Land use and nature

A key focus of our Climate Action network is working with councils to adopt ambitious Climate Action Plans. We've written this guide to help you understand more about the section on land use and nature in the Climate Action Plan for councils, including recommendations and what we think the government needs to do.

14 Dec 2021

Background information

Bad decisions on how to use land can cause a decline in nature, increased flooding, soil loss and problems such as urban sprawl. Councils can decide how land is used through allocating it for different uses in their Local Plan, including allocating land for housing or employment and identifying green spaces and nature sites to protect.

Councils should ensure that their Local Plans reduce greenhouse gases, restore nature and increase resilience to extreme weather events. Far too many planning and land use decisions exacerbate climate change and nature loss. Councils can also decide to manage the land they own and have control over in a way that helps nature such as managing roadside verges for wildflowers.

If you're working on nature and land use in your area, it's worth bearing in mind that some land management decisions are outside the control of the councils, and will need action from national government, such as how most farmland is managed.

The goal

Councils should ensure everyone has access to nature in nearby green spaces and to restore nature to help draw down carbon pollution from the atmosphere.

What councils should do

Councils have a substantial role in deciding how land is used in an area, particularly when it comes to their Local Plan and managing their own land. This means they can make a significant contribution to nature restoration. The government's Environment Bill places extra emphasis on the role of the local council in nature's recovery.

The Local Plan needs to protect all wildlife in the area and ensure its abundance across all rural, suburban and urban landscapes. This means ensuring that places like nature reserves are not lost or damaged by development, but also aiming to increase space for nature outside of designated nature reserves and biodiversity hotspots. Creating networks of nature corridors for wildlife to move through can help with this, as can protecting green open spaces and the green belt from development. More and better access to nature and green spaces also has public health benefits.

Councils need to identify how nature can help mitigate against extreme weather. For example, flood plains, wetlands and increased tree cover can act as natural flood defences. Councils can also integrate nature restoration into activities like grass cutting and hedge trimming. Cutting grasses at the right time of year and in the right ways can help wildflowers and associated wildlife thrive, while bad and untimely grass and hedge management can set back ideal conditions for nature for years.

All areas should aim to double tree cover where possible.

Points 45 to 49 in our Climate Action Plan for councils suggest councils should:

45. Double tree cover on council-owned land, update local planning strategies to significantly increase tree cover across the Local Authority area, and ensure existing trees are properly protected in order to store carbon, support nature, aid flood protection and deliver mental health benefits.

Across many councils tree cover is less than 10%. The Forestry Commission and other organisations recommend a minimum of 20%, even for densely populated urban areas. Bristol City Council is one council that has committed to doubling its tree cover, but all council areas that can double tree cover should aim to do so.

The approach should be to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right places. Native tree species will normally be better for wildlife, and trees should not be planted on other important habitats.

46. Protect existing local green spaces, the green belt and locally designated nature sites, and ensure public access to local authority owned green spaces, including golf courses.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has reported that Britain’s parks are expected to fall back into a state of neglect after years of continued improvement. This isn’t surprising given the scale of budget cuts to councils. What’s more, the 2019 State of Nature Report by RSPB and others highlights a shocking decline in nature in the UK. It's essential that all existing green spaces are appropriately protected and managed to reverse the current loss of, and damage to, local wildlife sites.

You may wish to work with your local Wildlife Trust as many of them work closely with councils providing advice and responding to planning applications. They also work with developers and councils to ensure that housing developments enhance, rather than harm, nature. They have published case studies  on some of these collaborations.

It’s always worth checking out what other councils have done. Liverpool City Council, working with Fields in Trust, will become the first local authority in the UK to protect all of their parks and green spaces forever. This commitment will see 100 green spaces, covering over 1,000 hectares, secured in perpetuity.

47. Manage council-owned land and road verges to increase biodiversity and draw down carbon pollution, including through reduced pesticide use and increased planting of wildflowers.

Councils can provide a significant boost for pollinators and other wildlife by managing the parks, and green spaces and verges in their control with nature in mind. They can also influence other land owners including schools and colleges to manage their grounds for nature.

Councils can also save money whilst boosting wildlife. Dorset County Council saves around £93k a year by only cutting rural road verges when needed. Burnley Borough Council introduced meadow management to help pollinators and cut costs, and also recruited and trained volunteers to help manage the parks.

