Foresight without vision

Who decides how our land is put to use? With food security and energy crises on the horizon, the Government’s new think-tank needs to pull its socks up, says Simon Fairlie

Food security will bite more quickly than global warming.’ That was the first public pronouncement in December last year from Professor John Beddington in his new role as Government chief scientist. One of his first responsibilities is to head the Foresight team – the Government’s scientific think-tank – as it carries out a study on the future use of land in the UK.

‘We have a limited amount of land, but an increasing number of demands upon it,’ said Beddington, launching the project. High on the list of competing land demands are food for humans, feed for animals, forestry, housing, amenity, wildlife – and the newcomer that has disturbed the balance: biomass energy.

The Government’s belated recognition that food security is a concern comes as a welcome change after years downplaying the issue; years characterised, for example, by the undermining of the protection once afforded to ‘best and most versatile land’ in planning policy, and by the conversion of a large slice of Britain’s agriculture infrastructure to industrial or amenity use in the name of ‘farm diversification’.

The reason for the Government’s sudden interest in land use is not hard to determine. Over the last year the price of agricultural commodities has doubled, causing a mild panic among those whose forecasts were based on the assumption we would carry on indefinitely paying £60 per tonne for our wheat, less than we currently do for firewood. The rise in grain prices is partly due to their use as low-carbon biofuels, which suggests that worries about food security stem from our fear of global warming.

Welcome though this new concern may be, it is not clear how much the Foresight team will be able to offer in terms of a response to a future crisis. Foresight’s brief is a narrow one. Its minimalist, six-word mission statement is ‘to increase UK exploitation of science’, and a recent performance review decided too much of its attention had been devoted to ‘social and market trends’ and that ‘the programme needed to refocus on science and technology’. Scientists can usefully tell us, for example, that it takes a lot less farm-grown calories to satisfy our desire for meat than it does to meet our need to drive everywhere; or that a monoculture plantation produces more fuel than a biodiverse woodland. But in a world increasingly reliant on renewable energy, any decisions we make about land use will inevitably be grounded in personal and political preferences: do we value our meat more than our mobility, or our warmth above our wildlife?

On top of this, there is the contentious matter of access. If food security, and hence land use, become as urgent an issue as climate change, then our ecological footprint, calculated in hectares, will come to assume as much importance as our carbon footprint, in kilos of gas. But there is a crucial difference between these two measures of ecological behaviour: the atmosphere is owned by no-one. We all share the air we breathe; it is a global commons. Even if some people buy the right to pollute more than their fair share of atmosphere, nobody can fence off their own little portion and say ‘get off my cloud’: the whole lot has to be managed collectively.

Most of the geosphere, by contrast, has been privatised into separate plots owned by individuals, corporations or governments, who have a considerable, if not absolute control over how land is managed and who has access to it. Any think-tank concerned with land use in a world where land is scarce will have to address this matter – notwithstanding the requirement to ignore ‘social and market trends’.

In the UK, the land ownership is highly concentrated. The Country Land & Business Association recently boasted its 50,000 members own and manage 60 per cent of the land in England and Wales (in the last year it appears to have taken this statistic off its website). Its membership is now given as 36,000, but the amount of land it controls may well remain the same, since the tendency has been for large farms to get even larger. While agricultural commodity prices were stagnating, profit margins became tighter and tighter, enabling the Government to argue that only farms with industrial economies of scale were efficient. Now with grain prices more than doubled and land prices nearly doubled, the surviving grain barons are enjoying a bonanza, while the countless small farms that have gone to the wall are reaping no benefits. Is this, one wonders, a ‘market trend’ that will be allowed to feature in the Foresight study?

In Scotland, the concentration of ownership is even higher, but the trend is in the other direction. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 has given communities first right of purchase when the feudal estates on which they are sited come on the market. Several of these buy-outs, such as on the Isle of Eigg, have become high profile not only for helping communities thrive again, but also for the sustainable innovations that flourish under community ownership.

The movement is spreading to England, with a growing number of schemes for local Community Land Trusts to take over and manage pockets of land that have evaded the grasp of speculative builders and industrial farmers. In the middle of this article I was called away to a meeting in West Coker, Somerset, where villagers are working up a bid for farmland owned by the County Council. The villagers want to establish a community farm specialising in hemp and flax (the main product of the area until the end of the 19th century) together with local food production, affordable housing, renewable energy and other opportunities for the local economy. A senior district councillor was present to explain that, although he was sympathetic to their aims, the bulk of the Grade I agricultural land was destined to be sold off to developers for Yeovil’s housing, in line with the Regional Spatial Strategy’s call for ‘harnessing the benefits of population growth’, ‘raising productivity’ and ‘overcoming barriers to economic growth. Resistance, he counselled, was futile.

Will the Foresight team be analysing the effects of a Scottish-style return to community ownership as compared to selling off land to the highest bidder? As dispassionate scientists, they should – how land is managed is inextricably bound up with who owns it – but when land interests are involved it can be as hard for scientists to be dispassionate as it is for consumers to be green. In another notorious land use struggle in 2006 villagers at Wye in Kent exposed and fought off a conspiracy by Imperial College London and Ashford Borough Council to build more than 4,000 houses on land owned by Wye Agricultural College. Once the housing proposal had been abandoned, Imperial ignored a bid from locals for a community farm, preferring to lease the land to a farmer, Kevin Attwood, who also happened to be the brains behind another speculative venture to build more than 9,000 houses in the nearby Capstone Valley. Imperial had taken over Wye College in 2,000 in what transpired to be a flagrant asset-stripping exercise, part of the countrywide project of selling off agricultural infrastructure. Courses were closed, lecturers fired and Wye College’s renowned distance learning programme absorbed into Imperial’s TH Huxley School of the Environment, Earth Sciences and Engineering. The Director of the TH Huxley School at the time, who publicly welcomed the takeover, was none other than the man who is now the Government’s chief scientist and head of the Foresight study on land use, John Beddington. This little incident may serve as a reminder to Mr Beddington and his colleagues that land use is inherently political, it reflects people’s vested interests, and that if this side of the question is not addressed then the Foresight study will not tell us a great deal.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2008

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