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Why only a few UK landowners hold the keys for addressing climate change
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Why only a few UK landowners hold the keys for addressing climate change

Why a handful of UK landowners hold the keys to fixing climate change


Residents who don’t own the land can complain, but they are not able to do much. 

While public pressure amounted to a ban on burning deep peat last year, the fires still rage on so-called “shallow peat”, and locals remain largely excluded from decisions on land management. 

It serves as just one example of how the UK’s ancient, monopolised and secretive system of land ownership is hindering progress on Climate Change, with communities – and the wider world – relying on the benevolence of landowners to conserve and improve their portfolios. 

“The vast majority of land in Britain is fundamental to fighting the climate crisis”, says environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole, who runs an investigative blog exploring land ownership in Britain. 

If managed sustainably, the UK’s forests, peatlands, woodland and oceans are able to store billions of tonnes of carbon. Land can be used for rewilding, which can increase biodiversity. However, it can also be used to plant trees, improve air quality, reduce CO2 emissions, and prevent flooding.

More fundamentally, how a piece land is used has a direct effect on the climate. A plot of agricultural land can produce methane emissions and pollute the environment, but a solar farm could generate clean electricity. 

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However, the quality of our forests, peatlands, and woodlands is not as high as it could be. waterwaysThey will be key players in this Combat climate change Change is occurring, and the majority of land parcels are now owned by private owners. Their management of the land will have a global and possibly irreversible impact. 

A recent investigation by Shrubsole, for instance, discovered that 60 per cent of England’s critically-important deep peat is owned by just 124 people, while 1,000 landowners control a third of the country’s woodlands. 

This monopolised system is the result of centuries of aristocratic ownership. Deeds have been passed down through generations so that some ownership has become difficult to identify. Today, only 15% of the land in England and Wales has been registered.

And what about the remaining 85 per cent? With 24 million titles in the Land Registry, and each costing £3 to access, uncovering ownership of England and Wales alone would cost £72 million.

Even this wouldn’t be enough to truly uncover the mystery, explains Shrubsole, who says that titles are often divorced from maps – making it hard to match owners to their parcels of land. 

He believes that this secrecy was intentional. Ownership of land has traditionally been intertwined with power, and authorities wish to avoid “revealing how concentrated land ownership really is”, he says. 

Shrubsole, an investigative campaigner, finds it difficult to get information. More worryingly, it also means public understanding of land ownership and its impacts is limited, with Duncan McCann of land reform group People’s Land Policy pointing to the issue as a blind spot in climate change discussions.

“The land is our overdraft facility. The whole concept of net zero relies on it – it’s the thing that will allow us to emit carbon.

“Yet the UK has a preponderance of peat bogs with global significance for the climate, and there’s no effort to protect them in the same way that we seem to care about protecting the Amazon rainforest,” he says. 

Other factors are at play in this “blind spot”, with Mark Walton of land management organisation Shared Assets citing a long tradition of viewing land as “a repository of wealth” rather than “a resource upon which we’re all going to increasingly rely” as climate change accelerates. 

Over time, the public have also become “alienated” from the land, says Shrubsole; a process starting as far back as the Highland Clearances and continuing with the erosion of rural rights of way. 

“We’ll often hear landowners assure us that they’re the custodians and have looked after it for centuries. But the land isn’t in great shape now, and if we want to fix it, maybe we should all become custodians,” he says. 

Shrubsole does add that not all landowners are wreaking havoc on the environment, with many already “doing plenty” for the environment.

Examples include billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen, who has rewilded a vast area of the Highlands, while organisations controlling a third of England’s land signed a pact to boost biodiversity just last week. 

Land campaigners remain divided over the issue of land reform. There are divergent opinions on whether community, private, or state ownership would be the best model to climate-friendly land management.

For Steele, it’s the lack of diversity in ownership models, rather than private ownership itself, that’s at the heart of the issue. 

Yet for McCann, “the matter of who owns the land can matter very much.”

“In Sussex for example there’s an estate owned by traditional aristocratic landowners which they’ve rewilded – and it’s marvellous – but what happens if the next generation changes their mind?”

McCann also questions the recent-updated Subventions for farmersThe, which proposes to pay landowners and farmers for sustainable lands management. 

Environmental charities have already criticized a new scheme by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, (Defra), for its inexplicable nature. Insistence on wildlife and nature that is not high-spirited

“Landowners have to be effectively bribed, paid tonnes of money by the taxpayers just to do the right thing. Why should we have to pay them?” McCann says. 

“We need people to be able to have a say in how land is used,” he adds.

McCann says there are encouraging signs. McCann says there are some encouraging signs, including the establishment of thriving, rewilded estates in Scotland. The Scottish government has also committed to giving more land to ordinary people. 

Yet there’s still some way to go, with Shrubsole pointing out that the UK government “currently has no plan for agriculture or the management of land”.

The government’s own climate change advisers, the Climate Change Committee, recently expressed disappointment that the UK did not include such a plan in its net zero strategy, noting in its assessment of the document that “a combined decarbonisation strategy for agriculture and land is needed urgently.”

Walton states that transparency will be the first obstacle to overcome in any efforts to raise awareness about the issue.

“The lack of transparency [around ownership] prevents us having an open conversation about it and means some people are largely ignorant or unaware of concentrated landownership and the implications of that.” 

Though attempts at reform have been made, they’ve been unsuccessful because they were piecemeal, says McCann. 

He believes that there are several areas of policy that need to be addressed, including transparency in the Land Registry, inheritance reform, and changing the way profit is made from land. 

While progress thus far has been slow, the accelerating pace of climate change provides a compelling argument for land reform  that doesn’t rely on notions of historical injustice alone, says McCann.

“For a long time land reform has been about rectifying some historical injustice. While that’s totally valid, it doesn’t bring everyone along,” he says.

“It’s much more evocative to talk about why we need reform to achieve our goals on climate change, and how addressing this issue could help us meet the present and future challenges of the 21st century.”

Update: This article was updated to reflect that heather burning season is now from October to April, and not August to December, as previously stated.


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