Why land ownership is crucial to fixing the climate and nature crises

This blog post is by Guy Shrubsole. Image: L. Dudley Stamp, Land Utilisation Survey of Britain, 1930s

The House of Lords Select Committee on Land Use in England recently issued a Call for Evidence. This is my submission to it. It’s divided into three sections: A) The need for significant land use change in England; B) How land use change policy needs to contend with land ownership; and C) Why a more strategic approach to land use planning is needed.

A) The need for significant land use change in England

  • The UK Government is committed to significant land use change in order to address the climate crisis (its net zero target), tackle the loss of species (its species abundance target), and restore habitats (its 30×30 commitment). Yet there is a chasm between the Government’s stated end goals, and the underpinning targets and policies it has announced so far to achieve them. Put bluntly, England is not on course to deliver the land use change it needs – partly because the Government is afraid of upsetting landowners.
  • To meet net zero emissions by 2050, we need to not only drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also bolster natural carbon sinks – notably, woodlands and peat soils. Natural England has identified these two broad habitat types as holding the greatest potential for carbon sequestration and storage.[1] As a result, the UK Government has focused recent attention on policies for afforestation and peat restoration.
  • To help achieve net zero, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has recommended increasing UK woodland cover from 13% currently to 17%-19% by 2050.[2] The CCC has also recommended restoring 100% of UK upland peat by 2045, and to re-wet and sustainably manage over 60% of lowland peat by 2035.[3]
  • On woods, the Government has published the England Tree Action Plan (ETAP), and more recently proposed a target under the Environment Act to increase England’s tree and woodland cover. England currently has woodland cover of just 10%, one of the lowest levels of any European country. In the ETAP, the Government referred back to its ambitions in the 25-Year Environment Plan to increase England’s woodland cover to 12% by mid-century.
  • In setting its tree target, the Government has now decided to ‘move the goalposts’ to encompass trees outside of woodlands, and proposed a goal of increasing tree canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% currently to 17.5% of total land area in England by 2050. Whilst the newfound interest in trees outside of woods (such as in agroforestry systems, wood pasture and parklands) is welcome, this could also be interpreted as an attempt to duck the tough decisions needed about where to afforest. It also remains a decidedly unambitious target: a 3% increase in overall tree cover, probably boiling down to a 2% increase in woodland cover by mid-century and a 1% increase in land covered by trees at lower density than woods. This means that the bulk of UK afforestation to help deliver Net Zero will occur in Wales and Scotland, and not in England. This is not just unfair, but also unwise, as the continued willingness of Wales and Scotland to afforest cannot be guaranteed.
  • Yet there is far greater potential to increase tree and woodland cover in England than the Government is envisaging. In 2020, working for Friends of the Earth, I helped map how England could double its woodland cover from 10% to 20% of its land surface, showing that this is entirely feasible – without impacting on productive farmland (Agricultural Land Classification Grades 1-3a), peat soils, SSSIs or other priority habitats.[4] There is, in other words, more than sufficient land for major land use changes, without adversely impacting on food production or other precious habitats. Adopting a more ambitious goal for England’s tree cover would help the Government meet Net Zero more easily, reducing its reliance on unproven technologies for carbon removal like Direct Air Capture. It would also be within the Government’s gift to deliver it, in a way that Scottish and Welsh afforestation programmes are not. But to date Ministers have chosen not to do so.