Some councils are cutting or even eliminating the use of pesticides in their parks, playgrounds, verges and green spaces to protect residents’ health as well as help wildlife. Pesticide Action Network UKs Pesticide Free Towns campaign provides useful information on alternatives and some inspiring case studies.

48.Develop new good quality green spaces in areas which fall short of recommended minimum levels (2 hectares of green space within 5 minutes’ walk), particularly in areas where people have less access to private gardens.

A Friends of the Earth study found that persons of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) people are more than twice as likely as a white person to live in areas in England that are most deprived of green space. The research also found a correlation between income and green space rating, although it is not as strong as for ethnicity

The Street Play initiative uses existing council powers to close a street to traffic for several hours, allowing children to play together in the street. This is a brilliant initiative for building community and is particularly beneficial for disadvantaged communities with no gardens and limited access to parks. In the 1900s, Salford created 200 play streets by closing off traffic from early morning to sunset, allowing children to play. But this initiative can be taken further. Play streets today could be accompanied by an initiative to green the street with trees and planters, and some of the closures could even be made permanent.

49. Produce a nature and ecosystem restoration plan to reverse and restore habitats for species, and ecosystem quality and function.

The government says that councils have a responsibility to consider biodiversity conservation when making decisions, although this duty is not well enforced. The Wildlife Trust has published a guide on what this should mean in practice.

More specifically, councils will be required by the government’s Environment Bill to produce a Local Nature Recovery Strategy. A good LNRS should focus on nature across local authority areas including urban areas, streets and farmland, as well as designated sites of particular importance to nature. The approach has been piloted in five areas. So that other councils can learn from the pilots

Government action

Councils have been warning for some time that they won’t be able to deliver action at the scale and pace commensurate to the climate and ecological emergencies without additional powers and resources. Friends of the Earth has joined local government organisations, academics and other NGOs in setting out a "Blueprint" of what’s needed from national government to support councils in key policy areas, including planning, and adequate funding for nature restoration, including for tree planting via the National Tree Strategy.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended that the government provides funding for local authorities for tree planting and maintenance. The government’s England Trees Action Plan, which sets out how tree planting will be increased from 2021-2025, proposes some grant funding for urban trees and changes to planning policy to encourage tree planting but falls short of the support that councils need. The CCC also recommended that a stronger biodiversity duty be placed on local authorities. The government has pledged to strengthen and clarify the biodiversity duty in the Environment Bill so that it, councils and other public bodies are clear about what's needed.

The government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) strongly influences how councils plan and manage development in their area. It needs to be strengthened to prevent urban sprawl, ensure green spaces and nature are properly protected and that new development is required to provide new space for nature commensurate with the nature crisis. Any reform of the planning system must ensure that local communities have a genuine say in how their area is developed and must ensure that national policy aligns with the government’s legal climate change target and ambition to restore nature.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and others are calling for £9.2 billion per year to be spent on nature protection and for the government to deliver on the promises it made within its 25-Year Plan for the environment. Actions that only the government can carry out include plans to reduce pesticide use (on farms and banning use in parks, streets and playgrounds (including a pesticide reduction target), reshaping the rules around pesticides, and providing financial support to farmers who deliver nature and climate benefits.

Some councils own farmland and can showcase nature and climate-friendly practices, but for this action to be scaled up the government also needs to support nature-friendly farming through its new Environmental Land Management scheme including tree and hedge planting on farms, restoration of wildflower meadows and flower rich field edges, and reduced pesticide use.

The government also needs to encourage significant reductions in meat and dairy consumption to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and free-up land for better uses, such as tree planting, and domestic animal feed production (to eliminate imports of feedstock from rainforest areas.

Training session

More detailed information

Briefing on local action for climate and nature.

Climate Change Committee recommendations on local authority action.

A blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local level.

A joint vision for planning.

How climate friendly is your area?

London Plan proposal for Urban Greening Factor for Local Plans

Housing and wildlife: examples.

Find out more about where woodland could be created in your area.

Local Wildlife Sites.

Friends of the Earth Green Space Gap report.

Street play.

How Salford's play streets saved children's lives.

Biodiversity duty: public authority duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity.

Local Authority Services and Biodiversity: Your Statutory Obligations.

Case studies.