Land management: upland environments

Uplands in the balance

1 June 2011

The future of fragile upland environments is a concern for all sorts of interest groups, from weekend walkers to powerful water companies. With adaptive change on the way, it was the ideal setting for Mark Reed and Klaus Hubacek's case study on participatory decision making

Britain's hill and mountain regions are going through an enormous economic upheaval, leaving many hill communities uncertain about their future. For example, according to Defra's newly launched Uplands Policy Review the average upland farm income in 2008/9 was £25,700, compared to an average of £50,900 in England as a whole. Comparing specific farm types, the average income for upland dairy farms in 2008/9 was £54,700, whereas it was £73,100 in the lowlands. The average income of an upland grazing livestock farm business was £17,100 a year, compared to £18,500 a year for the same farm type in the lowlands.

New policies and targets abound (e.g. Public Service Agreement targets for Sites of Special Scientific Interest, the Water Framework Directive and the successor to the Kyoto protocol) in an ever-changing environment, adding to the uncertainty. The communities who live and work in these areas face a huge range of challenges if they are to maintain their way of life, let alone develop.

Many suggestions are being made about how these challenges might be met. Some are coming from the upland communities themselves, others from the wider community of people and groups who are affected by changes in the uplands, or who have the power to alter the course of those changes. 

Consultation is critical; if you fail to consult effectively with those who have the greatest interest and influence, the decisions you take today may be dismissed or contested tomorrow, often with costly implications for the communities you are working for. But who should you be talking to? And how can you involve various interest groups effectively in decision-making, saving yourself and your funders time, hassle and money in the long run?

By getting a more complete picture from a wide range of interest groups, unintended consequences may be anticipated and avoided

In the uplands, the people affected might be visitors from nearby towns and cities, or they might be the increasingly powerful conservation groups, or the water companies, which depend on the uplands for 70% of the UK's drinking water. The resident upland community itself is increasingly diverse (in part due to the influx of often quite well-off seasonal residents and second-home owners), and it is a community that is increasingly well organised and influential. Although all these groups are united in their passion to care for the future of the hills, their views about how to do this are often very different.

Any attempt to protect, develop or enhance the way of life treasured by hill communities and the environments upon which they depend is always going to be controversial. Perhaps for this reason, there is growing interest in approaches that might help us engage more effectively with the diversity of upland stakeholders and their views, and come up with some common understanding and agreement on the strategies for the future.

However, engaging stakeholders in decisions about land use and management in the uplands is inevitably time-consuming and costly - and it might not work. History is littered with examples of failed attempts to get different interest groups to work together. Old conflicts are reignited, and dominant groups and individuals end up with enough power to derail or direct outcomes. So why are so many practitioners still interested in participatory approaches to decision-making in the uplands?

First of all, whether it works or not, there is a strong argument that we should give those who are affected by, or who can affect, proposals to develop the uplands a chance to have their say. Increasingly, this is a right that is being enshrined in law. The Aarhus Convention (the UNECE's Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) stipulates that all environmental decisions must involve stakeholders. Local communities are now being involved in environmental decision-making across Europe as River Basin Management Plans are developed in collaboration with stakeholders to reach water quality targets under the Water Framework Directive.

Stakeholder-led site visits were suggested and became an important part of the strategy for involving and engaging groups with interests in other areas

In the UK, the Planning Act 2008 and the Planning etc. (Scotland) Act 2006 have established the importance of local communities being given the chance to make their voices heard. The government's forthcoming Localism Bill proposes to go much further, abolishing regional strategies in England and Wales and giving new powers to local communities to draw up neighbourhood development plans. More broadly, engaging citizens in decisions about land use and the natural environment is at the heart of the 'big society' initiative, which aspires to take transfer decision-making powers from Whitehall to local people.

But those in favour of participatory approaches argue that there are also many pragmatic reasons for working with stakeholders. They argue that involving interest groups in decision-making has ended in failure in the past because it hasn't been done right, and that inadequate involvement may be more damaging than none at all. In their support, there is empirical evidence that environmental decisions taken in collaboration with stakeholders are better, more durable decisions because they are based on a broader base of information, rather than text-book theory. By getting a more complete picture from a wide range of interest groups, unintended consequences may be anticipated and avoided. The long-term durability of decisions is enhanced through participation because the design of interventions, projects and technologies can be adapted to local circumstances, needs and priorities.