  • Peat, meanwhile, is England’s single largest carbon store. Peat soils in England cover 682,230 hectares (1.7 million acres) and store 584 million tonnes of carbon, which if all lost to the atmosphere would generate 2.14 billion tonnes of CO2.[5] Upland peat has been degraded as a result of moorland burning for grouse moors, and lowland peat in the Fens and elsewhere has been damaged through drainage for intensive agriculture. As a result, England’s peat soils are now a net source of carbon emissions rather than a sink, leaking around 11 million tonnes of CO2 annually.[6]
  • But the UK Government’s policies to address this remain wholly inadequate. The Government has published an England Peat Action Plan and in its Net Zero Strategy announced an ambition (though not a legally binding target) to “restore approximately 280,000 hectares of peat in England by 2050”.[7] Yet this would only restore 40% of England’s peat soils. This contrasts with the CCC’s recommendation to restore 100% of upland peat and re-wet and sustainably manage 60%+ of lowland peat.
  • Furthermore, beyond this focus on peat and trees, the UK Government lacks a broader plan to decarbonise agriculture and land use. As the CCC have stated, “Few details have been set out for delivery mechanisms in the agriculture sector – a combined decarbonisation strategy for agriculture and land is urgently needed.”[8]
  • As the National Food Strategy (NFS) makes clear, the single biggest enabler of significant land use change in England would be a reduction in livestock farming. The NFS points out that 85% of the farmland England depends on (both domestically and overseas) is used for pasture and livestock feed.[9] At the same time, the NFS shows that calorific production is heavily concentrated into certain parts of the country, such as East Anglia. Meanwhile, it argues, we could effectively cease farming on 20% of our least productive land, and only have a 3% impact on food production.[10] Notably, this least productive land is almost exactly the same land where we find most of our carbon-rich peat soils; where land is most suitable for broadleaved woodland regeneration; and where we find most of our national parks.
  • In addition to its net zero goal, the UK Government has made a number of significant commitments towards the recovery of nature, including protecting 30% of land in England for nature by 2030 (the ‘30×30’ goal). When it originally made this pledge, Number 10 suggested that England was already close to meeting this goal, stating that “existing National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected areas already comprise approximately 26% of land in England”.[11] It proposed to make up the 4% shortfall by protecting or creating around 400,000 hectares of additional habitat. However, the Wildlife & Countryside Link coalition of over 50 conservation NGOs pointed out that nature is in a very poor state in our designated landscapes, and that without significant policy changes, “National Parks and AONBs should not be counted toward the 30×30 target in their entirety.” The Government’s more recent Nature Recovery Green Paper now accepts that this is untenable, and that “under their current statutory purposes, level of protection and management, it is our view that they cannot be said to contribute towards 30 by 30 at this time”.[12] This means that the Government is facing a huge uphill struggle to meet its 30×30 commitment, and has to find new ways to make up the shortfall left by taking out NPs & AONBs.
  • In short, the Government has accepted the need for significant levels of land use change in England in order to deliver Net Zero and 30×30. Yet so far, its targets and policies to deliver these fall far short. One of the key reasons why lies in the concentrated ownership of land in England.

