Tuesday 13 March 2012

Landscape management for our times?

The list of government bodies, NGO's and charities that have a remit to conserve and enhance our natural, historic and cultural landscape and environment is impressively long:
English Heritage, Natural England, the Environment Agency, Countryside Council for Wales, CADW, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, the Forestry Commission, National Park Authorities, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB...

This well-established infrastructure of landscape management is, in many ways, very reassuring; and, due to devolution and the inertness of the Coalition Government's risible 'quango-busting' exercise largely intact in these times of 'austerity', give or take the odd wobble over selling off forests.

There is also an enormous well-spring of expertise and experience wrapped up in these bureaucratic structures and a clear record of achievement and progressiveness over the last sixty years or so: our landscape is in a better place than it would be if this safety net had not been active during a period which will be remembered in history as one, founded on hope and idealism, but dominated by rapacious capitalism and consumerism.

And yet...

Its hard not to feel that this familiar fabric, in its current guise, has run its course. However well the various organisations attempt to work co-operatively and in collaboration, the debilitating mind-set that our 'human' and 'natural' heritages are separate and not part of the same ecology is institutionally ingrained: Natural England look after the nature, English Heritage manage the historic and the Environment Agency take care of whats left.

But there are also other conundrums that I'm not clear we can tackle through current policy and thinking. The most obvious being that the majority of our landscape outside of urban areas is not managed as a heritage or conservation resource, and is largely not 'ours' at all. It is owned and worked (or not worked) by an unco-ordinated hotch-potch of land-owners, farmers, institutions, utility companies and others; some benign, some neglectful and damaging: many a mixture of the two. 

Our traditional (or is that mythical) custodians of the landscape, the farmers, are still there, either squeezed into submission by the supermarket barons, trying to find enlightened ways to move forward or long ago surrendered to agri-business mass production. Yes, there are environmental stewardship schemes and National Trust farms based on sustainability and valued 'traditional' models, but are these doing any more than fiddling around the edges, giving us a feel good sheen that masks the larger area of rot underneath? Even if the answer were to massively ramp up the resources in these areas, how likely is that in the current political environment? That's a rhetorical question with an obvious answer. And the situation is not helped by the antipathy of many in the farming community towards any form of intervention by government (aka 'townies').

Where do the tenacious, committed and growing movement of small-holders, organic entrepreneurs and good-lifers fit into the picture? What real assistance does the current system give here? A creaking 'one-size fits all' planning process is one example of a structure that mitigates against such progressiveness. 

And who is speaking up for the 'edgelands' of our urban areas as a landscape of value and potential, which could be put to purposeful use for food production and animal husbandry, managed by local communities? Well Richard Mabey and the psychogeographers are, but a fascination with these scruffy and neglected corners does not constitute a coherent policy for saving valuable and numerous spaces from obliteration by distribution centre, ring road, identikit housing development or retail park.

The Council of Europe's European Landscape Convention, with its highly inclusive definition of landscape, is at least on the right track of encouraging a holistic approach that crosses the institutional and conceptual divides; although a document derived by politicians, technocrats and lawyers is, in itself, not going to change anything.

Simon Jenkins is, as ever, thought-provoking on this subject in his article This cult of the ruin renders England's landscape soulless critiquing the enduring focus on preserving buildings and landscapes. This viewpoint only works, though, if there is an alternative based on sustainable stewardship by the many; a democratisation of the management of the land. Deregulating the countryside in the context of the socio-economic status quo would be disastrous; which is why one of the reliable constants in life is that you can never trust a Tory (or their storm-troopers in the shires, the Countryside Alliance) on 'the environment', a dismal track record of paternalistic mis-management, enclosure and gross exploitation is hard-wired into their psyche. 