Many other benefits have also been claimed. For example, by establishing common ground and trust between participants, and learning to appreciate the legitimacy of each other's views, participatory processes may be able to transform adversarial relationships and find new ways for participants to work together. This can lead to a sense of ownership over the process and outcomes. If this is shared by a broad coalition of stakeholders, decisions are likely to be implemented much more effectively and energetically and are better supported in the long term. Depending on the nature of the initiative, this might significantly reduce implementation costs - although it might also lead to delays, which in turn might cost money. But if even if it were to yield just a few of the possible benefits, consultation with stakeholders on the future development of the uplands would surely be worthwhile. This was the premise applied in the following case study.

An uplands case study

The Peak District National Park had seen a number of attempts to create stakeholder networks and public discussion forums as part of efforts to deal with fragile upland ecosystems and their human use and interferences. One of the most recent attempts was a network established by Moors for the Future (MFF), a non-governmental environmental stakeholder with administrative ties to the National Park authority and good links with researchers interested in upland issues, as well as land managers and farmers. The main remit of MFF at the time was to restore heavily degraded moorland areas, but the organisation wanted to be more proactive in helping to avoid future degradation and to prepare the population for the necessary changes.

This is where the Sustainable Uplands project, funded by the Rural Economy and Land Use programme, entered the picture, by invitation of the MFF. The aim of this seven-year project, which began in 2005, is to combine the knowledge and ideas of local stakeholders, policymakers and social and natural scientists to anticipate, monitor and sustainably manage rural change in UK uplands.

Introduction to sustainable uplands

This process is supported by interlinked computer models, to aid more detailed understanding of what the future might hold and assist decision-making by land managers and other stakeholders. Participation is an integral part of the process, from the grant-writing stages, through the design of the project to the production of reports and policy recommendations.

The process

A stakeholder steering group was formed and, depending on the stage of the process and the purpose of each stage, focus groups were created representing different interests, based on discussions within this group. By involving stakeholders from the outset, the researchers aimed to prioritise the problems that were of most interest to them and to determine the scope and choice of computer models accordingly. The various interest groups proposed their own sustainability goals for the upland system and suggested what indicators might be used to monitor progress towards those goals. This participatory approach was designed to result in outputs of direct interest to stakeholders, which would keep them engaged and make them feel the time they were investing in the project was justified.

With the steering group, we developed a number of participatory events designed to promote information sharing and understanding among people from a variety of different backgrounds and with different frames of reference. For example, stakeholder-led site visits were proposed and became an important part of the strategy for involving and engaging groups with interests in other areas. The outdoor context and informal style of these events significantly reduced the discrepancies in power and influence between members that we had noticed emerging in the initial office-based workshops.

Having selected the issues to be covered by the site-visit programme and the sites most likely to stimulate discussion of these issues, the steering group suggested information sheets should be provided, to ensure that all participants had similar levels of information and could engage in debate confidently. The scope of each information sheet was discussed and drafts were peer-reviewed before distribution.

The next step was to develop scenarios about potential upland changes. Scenarios make complex information about socio-ecological change accessible to people from different backgrounds, so that they can visualise the future and take action accordingly. The scenarios were prioritised and ranked by the stakeholders, and alternative scenarios were elicited and discussed. Then the scenarios were developed into short films, available on YouTube. These formed the basis for a discussion about what needed to be done under each scenario; in other words, what adaptive actions and innovations might help sustain livelihoods and the ecosystem services upon which they depend - for example, ecological restoration might pay for itself through the sale of carbon credits. The ultimate goal of the whole process was to formulate a decision-making process that would lead to effective adaptation to upland change.


Our case study illustrates a number of principles, which, if applied more generally, might improve the breadth and depth of participation in land management decisions.

  • By involving a range of stakeholders from the outset and throughout the project, we made sure that relevant issues were addressed.
  • Rather than focusing purely on our own academic goals, we adjusted our approach based on discussions with stakeholders on a non-academic steering group, to ensure they felt comfortable with the direction the work was going in and to increase their buy-in to the project and influence over the process.
  • We also involved this steering group in the selection of stakeholders and in decisions on group size and composition, as we went along. This is an important point, although it is often overlooked; the legitimacy of a process is questionable if it is perceived that key people or groups are being excluded.

