Can the UK afford to Shift Land Use from Agriculture to Development?

The beautiful countryside is indeed a national asset. But housing and commercial development are not necessarily less “green” than farming.

The UK is blessed with two very important resources: A growing population, which is testimony to the vibrancy of the culture and its economy. Also, the country is verdant, with green countryside making up the vast majority of the country’s total land mass, 43 million acres dedicated to arable farms and rough grazing land, with another 13 per cent of land either greenbelts or “areas of outstanding natural beauty.”

Unfortunately, these two factors appear to many to be in conflict, that the growth of population necessarily leads to a reduction in green areas. This is a debate that has influenced public policy for at least one hundred years, going back to the establishment of the first green belts that wrap most major and mid-sized cities. And while builders and investors (such as those who do real asset portfolio investing) are more typically associated with building on agricultural and greenbelt land, there is also some degree of development that can be feasible on brownfield and infill sites in towns and cities.

The country depends on its home-grown agriculture for 59 per cent of the food consumed here, importing about £32.5 billion of food from outside the country, mostly from Western European countries. Of note, UK agricultural and food industries also export about £14 billion worth of goods per year.

So the question must be asked: What might happen if increasing amounts of land are given to development at the expense of agriculture? Does UK population growth mean the country will increase its dependency on other countries for its food? Might the current policy that favours brownfield development be pursued more robustly in order to minimise land loss to housing and commercial enterprise?

Several points are due consideration in answering these questions:

• Agriculture is not necessarily a clean, environmentally friendly endeavour. About 90 per cent of ammonia emissions (315 kilotonnes per year) are the result of spreading livestock waste. This acidifies soil and leads to eutrophication of soils and water (harmful to habitats).

• Agriculture also contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, including 38 per cent of methane and 66 per cent of nitrous oxide of the country’s total. Methane is 21 times and nitrous oxide 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

• By calculations presented in a report from Institute for Sustainability Leadership at Cambridge University (Andrew Montague-Fuller lead researcher), more efficient farming methods, reduced consumption of meat and a reduction in food wastage could reduce the need for agriculture land by as much as five million hectares.

• Urban areas of the UK constitute about 9 per cent of the country. Green belt areas occupy 13 per cent of the landmass. Even in the heavily-populated South East, about three-quarters of land is either woodland of farmland.

• 90 per cent of Britons live in this 9 per cent of urban-defined areas. Compare that to Germany, where only 75 per cent live in cities, Italy (65 per cent), Ireland (62 per cent) and India (30 per cent). England is densely populated with lots of green land surrounding us.

Now, to be clear the green fields of the British Isles are about more than just agriculture. The country’s robust tourism industry promotes this heavily. Says the website for Visit England, “there’s nothing quite like the English countryside for rural escapes with its patchwork hills, dramatic dales, ancient woodland and winding country roads.” No one can argue with that. But with an increasing emphasis on sustainability – including an eco-tourism industry that admires sustainable building as much as habitat – might not a shift from industrialized farming to environmentally conscious development be viewed as a positive as well?

Developers must respect the heritage and character of the country. Whether building in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, investors such as those working in joint venture land opportunities should work with sensitivity to how new homes affect the world around them. But at the same time, treating agriculture as sacrosanct can be counterproductive on many levels. A balance must be struck in a growing country.

Investors of all types – individuals and institutions – are increasingly attracted to land and real estate for many of the reasons stated above. For individuals, it’s wise to discuss any such opportunities with an independent financial advisor to gauge how real estate fits with overall capital and income growth goals.

Umer Malik

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