Making the most of the land

Andrew Sissons
7 min readOct 6, 2022

Part 5 of: What would make life better?

“This land, this red land, is us; and the flood years and the dust years and the drought years are us. We can’t start again.” — John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath.

Land is making a comeback. After a few centuries submerged beneath labour and capital, the land has re-emerged, thorny roots and all. Land is now an urgent part of our lives, whether we’re seeking decent homes and better cities or desperately trying to fight the climate crisis. If we want to make life better, we cannot afford to ignore the land any longer.

Before the industrial revolution, land was the main determinant of our wealth and our survival. Rich people were rich because they controlled the land, and poor people (almost everyone) desperately hoped that the land didn’t fail them from one harvest to the next. But as humans escaped this zero sum trap, replacing finite acres with the infinite power of machinery, they lost sight of the land. Coal, oil and gas, were taken from the earth and burnt. Rivers were diverted and used as waste disposal channels. Urban buildings were coated with thick black soot, as were the inside of children’s lungs. All of this in the name of human progress.

Later, towns and cities began to sprawl out over the land. The suburbs were built on tarmac and concrete and rubber tyres. The homes were affordable, and could spread out freely across the land in the age of the private automobile. Meanwhile, most of the rest of the land was turned over to a more industrial purpose: modern agriculture, with chemical fertiliser and tractor-driven machinery creating highly productive mono-cultures. All of this in the name of human progress.

And of course, all of this did enable extraordinary human progress. If you wish to turn the clock back to before the industrial revolution, you should consider whether you’d be happy to expect to live 40 years, or to live on £2,000 a year (at today’s prices).

But could this progress have been won without submerging the land? Would we be better off if we’d prized land — and nature, water, air, all the other things bound up with it — alongside capital and labour? Whatever the answer, we can no longer escape the land. In the 21st century, land is back at the heart of our lives, and it will not be ignored

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There are two very different movements concerned with the land, and their goals do not overlap as much as they should. One is the environmental movement — concerned with preserving nature, tackling climate change and promoting different visions of beauty in the landscape. The other is the house building movement, concerned with building more homes, improving the allocation of land and sometimes improving urban form.

These two schools of thought are often pitched directly against each other. Environmentalists are often, though not always, opposed to house building, especially on greenfield land. The reasons are obvious: land which is built on can no longer provide habitats for nature, while new homes emit carbon and put pressure on water and air quality. These arguments are more sophisticated than basic NIMBYism, but the consequences often look the same. Pro-housing activists, while often sympathetic to some environmental causes (such as densifying to reduce carbon emissions), tend to see environmentalists as blockers to delivering more homes.

But environmentalists and YIMBYs have much more common ground than seems apparent at first. For both groups, making intelligent, efficient use of land is vital. Environmentalists want high quality habitats in the right places. Urbanists want high quality housing at the right density in the right places. Sometimes the right places for housing and environment overlap, but often they do not. Environmentalists and urbanists both generally resent cars, both in terms of the damage they cause to the environment and the valuable land they occupy.

And they share an interest in one very abundant type of land: farmland. Over half of the land in the UK is used for farming, and this land is good for neither nature nor for human development. Farming makes up less than 1% of the UK economy, and modern farming methods often eradicate most forms of life other than the food being produced. Food security is, of course, an important goal, but not one that justifies using most of the land for so little social benefit.

For pro-housing people, the main farmland of interest is in the green belt, the rings around most major UK cities where building things is effectively forbidden. This land matters to environmentalists too, because it is nearer to people. If you’re using land to tackle climate impacts, to secure the water supply or to provide access to recreation and nature, it helps if people can get to the land.

This large supply of farmland offers an opportunity for a mutually beneficial trades between environmentalists and YIMBYs. Building homes and infrastructure on some of it — and we’re talking at most 1% to 2% of all the land here — would be transformative for the UK’s housing supply. In return, using some of the proceeds from this development — developing land is a lucrative business — to return areas of farmland to nature could vastly improve the state of the UK’s environment. Combining this with greener developments — with parks, trees, space for water and sustainable travel — would be a further win-win.