B) How land use change policy needs to contend with land ownership

  • Any effort to achieve significant land use change in England needs to contend with England’s highly concentrated pattern of land ownership.
  • My calculations using DEFRA and Land Registry data show that 1% of the population own half the land in England. The aristocracy and landed gentry still own around 30% of England, whilst the country’s homeowners own just 5% of the land. The public sector owns around 8% of England; the country’s 24 non-Royal Dukes own a million acres of Britain. (For a more detailed exploration of these figures, see my book Who Owns England, 2019).
  • By extension, the concentrated ownership of land also results in the concentrated ownership of natural carbon sinks. By my calculations, just 124 landowners own 60% of England’s deep peat (an area of around 1 million acres).[13] Around 1,000 landowners own a third of England’s woods (also c.1 million acres).[14]
  • In other words, the management of England’s two largest natural carbon sinks lies in the hands of around 1,124 landowners. This represents an extraordinary concentration of resource ownership and influence. It means that the Government’s efforts to change land use, protects and restore woodlands, and restore peat soils, depends on this small elite of landowners complying.
  • A similar situation exists with England’s national parks. Unlike in countries like the US, where the land in national parks are owned by the Federal government, the land in England’s national parks is overwhelmingly owned by private landowners. For example, 95% of the Yorkshire Dales is in private ownership, as is 90% of the Norfolk Broads.[15]
  • Moreover, vast swathes of our national parks belong to a small handful of very large estates. Just 12 landowners own a quarter of the South Downs National Park (including two dukes, three viscounts, two baronets and a baron).[16] The upland areas of the North York Moors are owned by just 15 landowners, most of them grouse shooting estates.[17] Half of Dartmoor National Park is owned by only 15 landowners, the largest of which by far is the Duchy of Cornwall.[18]
  • In other words, for the Government to enact land use change in England’s National Parks so that they count towards its 30×30 commitment, it will have to contend with the majority of land in National Parks lying in the hands of a small elite of powerful landowners.
  • Concentrated ownership also holds true in England’s lowland counties. For instance, 30 landowners own half the county of West Berkshire.[19]The Government has mandated Local Authorities to produce Local Nature Recovery Strategies under the new Environment Act, to drive nature recovery on a county council level. In the case of West Berkshire, the council will essentially rely on the willingness of the county’s 30 largest landowners to take part in nature recovery efforts. Similar dynamics will play out in essentially all of England’s counties. Again, to enact Local Nature Recovery Strategies, councils will have to contend with most rural land locally belonging to a relatively small number of large landowners.
  • Private property rights in England have long granted landowners great sway over how they use their land. Freehold land ownership brings with it a ‘bundle of rights’, including the right to the produce of the land (e.g. from farming), the right to exclude others (the law of civil trespass), the right to lease it out and charge rents, and even the right to destroy or waste the land (jus abutendi).[20]
  • Historical scholarship has long acknowledged the impact that large landowners have had on land use in England. “In most parts of England the predominant influence of large landed estates upon the landscape is clearly recognizable,” writes the historian J.H. Bettey. “Much of the English countryside has been dominated by great estates and major landholdings, and it is this concentration of ownership over the centuries which has had such a profound effect upon the appearance of the landscape.”[21]
  • Since the early 20th century, governments have sought to influence landowners to change how they use their land, using a range of different policies from taxation and subsidies to the creation of the modern planning system. The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was arguably the most far-reaching such intervention, essentially altering private property rights so that landowners no longer had an absolute right to develop land (ie. build on it) without first obtaining the permission of the local planning authority.
  • However, when it comes to influencing landowners over other forms of land use change – such as farming policy and environmental protection – governments in recent decades have preferred the ‘voluntary approach’, or at best incentive-driven policies. There is little doubt that successive governments have been wary of imposing more directional, interventionist policies to govern land use and land use change, in part because of the influence of powerful landowning interests.
  • The Government may prefer to rely on incentive-led approaches to persuade landowners and managers, but this costs public money, and so far the incentives put in place are far from sufficient to deliver on the Government’s own policy goals. Currently, the top two tiers of ELMs – Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery – are only expected to lead to 300,000 hectares of habitat restoration, or just 2% of England.[22] This clearly isn’t sufficient to meet the shortfall in protected and restored land needed to meet 30×30 – still less so now that the government has accepted National Parks and AONBs cannot count towards this goal in their current state.
  • It is understood that DEFRA officials are aware that the new farm payments system alone cannot possibly deliver the land use changes needed for net zero, 30×30 or species recovery. They are therefore exploring other policy levers to effect the necessary land use changes, potentially including a new land use framework. I recommend the Committee ask DEFRA to present their research into policies for land use change. The key question is: will Ministers be bold enough to enact these additional policies?