Ultimately, a project and a process like this one is not so much about the principle of representativeness as it is about improving the quality of solutions to land management/use conflicts by spreading information among all the people involved. This underlines the importance of moving beyond a mere focus on tools towards cultivating relationships and facilitating long-term interaction and negotiation.

Uplands policy - The government's commitment

Acknowledging calls for a national strategy for the uplands, the UK government has opted instead for a comprehensive programme of support for local solutions and initiatives.

The English uplands face all the usual challenges that characterise rural England - difficulty in accessing services, limited public transport, expensive housing and energy - which are accentuated by the terrain. But they also possess a remarkable range of assets that can provide the foundation for a bright future - strong communities where the 'big society' is already much in evidence; natural resources, such as water and carbon stores, that need to be managed sustainably for the benefit of those outside the uplands as much as for its inhabitants; and the hill farmers, with generation upon generation of expertise in producing high-quality food and managing some of our most treasured English landscapes.
- Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Defra

Unsurprisingly, the government's Uplands Policy Review, published in March, rejected an 'over-prescriptive, top-down approach' to the uplands and set out a range of commitments designed to support hill farmers, improve the competitiveness of their core agricultural businesses and encourage diversification in terms of both business interests and stewardship of the environment.

Support for hill farms:

  1. An 'uplands theme' will be introduced in the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE), making provision for targeted support for upland areas and a weighting towards the uplands in national schemes
  2. Funding will be provided from the the RDPE's £3.9bn budget for 2007-2013 to bring farmers in the severely disadvantaged areas (SDAs) into the Upland Entry Level Stewardship scheme (Uplands ELS)
  3. The existing Uplands ELS guidance will be updated to facilitate the speedy processing of applications
  4. Natural England will work in partnership with hill farmers and land managers to get the best out of these areas
  5. Cooperation and networking will be improved between the various demonstration farm initiatives, including those in the uplands
  6. Unnecessary cost burdens that undermine the competitiveness of hill farms will be removed, taking into account the forthcoming recommendations of the Farming Regulation Task Force
  7. The government will ensure that CAP reform post-2013 supports the competitiveness of hill farms through payments that are sufficient to secure the provision of public goods from the uplands, and that any future redesignation of less favoured areas (LFAs) included all the land in England that is genuinely 'naturally handicapped'.

Support for 'ecosystem services':

  1. The government will explore new ways to pay for ecosystem services, especially those related to water and carbon/peat, and hold an expert workshop late this year or early next to review the opportunities and challenges.
  2. Natural England will continue to work with the Moorland Association and others to establish the most appropriate moorland management regime.
  3. After consultation, legislation on the role of the National Park Authorities (NPAs) will be revised to reflect the importance of sustainable development.               
  4. Defra and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport will work together to support rural tourism, including in the uplands.
  5. More tourism revenue could be channelled to those who manage upland landscapes through the Prince's Countryside Fund and other organisations.

Support for sustainable communities:

  1. A rural community broadband rund worth up to £20m will be created
  2. Mobile and broadband network coverage will be improved to eliminate the 'not spots'
  3. Freedoms and opportunities created by the Localism Bill will be fully and fairly applied in upland areas
  4. New business support arrangements will benefit upland businesses
  5. National policies will promote the survival and expansion of existing rural services and promote the creation of new services
  6. Energy efficiency and fuel poverty schemes will help upland household and communities to reduce heating bills and take control of their own energy needs.

The review commits the government to driving and monitoring these changes through a strengthened Rural Communities Policy Unit (RCPU) within Defra with responsibility for coordinating action across all policy areas. The RCPU will also oversee the government's rural evidence base and Defra will regularly undertake research and publish uplands data and indicators 'to provide a sound basis for future policy development'.

Mark Reed is Acting Director of the Aberdeen Centre for Environmental Sustainability and a Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Planning and Environmental Management in the School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen

Klaus Hubacek is Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Maryland, College Park, US

Further information