27 May 2020

UK Land use at a crossroads


Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall
Partner | UK

Even before Covid-19 UK farming was at a crossroads. There was no definitive moment when everything changed, although Brexit is something of a line in the sand, but the conversation about how we use our land has crept to the front of the stage and now seems to feature in some form or another in every newspaper that we open.

No two farms are the same. Some are on the edge or within striking distance of a town, or have good transport links to a wealthy demographic, and others are out of the way. Some are mountainous and picturesque, and others are productive and unattractive (although beauty is in the eye of the beholder!). It seems that like never before, there is an exciting future for all types of land. It is no longer a case of arable land: good; pasture land: less good, and as we enter a new subsidy regime with the departure from the EU and the common agricultural policy it looks like the tables will be turned in that regard at least. The uplands stand to be the big winners from the new environmental land management schemes (ELMs) where funds are paid for public goods only. Essentially this means an end to subsidised food production, because farming itself is not deemed to be a public good. Farmers will now need to look after other things in order to qualify for a subsidy – their soils, the water that flows over their land (both the speed at which is travels and the nutrients or pollutants that it picks up on its way) nature, biodiversity and of course the provision of leisure opportunities for the public.

But the productive lowlands may also find an opportunity for support; principally on account of the fact that they have (not always, but) often been degraded to some extent in the pursuit of higher productivity. Their soils may have been worked so hard that they are in poor condition, or the water flows may have been interfered with to such an extent that there is little room for nature. There are no wild corners. As a consequence of this historic land use, these very productive (industrialised?) farms will have a low baseline value for biodiversity, or natural capital, as it is now known. It turns out that a low baseline is probably going to be a good place to start as it leaves a great deal of room for improvement. We are told that a private market will be established to reward those landowners who improve their natural capital up from their baseline to their maximum potential. This private market will reward biodiversity net gain and carbon sequestration. It is early days but there might be huge sums of mo
ney to be made in putting food production in the back seat and embracing nature.

But what about food security? There will be farms that are so productive that they can always make more money by pursuing maximum efficiency, and this they should certainly do. Indeed, one of the consequences of a post-subsidy world will be a surge in much needed investment in farm efficiency. It may be the case that a farm has a mixture of land where, with the benefit of technology, the farmer can now see from his on-board tractor computer which bits should be pushed harder, and which bits should be ‘let go’ or at least managed with other priorities in mind.

Prior to Covid-19 there was increased airtime given to the concept that the British Isles would be better off importing all of its food and putting its land to another more climate friendly use. We were told that in the event of another World War we would not have time to dig for victory as we would be dead by Friday. Not so if the movement of food is halted for another reason such as a virus pandemic. Food security is back on the agenda and in a good way for those farmers that want to produce the nation’s food from within the nation.

But will we need all of the land to do this? Until recently the regular news story was that the world could not produce enough food for its growing population. It appears that this is simply not true. In fact, there is an increasing theory that in the foreseeable future we may only need as little as 10% of our land for food production, thanks to vertical farming, hydroponics, and agri-tech solutions which will completely change the way we grow our food. We already have vegetables being grown in underground stations, and carbon neutral greenhouses producing bumper crops at places like the Hutton Institute. These systems use precision applied nutrients which have a light footprint. In an age where the polluter will have to pay, and broadcasting fertilizers onto our land with only a passing thought for how much of it ends up in the river is under close scrutiny, the adoption of this technology on a large scale may not be far away.

But do not despair. Who owns the land where these greenhouses will go? The landowners do. And what will those landowners do with the 90% of land that is released from its requirement to produce food? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

As we awake from lockdown and emerge blinking into the light, it is very likely that many people will seek out wide open spaces. The mental health benefits of a big view, a long walk, or even just natural colours hitting the back of our eyeballs, is much discussed. The country house property agents are inundated with calls from people looking to move from the city to the countryside. It certainly appears that more of us can work from home than we previously thought. Our airlines are predicting years of depressed demand and we are left wondering where everyone will go on holiday if air travel is not on the agenda.

Everything is changing for farming and landowners but it is far from a disaster. Landowners have a habit of getting a seat at the table when opportunity comes knocking. With a spectrum of land uses from rewilding through to vertical farming (or indeed house building) all gaining support from varying sections of society, it may not be an overstatement to say that this is quite probably the most exciting time to be a landowner for a hundred years.

Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall Partner | London

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