C) Why a more strategic approach to land use planning is needed

  • To contend with the scale of land use change needed to tackle the nature and climate crises, and to grapple with how England’s land is concentrated in the hands of a small number of landowners, a more strategic approach to land use planning is undoubtedly needed.
  • It is notable that the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act explicitly excluded farming and forestry from the planning system, stating: “…the following operations or uses of land shall not be deemed for the purposes of this Act to involve development of the land… the use of any land for the purposes of agriculture or forestry (including afforestation)”.[23]
  • This has seldom been questioned. It was briefly challenged in the early 1980s, when the destruction of SSSIs, hedgerows and ancient woodlands by landowners and farmers caused widespread alarm. The author Marion Shoard proposed extending the planning system to cover farming and forestry, but this fell on deaf ears at the time.[24] The public outcry did, however, lead to the slow ‘greening’ of farm subsidies, a welcome development – but now, by DEFRA’s own admission, insufficient on its own to achieve the necessary shifts in land use to achieve net zero and nature recovery.
  • More recently, as the climate and nature crises have worsened, there has been renewed interest in land use strategies, frameworks and mapping. Recent advocates of a Land Use Strategy or Land Use Framework for England include CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Green Alliance, Sustain, and the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission. The idea of a Land Use Strategy or Framework has now become mainstream.[25]
  • There is no doubt that a national Land Use Strategy or Framework, setting out goals for land use and land use change in England over a period of decades, and accompanied by spatial mapping of land use change options, could help with effectively delivering policy.
  • Some landowners and farming groups might object to such a national Land Use Strategy as being too centralised or dirigiste; that is does not allow for local flexibility; or that ‘the market’ should decide instead. But the truth is that geography and ecology already imposes certain inevitable constraints on how our land can be used. We cannot readily create peat, for example; it takes thousands of years to form, and where it is found in England is essentially fixed. Whilst we can improve soil fertility, the incidence of our most and least productive soils are largely the product of geological and biological processes that have played out over tens of thousands of years. And if we are to protect our most fertile soils for food production, we should be prioritising our least productive land for nature recovery and carbon sequestration. All of this requires spatial planning, and existing geography and ecology helps inform some of the most important of these decisions about land use change.[26]
  • Besides a Land Use Strategy or Framework, there are a number of other policies that the Government should adopt to help direct beneficial land use change for nature and climate:
  • It should open up data on land use and land ownership to inform good decision making. Two particularly useful policies here would be to drop search fees for the Land Registry (as it did years ago for Companies House), thereby making it easier to map land ownership and to link up contiguous landowners to create wildlife corridors, etc; and for DEFRA to negotiate with Cranfield University to publish its National Soils Map as open data (it is currently a proprietary dataset, despite being produced under public contract in the 1980s).[27]
  • It should pass secondary legislation under the Environment Act to empower local authorities with strong convening powers to create Local Nature Recovery Strategies, and to designate areas as part of a Nature Recovery Network, regardless of whether the current landowner is willing to participate or not (as land changes hands and future landowners may be more willing).
  • It should grant new powers to National Park Authorities to drive nature recovery by adopting the recommendations of the Glover Review. In particular, the Government should update the statutory purpose of NPAs to include nature recovery, and make public bodies and statutory undertakers obliged to help deliver on this and on updated Management Plans. This could make more land within National Parks & AONBs eligible to count towards 30×30.[28]
  • It should better resource Natural England to designate many more Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), to help meet the Government’s 30×30 commitment and species recovery target.
  • It should close the loopholes in the Government’s partial ban on moorland burning, in order to protect our single largest carbon store from ongoing damage by the 100-150 grouse moor estates that own the majority of England’s upland peat.[29]
  • Lastly, if the small number of landowners who own the majority of England’s natural carbon sinks (peat and woodlands) do not respond adequately to these regulations and incentives, the Government should go further. It should consider vesting ownership of England’s biogenic carbon in the Crown. This would give the government greater control over the management of natural carbon sinks; and the ability to pursue legal action against landowners who damage these carbon sinks, thereby infringing the Crown’s newfound property rights over carbon. Our natural carbon sinks are, after all, of strategic national importance, so it is clearly within the remit of the government to take this step. Indeed, there is a clear precedent. In the 1930s, the Conservative-led National Government vested the ownership of England’s fossil carbon stocks in the Crown, via the Petroleum Act 1934 and the Coal Act 1938.[30] Why not do the same with England’s stores of biological carbon?


[1] Natural England, ‘Carbon Storage and Sequestration by Habitat’, April 2021, http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5419124441481216. Species-rich grassland and marine (or ‘blue’) carbon sinks also have potential, but the science of soil carbon flux and marine carbon sequestration remains uncertain, with serious concerns about the permanency of the carbon being stored.

[2] CCC, ‘Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK’, January 2020, p.8, p.12, https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-policies-for-a-net-zero-uk/

[3] CCC, 2021 Progress Report to Parliament, June 2021, https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/2021-progress-report-to-parliament/ – see summary table of recommendations on p.204.

[4] Friends of the Earth, ‘Finding the land to double tree cover’, 17th March 2020, https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/insight/finding-land-double-tree-cover and subsequent more detailed report by Terra Sulis for Friends of the Earth, ‘Opportunity Woodland Mapping in England’, October 2020, https://takeclimateaction.uk/sites/default/files/documents/2020-10/Opportunity_Woodland_in_England_2020.pdf

[5] CEH, Evans et al., Implementation of an Emissions Inventory for UK Peatlands, report to BEIS, 2019, https://uk-air.defra.gov.uk/library/reports?report_id=980

[6] CEH, 2019, op cit.

[7] UK Government, ‘Net Zero Strategy’, October 2021, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/net-zero-strategy

[8] CCC, ‘Independent Assessment: The UK’s Net Zero Strategy’, October 2021, https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/independent-assessment-the-uks-net-zero-strategy/.

[9] National Food Strategy, ‘The Plan’, 2021, Figure 9.3.

[10] National Food Strategy, ‘The Plan’, 2021, p.93, and ‘The Evidence’, 2021, p.41.

