What have we been saying? That the range of demands increasingly being placed on our countryside could soon exceed the supply of rural land.
Now it’s been confirmed. Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership has published a report – The Best Use of UK Agricultural Land – quantifying the UK-wide shortfall at up to 6 million hectares, or 15 million acres, by 2030. (Wessex covers 3 million hectares or 7 million acres.) You can read the headlines here and download the report here (right-hand column).
Some of the difficulty can be overcome by making multiple use of the same land – a woodland can be used for timber, biomass feedstock, water retention, carbon storage, wildlife habitats and recreation – but there are limits to this. Our houses aren’t edible, so the land they occupy is land lost to food production. In Wessex we have the added burdens imposed by London overspill housing, second and holiday homes and other external demands on our land area, for water-gathering, power generation or waste disposal.
As the report points out, the UK Government is failing to provide any leadership on the issue of land use in its broadest sense, not just development. Scotland has a better grasp of the issues, but that’s just Scotland. Many ecosystem services have no market price, so leaving things to market forces won’t deliver a sustainable solution.
The report makes interesting reading from a Wessex perspective. It argues that the UK imports foods it could grow for itself, including foods in which it has a competitive advantage and could therefore also develop an export market. Examples include apples – all those orchards grubbed up! – pears, plums, summer berries, pig meat, and processed products such as yoghurt and ice cream. Wessex agriculture could have quite a future, if the policy framework is a supportive one. But with no sign of joined-up thinking in Whitehall, it’s clear that Wessex will have to do its own planning and make its own decisions.