There is an important gap in knowledge about the interconnection between the determinants of land use, economic value, and current environmental concerns, for example the decline in biodiversity in the UK. This project aims to fill this gap by establishing a better understanding of the interplay between land use, climatic and biophysical factors, and agricultural prices. A new dataset and novel statistical framework will be developed to assess the impact on UK land use of socioeconomic and biophysical drivers, policy-making, and dramatic changes in UK weather patterns.

This project received funding from the Turing-HSBC-ONS Economic Data Science Awards 2018.

Explaining the science

The goal of this project is to make effective use of new data and modern statistical and data science  techniques for the empirical analysis of land use in the UK. By doing so, this will extend knowledge and understanding of critical issues surrounding land use and, as the results, enable better decision- and policy-making. 

Firstly, the research will attempt to make use of the recent abundance of earth observation (satellite) data in the UK to construct a new and more comprehensive dataset for land use and its determinants. At present, many existing works rely on data based on various farm-level surveys, which are often contaminated by some measurement errors. The newly available earth observation (satellite) data should provide a more accurate picture of current issues.

"Newly available earth observation satellite data should provide a more accurate picture of current issues"

Furthermore, empirical modelling of land use often encounters a number of statistical difficulties and dilemmas. A particular problem, which leads to the most far-reaching repercussions, is an inability to statistically consider spatial factors in the data. The project's researchers have not been able to identify any empirical works in existing literature that are able to successfully overcome these problems. 

The project will involved developing a new data science tool for understanding the interconnections of land use across space, measuring the biophysical association between areas. This will allow the researchers to control for a variety of factors which have, until now, been ignored. This in turn will facilitate a better understanding of other factors such as the impact of climate change on land use in the UK.

Project aims

The research proposed in this project aims to address the following questions: 

  1. How can measures of natural capital (the value of the natural environment) and other information (including earth observation, natural and physical science, social and economic data) be brought into economic analysis and decision-making regarding land use?
  2. How can such research be designed to help government formulate land use policies which incentivise land users, and deliver gains in natural capital and sustainable improvements in social value.

The core objective of the project is to develop the ability to quantitatively explain the complex interplay between scientific, economic, demographic and statistic factors that are crucial determinants of land use in the UK. 

The work will enable a better understanding of the processes that drive land use, which is of significant value due to the wide range of values that land use determines. These values include food production, energy generation, forestry, water quality and quantity, flooding risk, wild species and biodiversity, greenhouse gas emission and storage, recreation and related physical and mental health benefits. 


The empirical research in this project is able to shine a light on the interconnection between land use and important issues in the real world, for example climate change, climate change adaptation and global price changes in vital commodities such as food. In addition, it is able to provide more accurate forecasts of land use in the UK by taking into consideration spatial and temporal dependence, which are important characteristics of the data. Such forecasts enable more effective decision-making by government and business. Hence, this project should provide valuable knowledge and information for policy-making and implementation, delivering gains in natural capital and sustainable improvements in social value. 

Given this, there are a number of potential beneficiaries:

  • Governmental bodies: particularly the Office for National Statistics in the development of natural capital accounts; Defra regarding the setting of post-Brexit land use and agricultural policy together with the determination of incentive levels, Payment for Ecosystem Services contracts and the implementation of the 25 Year Environment Plan; and the Natural Capital Committee
  • Non-governmental organisations; particularly the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and a variety of environmental NGOs such as RSPB and WWF
  • Businesses and other decision makers; as demonstrated by the success of initiatives such as SWEEP at the University of Exeter which shows that businesses are increasingly interested in the natural capital approach to resource use

Recent updates

November 2018

While the official start date of the project is 31st March 2019 the team have already met a number of times to commence construction of a new dataset bringing together a large number of land use observations and their economic and biophysical determinants. This is currently being augmented in order to include new and more accurate earth observation (satellite) data. 

An initial presentation of the proposed work was given to senior analysts from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as part of a full day workshop held at the University of Exeter on 8th October 2018. This excited great interest in the work and its policy potential and has begun a collaboration with government which will be pursued and developed through the course of the research to maximise policy impact.


Researchers and collaborators

Contact info

[email protected]