[11] PM’s Office, 10 Downing Street, press release, ‘PM commits to protect 30% of UK land in boost for biodiversity’, 28th September 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-commits-to-protect-30-of-uk-land-in-boost-for-biodiversity. NPs & AONBs alone comprise 25% of England’s land surface. SSSIs comprise around 8% of England, but many of them are found within NPs & AONBs, so those outside landscape designations only add 1% to the total, taking it to the 26% stated by Downing Street.

[12] DEFRA, ‘Nature Recovery Green Paper: Protected Sites and Species, Consultation Document’, March 2022, p.22, https://consult.defra.gov.uk/nature-recovery-green-paper/nature-recovery-green-paper/supporting_documents/Nature%20Recovery%20Green%20Paper%20Consultation%20%20Protected%20Sites%20and%20Species.pdf

[13] See ‘Who owns our carbon?’, 15th November 2021, https://whoownsengland.org/2021/11/15/who-owns-our-carbon/, and also Patrick Greenfield, ‘Just 124 people own most of England’s deep peat – its largest carbon store’, The Guardian, 15th November 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/15/just-124-people-own-most-of-england-deep-peat-its-largest-carbon-store-aoe

[14] See ‘Who owns England’s woods?’, 2nd November 2020, https://whoownsengland.org/2020/11/02/who-owns-englands-woods/

[15] These statistics were first gathered for the Edwards Review into National Parks in 1991, and have not changed significantly since; for the stats for all national parks, see ‘Are landed interests over-represented on England’s national park authorities?’, 24th June 2019, https://whoownsengland.org/2019/06/24/are-landed-interests-over-represented-on-englands-national-park-authorities/.

[16] See ‘Who owns the South Downs?’, 16th February 2018, https://whoownsengland.org/2018/02/16/who-owns-the-south-downs/

[17] See https://grousemoors.whoownsengland.org/.

[18] See ‘Who owns Dartmoor?’, 22nd March 2021, https://whoownsengland.org/2021/03/22/who-owns-dartmoor/.

[19] See ‘The thirty landowners who own half a county’, 17th April 2017, https://whoownsengland.org/2017/04/17/the-thirty-landowners-who-own-half-a-county/

[20] John G Sprankling, ‘The Right to Destroy’, Chapter 12 in The International Law of Property, 2014. See https://oxford.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199654543.001.0001/acprof-9780199654543-chapter-12

[21] J.H. Bettey, Estates and the English Countryside, 1993, Introduction.

[22] Speech by Secretary of State George Eustice to the Oxford Farming Conference, 6th January 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/environment-secretary-shares-further-information-on-local-nature-recovery-and-landscape-recovery-schemes. England is around 13 million hectares, so 300,000 hectares = 2% of England.

[23] Town and Country Planning Act 1947, original unamended version online at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1947/51/pdfs/ukpga_19470051_en.pdf

[24] Marion Shoard, This Land Is Our Land, 1987.

[25] CPRE, ‘Land Lines: Why we need a strategic approach to land’, 2017, https://www.cpre.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/CPREZLandlinesZ-ZwhyZweZneedZaZstrategicZapproachZtoZland.pdf; Friends of the Earth, ‘Nine principles for using our land wisely at a time of climate and nature crises’, 1st May 2020, https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/insight/nine-principles-using-our-land-wisely-time-climate-and-nature-crises; Green Alliance, ‘Natural Capital: the battle for control’, January 2022, https://green-alliance.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Natural_capital_the_battle_for_control.pdf; Sustain, ‘A Green and Pressured Land’, June 2020, https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/jun20_green_and_pressured_land_report/; FFCC: https://ffcc.co.uk/.

[26] The need to prioritise high-quality agricultural soils for food production, and protect them from being built over, was something recognised back in the 1930s by Lawrence Dudley Stamp. His Land Utilisation Survey of Britain informed agricultural policy during WW2, the subsequent development of the planning system, and eventually the creation of Agricultural Land Classification grades (which notionally protect land Grades 1-3a from development).

[27] See Owen Boswarva, ‘Why isn’t soils data open?’, 5th June 2019, https://www.owenboswarva.com/blog/post-soil1.htm

[28] For more detail on this, see Rewilding Britain, ‘Policy briefing – How to achieve wilder national parks’, 2021, https://www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/news-and-views/policy-statements/policy-briefing-how-to-achieve-wilder-national-parks

[29] PA Media, ‘Controversy over new regulations to protect English peatland’, 29th January 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/29/controversy-over-new-uk-regulation-to-protect-peatland

[30] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petroleum_(Production)_Act_1934 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coal_Act_1938

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