Almost 15,000ha of prime farmland has been lost to construction since 2010, with developments accelerating at an alarming rate, according to the rural conservation charity CPRE.
In a new report, Building on Our Food Security (PDF), the CPRE said nearly 300,000 houses had been built on prime farmland since 2010. A further 1,400ha of grade 1 land had been used for renewable energy projects over the 12-year period.
Statistics produced by the government in 2010 suggested that just 60ha of grade 1 land had been used for construction in England that year, the CPRE said.
But the government’s drive for new home construction meant the rate of loss had accelerated dramatically.
In 2021 CPRE research estimated that 6,000ha of England’s best farmland had been lost to development – a 100-fold annual increase in a little over a decade.
The charity said the total land lost since 2010 could have supported the production of 250,000 tonnes of vegetables a year, enough to provide 2 million people with English produce.
And, the report added, the loss of farmland came while there was more than enough capacity for home building on previously developed “brownfield” land.
It said brownfield sites could support the construction of 1.2 million new homes while south-facing rooftops across the country could generate solar energy.
The report warned that as well as being at risk from development, prime land was also more at risk of flooding, raising further questions about food security as climate change leads to more extreme weather.
More than 200,000ha (60%) of grade 1 agricultural land lies within areas categorised as being at the highest risk of flooding, adding weight to the call to protect productive land.
CPRE chief executive Crispin Truman called on the government to takes steps to end the loss of prime farmland by producing a comprehensive land use strategy.
The strategy should set out what type of land should be used for which purpose, Mr Truman said. And he called for a brownfield-first approach to housebuilding.
Country Land and Business Association president Mark Tufnell called for a better balance at a national policy level between food production and housebuilding needs.
“It is important that we balance the need to produce high-quality food with the need to develop the rural economy,” Mr Tufnell said.
“Safeguards are in place to protect high-quality agricultural land, and it is vital that planning authorities protect our most productive land wherever possible.”
He said: “When it comes to housing, we consider that the best way to sustain local communities is to build a small number of homes in a large number of villages – providing workers for local businesses, children to keep the schools going, and consumers for local pubs and shops.”