Land values, conservation and politics

Will Bond, Alaska Ecological Contracting Ltd

There is a common assumption that lower land values would benefit conservation: it seems common sense. But is it correct? As the UK re-appraises its land management strategies post Brexit, there is an opportunity to reconsider the impact that land values have on our relationship with, and uses of, land. 

There are plentiful reasons why the high price of land can be challenging: it excludes newcomers who would like to start farming; it makes land expensive for conservation NGOs to acquire; it makes compensation for compulsory acquisition for public schemes draining.  High prices for development land raise house prices; and is it right that some land is bought by investors just to turn a profit? It is no wonder there is disquiet, and at the extreme, a wish for land to be redistributed from the few to the many.

The counter usually expressed is that in an open and democratic society, the open and transparent sale of land is the best way of getting the most benefit from the asset.  And, there is a very good case for querying how else one might distribute it? Various communist experiments abroad in the last century did not end well, either for the proletariat or for nature.

But there is another reason to be careful about dismantling the status quo.  Land in places where land is in limited supply, such as the UK, becomes a store of value just because of its rarity (better land than bitcoin!).  And that store of value has positive, as well as negative, feedback loops. For many conservation organisations the strength that underlies their balance sheets is the financial value of their land. Take that away, and they would be far more vulnerable to crises like the present one.

Capital value provides both a cushion, and an opportunity. For example, I am lucky enough to have a farm worth a couple of million pounds despite being on poor land: scarcity value. We can’t really produce food competitively on the world market, but we could harvest our plentiful sunshine and wind. To do so would require a sizeable investment, but ironically it is the value of my land that gives me the potential to borrow a million pounds to invest in a renewable energy scheme and retain local control of a project that by default would go elsewhere: this is a positive feedback loop.

Another proposal relating to land values calls for land to be subject to an annual tax. While this would cause some pain for productive farms and forests, and assuming that nature reserves would be exempt, the negative impact would be greatest on those forgotten corners of the countryside where wildlife is still allowed to do its own thing. For now those shelterbelts and copses, wet corners and rough patches that are economically neutral – that is to say providing no income, but at no cost – can be left by land managers to nature. But once they become subject to an annual tax the pressure will build to either generate an income, or be specifically managed as nature areas. Supposing half were brought into economic activity, and half went to nature. Would that be a net gain for nature? I very much doubt it.

There are the lessons about land and politics from the past from which we should be able to learn, because we, society, through our government, make plenty of bad decisions. In the first half of the last century we decided that afforesting our ‘wastelands’ such as heaths and moors was a good use of land and labour: a decision we now view with regret, and in many cases seek to reverse.

In the second half of the century we turned our attention to the farmland. We paid farmers to increase output. We encouraged them to overstock. We encouraged, and in the case of sheep dip, mandated, the use of chemicals. We paid them to drain wetlands, to rip out hedges and to pipe ditches. I know: I was paid to do all of those things in the 1980s. I, and we, now regret those land management decisions too. 

I am just as certain now that it is right to revert some of my land to nature, as my forefathers were certain it was right when they first ‘improved’ it. I can point to science, to climate change and to the ecological crisis to back me up; I am supported too by public opinion polls. But I have learned to temper my certainty with some humility and caution because sudden changes usually deliver unforeseen consequences.

The worse the climate and ecological crisis gets, the more people will demand something be done; putting pressure on leaders to do something, just for the sake of being seen to do something.

But at the same time, as nature becomes ever more fragile, we need to avoid making political decisions that risk unforeseen consequences we later regret. There is not enough resilience left in nature to absorb our bad decisions. So alongside positive actions and decisions to protect our wildlife and our climate, as a society we also need to not make bad decisions, however politically expedient they may be.

Photo Credits: Will Bond