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Land: the cause of and solution to all of society’s problems

27 March 2017 Author:

2017 is shaping up to be the RTPI’s year of land. From our 16 Ways Campaign, to the work we are doing with the University of Sheffield on The Use of Alternative Land Value Capture Mechanisms to Deliver Housing, and our Better Planning: Housing Affordability work program, land has permeated the policy and research team.

We were therefore delighted to be invited to discuss our work with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) Working Group on Land Administration in the UN headquarters in Geneva this month. The group is a think tank aimed at supporting security of tenure, improving and creating more effective land registries, and promoting sustainable land use policies. This meeting provided a forum for stakeholders to meet and exchange ideas on sustainable urban development.

UNECE Meeting

UNECE meeting

Role of Land in SDGS

Over the course of the two-day meeting there was a big emphasis placed on the role that land administration plays in addressing contemporary global challenges. In most UNECE countries, fundamental human rights such as health and social welfare are reliant on citizens having access to housing and secure tenure, both of which require a functional system of land administration. This argument was captured nicely in The International Society of City and Regional Planners’ (ISOCARP) presentation, which pointed out the key role that land administration will play in delivering the majority of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). [1]

The group brings a refreshing pragmatism to the lofty SDGs, which they very much see as targets to be delivered rather than idealistic goals.  For instance, part of the working group’s approach to delivering the SDGS involves making land markets more efficient and ensuring adequate systems of land governance. Furthermore, nudged along by the RTPI, the group is clear that the SDGs will have to to be mindful of place and regions and individual countries will need to ensure that there are localized metrics whereby the success or failure of the SDGs can be measured. For instance, to aid the delivery of over half of the SDGs the group’s aim is for 80% of the world to be covered by security of tenure (the right of a tenant of property to choose to continue occupying it after the lease expires) by 2030.  It currently stands at 30%.


Many countries are taking up this challenge. Having avoided what would have been a catastrophic privatisation under the ‘previous’ government, the UK land registry told the group that it is now ploughing ahead with its ambition to register all ownership – crucial at a time of increasing levels of fraud and organised crime brought about by rising property values. Russia is moving towards a unified system of land registration, and Spain is seeing increasing cooperation between its land registry and cadastre.

Spatially coherent policies

However, it is not enough to know where land is and who owns it; to realise the SDGs we must ensure that land use policy works coherently with other policies. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) presentation pointed out the ongoing tension in all UNECE nations between policies that influence how people use land, such as tax and agriculture, and land use policies. To deal with this we need to align fiscal and tax systems to land use objectives, and incentivise land use decisions by firms and individuals that are coherent with sustainable development. For example in many UNECE countries the costs of commuting are tax deductible, which incentivises workers to move farther out of cities where land is cheaper. This leads to more consumption of land per capita and all of the problems associated with urban sprawl. As RTPI’s Thinking Spatially points out, policy-and decision-making too rarely incorporate the implications of the ways in which we use land and the consequences for different places. The neglect of place, in particular the way that different policies combine to affect places in different ways, has contributed to a range of negative economic, social and environmental outcomes.

Palace Of Nations

Palace of Nations

Informal Settlements

A common reaction to spiralling land prices and lack of housing affordability in many UNECE countries has been the proliferation of informal settlements, which deliver affordable housing in the context of market failure. However, the economic, social, and environmental costs of informal settlements have motivated the working group to develop guidelines for their formalisation. The goal is to provide a regulatory environment that allows these settlements to continue to deliver sub-market housing, and to avoid the need to demolish these settlements given the associated socio-economic, environmental costs of doing so. The achievements of the informal sector to deliver affordability in the face of market failure cannot be overlooked, and therefore guidelines to ingratiate them into the existing housing stock are welcome.

Overall the working group’s place based perspective chimes well with the work the RTPI has been doing in recent years, particularly in the fields of strategic planning; placed based  policy making; land value capture; and delivering better development. We are delighted to have expanded our network into this important group and look forward to the next meeting in spring 2019.

[1] The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a set of 17 "Global Goals" with 169 targets between them. Spearheaded by the United Nations through a deliberative process involving its 194 Member States, as well as global civil society, the goals are contained in paragraph 54 United Nations Resolution A/RES/70/1 of 25 September 2015. The Resolution is a broader intergovernmental agreement that acts as the Post 2015 Development Agenda (successor to the Millennium Development Goals). The SDGs build on the Principles agreed upon under Resolution A/RES/66/288, popularly known as The Future We Want.