resilience and water quality, expand increasingly threatened inter-tidal habitats – with benefits to biodiversity and carbon sequestration – and preserve access roads and a stretch of the South West Coastal footpath.
But this has meant changes to the landscape, the relocation of a local cricket club and some farmland – which were increasingly susceptible to flooding.
“This is a managed restoration”, said John Varley OBE, a member of the report working group and CEO of Clinton Devon Estates, which is implementing multifunctional and evidence-led principles across the 25,000 acres it manages, including the lower Otter.
“The land along the lower Otter was vulnerable to storm surges, and we knew we had to plan if we were to put the land to better use while preserving essential infrastructure.
“Getting to this stage has entailed significant amounts of work – from public consultation, to biodiversity surveys and the use of lidar and other techniques to better understand the area’s topography and hydrology.
“But as this Royal Society report sets out, that core evidence base was essential to bring the local community with us and show our vision of what the area could offer."
People and landscapes
As part of the report’s development, the steering group commissioned a public engagement exercise speaking to people across the UK about the future of land use. It identified that people with from different perspectives share a desire to understand the challenges and be more involved in decisions about the future of our landscapes.
“Multifunctionality is as important for people as for the environment and economy,” said Dame Fiona Reynolds, former Director General of the National Trust and a member of the report’s steering group.
“This report advocates for a system that fulfils these public needs for food, nature, carbon and access in a joined up and transparent way.
“We also need to think creatively about the jobs and opportunities created by this multifunctional approach, and how they can help build thriving, sustainable rural communities.”