As a futures issue, the future of land is central to wider social choices about how effectively we respond to environmental choices, resource shortage, and also to a large extent the balance of economic growth and well-being. It’s also usually overlooked. Perhaps it is appropriate in the week of the 75th anniversary of the mass trespass of Kinder Scout that I have been pointed in the direction of an online debate hosted by CPRE in which a number of people have responded to a speech on the subject by David Miliband, the Secretary of State at DEFRA. The speech is included on the site as well. It was later described by Shaun Spiers of the CPRE as “a rare example of a politician thinking aloud”.

Miliband envisaged 5 significant changes over the next 80 years:

  • there will continue to be a need for development – so the question is what sort of development, located where
  • big changes in the use of agricultural land, with more used for energy crops, more used for flood management, more used for carbon sinks, and some returned to wilderness
  • the environmental footprint of farming and farmland will get smaller
  • green belts could turn “a deeper shade of green”. A shift from low quality land designed to restrict sprawl to areas of high environmental quality
  • the emergence of ‘turquoise belts’ – green spaces next to rivers (and other waterways, I imagine).

Getting there will require reform to our systems of land-use, planning, and agriculture, hence his willingness to use the CPRE as a sounding board for debate. He has some thoughts here as well about the questions that this raises:

  • “we are now beginning to value environment assets that in the past we have thought of as a free good. Carbon is the most obvious example, but carbon is just one environmental public good”
  • it needs an approach to land which is about enhancing it rather than just preserving it. “We need to think of quality green space as a sort of infrastructure”
  • This requires decisions about where power and responsibility for improving this green infrastructure should lie. How local is it?
  • How can farming subsidies deliver the highest possible level of environmental public goods? CAP could help farmers to become environmental investors.
  • Finally, making the countryside more sustainable needs traditional divisions to be bridged within the environmental movement “between those most interested in biodiversity and those most interested in landscape”.

CPRE’s debates site has responses to his speech from Shaun Spiers, Susan Owens (Professor of Environment and Policy at Cambridge University) and Susan Bell, former Chief Executive of the National Forest.