Hundred-fold increase in our best farmland lost to development in little more than a decade, new CPRE research has found.

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New research from the CPRE has found almost 14,500 hectares of the country’s best agricultural land, which could grow at least 250,000 tonnes of vegetables a year, has been permanently lost to development in just 12 years. This is enough to feed the combined populations of Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield their recommended five-a-day fruit and vegetables.

There was a huge rise in high quality – known as Best and Most Versatile (BMV) – agricultural land set aside for housing and industry between 2010 and 2022, from 60 hectares to more than 6,000 hectares per year. As a result, almost 300,000 homes were built on more than 8,000 hectares of prime farmland in that time. Yet our previous research has shown there is space for 1.3 million homes on previously developed brownfield land, much of it in areas of the midlands and north most in need of regeneration.

On top of this, our research also reveals that an increased risk of severe flooding caused by climate change will further challenge our food security. More than 200,000 hectares – or 60% – of England’s finest Grade 1 agricultural land is within areas at the highest risk of flooding. This is because our most productive farmland is disproportionately close to river and coastal flood plains, with 75% of the best quality land in the East Midlands and 95% in the east of England at the highest risk level.

A different approach to land use

We’re telling the government it’s time to introduce a comprehensive land use strategy. It must provide a planning framework to balance the competing demands for farming, housing and energy needs, while also meeting legally binding net zero targets. The planning rulebook, called the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), is due to be updated next year, and we want to make sure it prioritises a ‘brownfield first’ approach to housebuilding to reduce the pressure of development on our green fields. And the research we’ve just published shows there is an urgent need for a firm presumption against development on our best agricultural land.

Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: ‘For the first time in several generations, our food security is at risk – yet we’ve seen a 100-fold increase in the loss of our best farmland to development since 2010. Heating, eating and housing are fundamental needs. A healthy environment, mitigating and adapting against the devastation threatened by the climate emergency, is the bedrock that underpins them all. We need to know what to put where. That’s why we need a land use strategy.

Maintaining land for domestic food production is critical

‘Maintaining agricultural land for domestic food production is critical. This must be achieved in the context of addressing and adapting to climate change, reversing the loss of nature and increasing demands on land for other purposes, not least housing and production of renewable energy.

‘As we face a cost-of-living crisis, housing crisis and the adjustment of our farming sector to post-Brexit subsidies, we have multiple, critical priorities for our land. We need to move away from intensive farming practices and towards a more ‘multifunctional’ approach, reconciling food production with better management for natural and cultural heritage, and for public access. Policies which are put in place now will be crucial in the coming years to ensure the most efficient use of our land in the face of these challenges.’

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About Author

Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is an avid follower of Stoke City.