Agricultural land quality varies significantly across the UK with two grading systems in place. In Scotland the Land Capability Classification is used to divide agricultural land into seven grades. In England and Wales the Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) uses a combination of climatic, site, soil and interactive limitations to classify land into five grades (1-5) with Grade 3 subdivided into sub-grades 3a and 3b.
The grading system was devised in order to enable sustainable choices to be made about the future use of agricultural land within the planning system, with Grades 1, 2 and 3a subsequently characterised as 'best and most versatile', i.e. the land which is most flexible, productive and efficient in response to inputs and which can best deliver future crops for food and non-food uses such as biomass, fibres and pharmaceuticals. The National Planning Policy Framework (paragraph 112) requires planning authorities to "take into account the economic and other benefits of the best and most versatile agricultural land” when making decisions on significant development proposals and “seek to use areas of poorer quality land in preference to that of higher quality".
Advice on ALC surveys of land under consideration for development is given in Natural England’s Technical Information Note TIN049 which points out that the series of maps published in the 1970s are not sufficiently accurate for use in assessment of individual fields or development sites, and should not be used other than as general guidance.
The staff of LRA are expert in Agricultural Land Classification, undertaking 50-100 surveys each year of proposed development sites ranging in size from 1 to 500 ha, as well as helping Natural England and Welsh Government staff provide ALC training on behalf of the British Society of Soil Science’s Working with Soil initiative (the ALC module states minimum competencies for persons undertaking agricultural land classification surveys). LRA’s reports and associated maps are professionally produced to a format acceptable to the statutory authorities, helping to reduce consultation delays when determining planning applications.
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