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Food security: East of England has lost the most farmland to development

26th July 2022

There’s been a hundred-fold increase in our best farmland lost to development in little more than a decade, new CPRE research has found. As a result, we’re telling government we need a land use strategy and new planning rules to safeguard our food security.

Our newly published research on food security has found almost 14,500 hectares of the country’s best agricultural land has been permanently lost to development over the past 12 years.

Hall of Shame – the East of England has lost the most farmland to development

And the highest proportion of agricultural land lost to development is in our own East of England region, with over 3,200 hectares of the Best and Most Versatile agricultural land lost to development. Based on average UK production yield data, 3,200 hectares could produce 20,000 tonnes of wheat and cereal grains per year. That’s a lot of loaves of bread!

All across England there has been 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. We think it’s tragic to build on productive agricultural land and we want development to be prioritised on brownfield land first.

Photo: Chris Howe

A different approach to land use

We’re telling the government it’s time to implement a comprehensive land use strategy. It must address competing demands for farming, housing and energy needs, while also meeting legally binding targets for net zero carbon emissions and for biodiversity gains. And it’s crucially important that public access to nature and green spaces is maintained and enhanced.

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. We need to know what to put where. That’s why we need a land use strategy.’

'For the first time in several generations, our food security is at risk'
Crispin Truman

‘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.’

Photo: Terry Over

Food security is at risk with high quality cropland lost to development

We believe this report on the loss of agricultural land is the first to quantify the scale of development nationally on the two highest and most productive grades of farmland. With over 14,500 hectares of BMV agricultural land permanently lost to development over the past 12 years, the scale of lost food production is staggering.

Balancing food and energy needs

We also found that a further 1,400 hectares of the best farmland was taken out of agricultural production for renewable energy projects in the same period. We estimate that this land produces less than 3% of the UK’s total installed solar capacity, suggesting it’s entirely possible for the government to address both food security and energy security if solar panels are installed on rooftops rather than agricultural land.

Climate change is likely to have severe consequences for our most valuable farmland and will likely increase the threat to food security. Protecting our most productive agricultural land from development now is vital if we’re to maintain a secure food supply in future.

View the full report

Help us safeguard farmland

Our report lays bare the scale of productive farmland that is being permanently lost to development. We are campaigning to address this, with your help. Your support and as little as £3 a month will help us keep pressure on the government. We want to ensure that they protect quality agricultural land, adopt brownfield first policies and draw up a suitable land use strategy. If you’d like support our vision for a thriving and beautiful countryside, why not become a member?

Eliza Hermann
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