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The future of UK land use and management

A new approach to managing the UK’s land is needed to meet the challenges of the 21st century, with more coherence in properly valuing the many roles that land plays. Existing pressures on land are set to intensify in parts of the country, such as the South East of England. Shortages in critical public goods – such as water supply, biodiversity, carbon sinks and urban green space – could result unless carefully managed.

Foresight, the Government’s futures think tank, reaches these conclusions in its Land Use Futures: making the most of land in the 21st century report, investigating how landscapes and land use could change in the UK over the next 50 years.

Land Use Futures report

The Foresight Programme helps Government think systematically about the future, using the latest scientific and other evidence to provide signposts for policymakers in tackling future challenges. The Land Use Futures report, sponsored by Defra and CLG, outlines the findings of an extensive two-year study on land use, involving over 300 experts in subjects ranging from ecology, economics, planning and geography.

New pressures and demands on the land

Land is a versatile national asset playing a crucial role in fostering people’s physical and mental wellbeing, and supporting prosperity, states the report. But the land system will come under new pressures over the next 50 years, particularly from climate change and a growing and ageing population with more people living alone. New demands on the land will include the rise of the low carbon agenda alongside rising expectations associated with growing incomes – more space for living and better transport.

Decisions will be needed on crucial issues such as how to balance local and national interests; what is the appropriate mix of market incentives and regulation to guide future land use change, and how government can improve the strategic use of space and assets when land is mostly under private ownership.

Managing the land, our greatest asset

Government Chief Scientist and project director Professor John Beddington said:

“Together with our human capital, land is possibly our greatest asset. It supports our prosperity, our wellbeing and forms the bedrock of our cultural and national identity. However, many of the current systems and ideas about what is the best use of land date back to around the Second World War. A land management system fit for the 21st century needs to draw on the latest science and evidence on how changes in the use and management of land interact to affect people and the natural environment, and to reflect the diversity of benefits that land can deliver.

“This project is the first even-handed look across such a broad spectrum of land use sectors, spanning rural and urban uses including, agriculture, transport and housing. The analysis highlights the challenges, opportunities and choices we face.

“Business as usual is not an option over the long-term. Without being smart about how land is used, we risk missing targets, such as halting biodiversity loss. The effects of climate change and new pressures on land could escalate, seriously eroding quality of life.

These are big issues which require national oversight and the report argues that strategic objectives to guide future land use change are needed. This detailed report finds that Government now needs to find a way to coordinate work across land use sectors, promote the smarter use of land and to reward land owners and managers for sustainable practices.”

Findings and choices

Drawing on over 35 expert papers, the report sets out how land is used, what it is valued for, the challenges the land system will face and the critical choices for Government:

Where we are now

The best UK landscapes are a great source of pride. Visions of community and countryside are deeply entrenched in our culture. Historically and architecturally interesting landscapes have been retained and protected and concern for the natural environment is a high priority for many people.
But there are also key concerns for society: having enough space to live, whether travel congestion will get worse and having affordable, clean energy.

The governance system has sought to balance these concerns. Historical objectives to contain urban sprawl, to ensure enough land is available for food production, and to provide green spaces for people to enjoy, have largely been met.

These objectives have resulted in the patterns of land use seen today. Just under 12% of UK land is forest and woodland. Less than 10% of land in England is ‘developed’ (including gardens). And almost three quarters of land in the UK is used for agriculture. There is also evidence of significant misconceptions about how land is used, and people’s ideas about land use are often in conflict.

Critical choices for Government

The scale of the challenges identified in the report means that Government and the land use community need to take stock. There are critical choices to be made now, including:

  • What values and societal expectations need to be met and what are the priorities for land use, including in different parts of the country
  • How to accommodate the increasing need for residential and commercial development whilst also protecting highly valued landscapes and natural assets
  • Whether to try to preserve certain historic natural environments and ancient forests in the face of climate change, or to manage change in these
  • How to promote sustainable management of land, owned by private individuals; and how to engage people and communities on questions related to the future use of land whilst also addressing national priorities.

Further reading

  • Land Use Futures – project outputs
    Full details of the project’s outputs are available to download, including the main report and 35 evidence reviews published in a special issue of the Land Use Policy journal

User comments

  1. Bernard Clayson says:

    In essence, trying to resolve the ‘sustainability of land’ is addressing a symptom, not the cause.
    Hence any conclusions will not resolve anything i.e. will be unsustainable.
    THE cause is too many people, and no one is addressing that.
    The essence of sustainability is nature, and society today is fighting against it, to which there is an easily predictable conclusion – nature will win.
    1. The global population has risen from 2bn to 6.9bn in my lifetime of seventy years, a government sponsored report in the 80′s(?) concluded the sustainable population in the UK was 20m, we are now at 60+m.
    2. Finite planet with limited resources.
    3. ‘Global Warming’ or cooling, tough, learn to live with it, fighting it will unleash greater consequences by disrupting natural sequences.
    4. Natures reaction to a species that is over populated is to cull it, humans follow that to everything else, but not itself i.e. ‘I went looking for the enemy, and found it was me’, is no one else looking for the ‘enemy’?.

    Like the financial situation, academics can produce all sorts of models, but reality (nature) will have the last word.


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