Land Use and Sustainable Development – Blog

Last week I gave the opening address of the SEPA and SRUC two day conference on land use and sustainable development, a text of my speech follows:

Since the first conference in 1995 there have been a number of legislative changes to land management, including the abolition of feudal tenure, the agricultural holdings act, the Climate Change Act and the subsequent development of a land use strategy, as well as the introduction of right to roam and the establishment of National Parks. However, despite these changes the challenges of implementation still remain and these are ones we must all address, be that as politicians, campaigners and activists, land owners, managers and users. 

Like many Fife villages Kelty, where I grew up, illustrates how diverse land use in Scotland can be. From electricity pylons stretching across farmland, to St Ninian’s opencast and wind turbines by Mossmorran.  Next to the opencast is Blairadam Forest owned by the Forestry Commission, beyond Benarty Hill is RSPB’s Loch Leven nature reserve, while on other side sits Lochore Meadows Country Park.  Whilst this might not seem a complementary use of land it illustrates, on a small scale, the growing and complex demands which are placed on our land and our natural resources.  We have a responsibility to steward wisely but also to deploy these resources in ways that contribute to the well-being of society and clearly illustrate the public benefit which is being delivered.

When it comes to public benefit it can feel that almost any activity can illustrate some degree of public benefit.  More intensive farming practices may not meet environmental challenges but could still be argued to deliver public benefit by providing food security. There are competing interpretations of what public benefit is, however, when much of it is paid for by public investment we need to have a more robust understanding of its definition.

Particularly in times of financial constraint we have to consider how best to use public funds to achieve the greatest public benefit and positive outcomes while embedding sustainability. We can point to positive examples of this kind of work already being carried out, particularly on the value that we are now placing on peatlands and its restoration. We must recognise the value and uniqueness of Scotland’s natural resources.

Multiple benefit land use and an ecosystem approach is clearly at the heart of the 2011 Land Use Strategy but the reality is that these principles are still a long way off from being delivered.  The strategy was an important first step in recognizing the need for greater integration of land use and set some high level principles and objectives but it failed to deliver the step change needed.

We need to get better at it and quickly.  There are challenges there for land managers but there is also potential and possibilities and even small changes can make a big difference to the biodiversity and sustainability of the land.  But it needs an awareness and acceptance of the need to change and a recognition that the resources and the rewards do not belong to just one sector.

This is highlighted in the completely unacceptable and criminal act of poisoning 19 raptors in Ross-shire. This is just the latest in a long line of tragic deaths of our iconic birds and there can be no more excuses from landowners and the Government. We must review the WANE act, must review vicarious liability and we must look at other options available to limit wildlife crime.

We cannot fully eradicate this type of crime without changing the culture. This places a huge responsibility on land managers and I accept that it may be a minority involved in criminal activity. However it seems that there are still elements of land management who think this activity is acceptable, maybe even necessary, and we must all work together to challenge and change that culture. Partnership working and co-operation is central to achieving sustainability and delivering multiple benefits.

We need to move to more local and regional decision making, strengthening local governance and bringing together a range of user interests including local government to provide more local strategic planning, for example, how do we meaningfully deliver on the forestry target without integrating the Forestry and Woodland strategy into local planning.

We need to promote multifunctional land use and develop policy which is locally responsive, flexible and adaptable.  CAP is the major funding stream for rural areas but it is still poorly aligned to delivering multiple benefits from the land.  I believe the Scottish Government missed the opportunity to strengthen funding in this area by limiting the transfer of CAP payments from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 to 9.5%.  The Welsh Government transferred 15% and the UK Government 12%.  I believe there was an opportunity to do more in this area to support the stated aims of the Land Use Strategy and use CAP to promote greater public benefit.

There also needs to be improvements in the available information, training and advice for land managers.  The agri-environment budget has been cut in recent years just at the time one would expect to see it expanding.  The Government’s explanation for this has been to claim a lack of demand, yet when I speak to those working in this area, they say the process is so complex and under resourced, that it is not an attractive scheme. Delivering multi-functional land use is complex – it involves understanding, weighing up and trading of different interests and activities.  Land mangers need support and advice to successfully achieve this on the kind of scale needed.

A land use strategy, whether at national or local level, cannot be fully developed and implemented without a consideration of the nature and pattern of landownership and occupancy.  Scotland’s land ownership has evolved in different ways from the rest of Europe and left us with highly concentrated ownership patterns.  When we look to mainland Europe we see much more diverse ownership patterns and I would argue this provides more opportunities for communities and the potential for greater public benefit.  No one is suggesting we change this overnight, but we should be clear about where we are going and what our visions is for land ownership across Scotland.

There must be greater transparency, openness and accountability in the Land Register, an argument Labour made during the progress of the recent legislation and I was pleased to see the Scottish Affairs Committee emphasis this in a recent report.  This would enable more informed decision making and support good policy decisions.  Earlier I discussed incentives for the land management sector to make more sustainable choices – we should also be looking at the fiscal arrangements around ownership to examine in what way they support sustainable development and promote public benefit.

Scotland’s land is unique – it is our larder, it is our workplace, it is our playground and it fuels Scotland’s energy and imagination.  When we look at the pressure on land in other countries throughout the world, we are so fortunate with the resource we have.  Our expectations of what it can deliver are high but if we take our responsibility to society and future generations seriously, we can deliver.