So, if the future management of the landscape is not to be safe but limited business as usual or surrender to the rigged agri-business market, what is a realistic alternative? Whether a 'super-agency' across all of the related areas of landscape management is part of the answer is debatable. Certainly a joined-up Landscape Strategy that emerges from the by-waters of local authority planning, and nature and heritage conservation and takes rightful centre stage alongside other policy priorities such as housing, transport, health and education is an aspiration that should be championed by all those with a passion and interest in landscape (which is, after all, fundamentally the spaces and places that we all inhabit).

But I think we also need to grasp the ownership issue and wrestle power away from the supermarket cartels. There needs to be a social compact with commercial agriculture - in return for long-term stability through better targeted financial support and advocacy as true stewards of the countryside, the industry must be based on sustainability and working with, not against, the environment. Alongside this, serious growth of the small-holding sector should be facilitated by tax breaks and incentives for co-operatives serving local markets, bringing productive land on the urban fringe back into agricultural and horticultural use, the resurrection of common land rights (and responsibilities), a statutory requirement for public bodies and large landowners to manage their land holdings in partnership with local communities and wider participation of the disenfranchised through well-managed community service and 'welfare to work' schemes.

If the 'presumption in favour of sustainable development' is to be more than just empty rhetoric then this is a future that we should lobby, shout and fight for. 

I'd be interested to hear the views of others on this topic, particularly from those working inside landscape organisations; what developments are there in this direction?        


  1. Details of a recent conference on 'Managing Change at the Urban-Rural Fringe' can be found at:


  2. In England, Natural England' remit covers nature and landscape through the amalgamation of English Nature and the Countryside Agency in, I think, 2006.

    1. Thanks David,

      Yes there has been a degree of amalgamation in recent years (arguable whether this has been driven by a vision of a joined-up approach to landscape or more of a cost-cutting agenda); however, the (to my mind spurious and damaging) divide between man-made heritage (English Heritage) and the natural landscape (English Nature) is still there.

  3. It is important to stress that the European Landscape Convention was largely the work of academics (with many from the UK involved), with strong practitioner involvement. The UK is still to really get its head around the ELC - and one of the greatest failings in modern British land use management in terms of getting the pillar of social needs to level up with the environmental and economic, was the decision not to involve the public in Landscape Character Assessment's (I believe the only other Country to adopt an 'Expert led' system was Slovenia). And who in Britain are the 'Experts'? They certainly are not the professionals and practitioners, or the academics - but are Quango (and even NGO) staff, whose agenda can be questioned in terms of funding decisions.

    In order for a landscape approach to work it has to be seen as it is - a non political issue. A plethora of tools and resources await those willing to embrace it on the ground and transfer it into local land use planning and management. Many have already done so to a large extent and the continuing disenfranchisement of the professional in their place together with the ongoing developer & farmer relationship with conservationists will allow a new strand to develop with their own funding who will quickly surpass the scrabble for power in regards a national platform / voice for land use management.

    1. Hi Pip,

      The joined-up, community-based approach that you advocate is exactly the theme that I hope runs through the content of this blog. I particularly hope that a reconciliation (?) between the farming community and conservationists and landscapists to forge a feeling of common purpose continues to be fostered; its an obvious truism that farmers (and hopefully a new breed of small-holders from urban areas) are key to a healthy future for our landscape.

  4. I am very comfortable with the term 'Landscapist'. Who else can sit behind this definition? I hope many, including land use management practitioners and the rising amount of 'independent' voices from sustainable land or forest management and of course the academic themselves many of whom are uncomfortable with the conservationist and developers alliance, (perpetuated by central government). The steadfast refusal by many in the echelons of both the conservationist and farmer / developer camps to engage beyond sniping is the biggest hurdle but which will surely be killed off by social media!

    Great stuff I'm all bouyed up and ready to champion landscapism - and certainly as strands of land management continue to interweave more and more it is perhaps assured that this relatively unknown approach, albeit in existence for many many years, will start to take centre stage.

  5. I think you're right Pip; I think there are many people out there, both inside and outside professional circles who would like to see landscape take its rightful place at the centre of policy-making, freed from the ghetto's of 'agri-business', 'conservation', 'heritage' and 'green issues'.


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