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For the pro-environment and pro-housing movements to make the most of this potential, there are some viewpoints they’d need to shift or soften.

YIMBYs would ideally take environmental pressures more seriously. There are real environmental limits, both locally and globally, and these cannot always be engineered away. The already serious impacts of climate change will get worse, and both the land and the housing stock will play a huge role in our response. Building homes in flood plains, or on ancient woodland, has serious long term consequences.

The environmental movement, meanwhile, would benefit from being more flexible and open to change. Landscapes cannot be preserved in aspic, especially not in a changing climate, and there are other values that have to be balanced against environmental needs. By being more flexible, accepting trade offs and being open to losing nature in some places but gaining more in others, environmentalists have a far greater chance of achieving their goals.

There is great pressure on the UK’s land besides the need for housing. The push towards net zero carbon emissions has created demand for trees and peat (to absorb carbon), for biofuels, and for solar and wind farms. All of these require land, and must compete for space with more traditional land uses.

It is also vital to understand how big a role access to nature plays in our wellbeing. Green space and nature belong in towns and cities as well as in the countryside. Whether this is trees for cooling, parks for recreation, sustainable drainage systems to manage rainfall or green corridors to let nature thrive, environmentalists and urbanists should be able to unite around greening our urban areas. Environmentalism should be as much an urban movement as a rural one.

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There is scope, then, to build more homes while also improving the environment. There is scope for a greener urbanism, which makes smarter use of land and nature and responds to our changing climate. There is scope for making our lives better by taking land seriously and by using it to its full potential.

But in the UK we seem further than ever from making the most of the land, paralysed by disputes between supposed pro-growth and anti-growth “coalitions”. What changes could help us to use land properly?

The first step is to plan for land properly, considering all of its uses together. Housing and infrastructure should not be considered separately from water, food, nature and climate. The nations of the UK should each have a national land strategy, which considers farmland and forests alongside towns and cities. Every local area — probably at the upper tier or combined authority level — should have a local land plan that considers all the uses of the land.

We will also need to invest more, not less, time and money into planning. If you want better homes, infrastructure, urban forms, you need to plan more, not less. The biggest barriers to development are often a failure to coordinate different types of infrastructure — and to adequately address real environmental limits — not the existence of the planning system in the first place. If you under-resource planning, you will get less planning, and probably less development. Certainly worse development.

Second, the state needs to take greater control of the value of land. Land prices are wildly distorted by the planning system; in many places, the possibility of getting planning permission is the biggest determinant of land prices. The state should see planning gain — the uplift in land value that occurs when permission to develop is granted — as its own, and be far less squeamish about using whatever powers it needs to claim that value, using it to create better, greener places and infrastructure.

A more radical alternative to this would be to return to the system of land value taxation made popular by Henry George and championed by Winston Churchill, among others. Taxing people based on the rent their land generates could drive much smarter use of land while helping to fund the activities of the state. Whatever the specific approach, we should see land more like public property, because what happens on the land is socialised.

Third, we should make it easier to make trades between the environment and development. This is controversial, but there is a lot to be gained on both sides, particularly given the vast scope for restoring nature to the land. The concept of net gain — that housing developments have to create more nature than they take away — is promising, but it does not yet seem to have taken off at scale. Housing developers and planners should have to think carefully about improving the environment and building resilience to climate change through their work. Ideally, it should be in their interests to do so.

These would be big changes, and none of them seems remotely politically feasible right now, given the huge hold the planning system holds over the pattern of life in the UK. But the premise of this series is that the best route to making life better involves tackling big social coordination problems. Those problems don’t come much bigger than how we use the land. Change may be hard, but the current system — with too few homes, in the wrong places, a rapidly deteriorating climate and natural environment — doesn’t work for anyone.

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Andrew Sissons

I write for Nesta’s All You Can Heat by day, and am writing the What Would Make Life Better? series by night. With occasional economic history thrown in too!