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Original illustration for The Rural Manifesto by Clifford Harper.
Original illustration for The Rural Manifesto by Clifford Harper.
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Equality in the countryside

Land Workers Alliance & The Land

7th January 2016

At a time when the Labour Party is discovering its egalitarian roots, inequality is as much of an issue in the countryside as in the city, states this 'Rural Manifesto' from the Land Workers Alliance and The Land. The neglect and exclusion of Britain's rural poor and landless farmers must end.

Any programme to reduce inequality in the countryside needs to recognize its two root causes, namely exposure to an unregulated free market, and the UK's stilted pattern of land ownership.

The British countryside, and more particularly lowland England, is enjoying unparalled prosperity. Newly thatched cottages, gleaming Range Rovers, 300 horse power tractors, and rolling seas of subsidised wheat and barley testify that the countryside harbours a great deal of wealth.

However this opulence is not shared by everyone who lives there; it masks an obstinate persistence of age-old inequalities, and a significant level of what is now termed 'hidden poverty'.

People living in the countryside in lowland England on average earn about £90 per week more than people living in urban areas. On the other hand people working in all rural areas earn on average about £90 per week less than people working in urban areas.

The reason for this apparent paradox is that large numbers of wealthy people who live in the country earn their living in the city. The countryside does not currently generate wealth, it imports it, and it imports the people who earn it.

The influx of wealthy incomers to the countryside is sometimes applauded on the grounds that they spread money around the local economy, and this is indeed the case insofar as they buy local foods, and employ local builders and services.

The influx of the rich has left no place for rural people and workers

However their wealth has also allowed them to buy up huge swathes of rural infrastructure, with the result that the price of houses, agricultural buildings and small parcels of land has rocketed out of the reach of many people who both live and work in the countryside, whose wages, despite the largesse of the incomers, remain below the national average.

Young people born in the countryside often find they have no choice but to move to the city to earn enough money to pay for their accommodation: the proportion of 16-29 year olds in rural areas is only 13.5%, whereas in urban areas it is over 20%.

Moreover not all incomers are wealthy. Some migrate to the countryside seeking outdoor or manual work that they find more congenial than the predominantly sedentary jobs on offer in cities.

Incomers dependent on low rural wages can be at an additional disadvantage, since they do not have the benefit of kin and community support, and they will not be eligible for affordable housing until they have been settled in a locality for some time.

Such people often find themselves living in breach of planning regulations in caravans, out-buildings or similar structures. Increasing numbers are buying small plots of land in an effort to engage with the natural world and stake a claim in the rural economy.

The systematic strangulation of the rural economy

The root cause of the gap between urban and rural wages lies in the fact that the rural economy, reliant on the dispersed production of primary commodities, is vulnerable to competition from global markets and to aggressive price bargaining from cartels of processors and distributors (supermarkets) - whereas large sections of the urban service economy are immune from these forces.

This explains why less than ten percent of earnings from the UK food industry go to UK farmers and fishermen. The UK's agriculture and fisheries industries generate less than 10% of the total value added by the UK food industry. More than six times as many people are employed in catering and food retail as are employed in primary production in farming and fishing.

Since the repeal of the Corn Laws in the 1840s neither liberal nor socialist governments have been keen to protect land-based industries from market forces, though for completely different ideological reasons. Only after the second world war, when food and timber security issues became paramount, was it felt necessary to support agricultural and forestry production through subsidies which in recent decades have been provided through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Since then, CAP subsidies have helped the UK maintain a modicum of food production by compensating for exposure to a global free market: The UK was 47% self-sufficient in food in 1947. This rose progressively to 78% in 1984 since when it has declined to the current level of 60%.

But they have failed to raise rural wages to the level of urban wages and have instead exacerbated inequalities within the rural economy. Although they were originally linked to productivity, CAP subsidies are now doled out according to the acreage of land owned, irrespective of whether or not it is being productively farmed.

Towers of urban wealth built on undervalued rural produce

There is no mechanism within the CAP system, as applied in the UK, to ensure that payments are used to generate employment, or that it is the people actually working the land who are the recipients.

On the contrary immediate beneficiaries are mostly landowners, while the ultimate beneficiaries are supermarkets who can use the subsidies to pay lower prices for the goods they buy. As profit margins on agricultural produce dwindle to ludicrously small percentages, farms have to expand to survive and subsidies are used to secure loans and invest in ever larger labour-saving machinery to cope with the extra acres.

To illustrate the scale of the problem: the gross profit for a farmers from a 110-kilo pig, sold at a farmgate price of £120, and providing perhaps £400 worth of pork, is just £2.80. The gross profit on a 2.2 kilo broiler chicken is 30 pence. This is before fixed costs such as infrastructure costs, power and rent are deducted. The cost of producing a litre of milk is 27 pence, whereas the price paid as of September 2015 is estimated at 23 pence.

The bulk of the CAP subsidies, currently worth £3 billion, go to a diminishing number of landowners. The £2.9 billion handed out in CAP subsidies in 2014 represented 54% of all profit made by UK farms that year. It is more than the £2.4 billion paid in wages to agricultural workers. Around 40,000 of those landowners are estimated to own 28 million acres between them, around half of all the land in Britain.

Meanwhile, innumerable small family farms have disappeared, swallowed up by industrially farmed holdings increasingly controlled by corporations. In 2000 the average UK farm was 169 acres. By 2010 it was 226 acres - an increase of one third. The average for the whole of Europe is 36 acres. Over the same period, 47,000 farms disappeared, a 20% decline. UK farms are bigger than in any European country except the Czech Republic.

Since the second world war, successive governments have done little to halt the loss of family farms, or to question the blatantly inequitable flow of CAP subsidies.

Rural policy under both Labour and Conservative administrations has been overwhelmingly influenced by the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the National Farmers Union (NFU). Both organizations represent the interests of a tiny number of people - considerably less than the 'one percent' that proverbially constitutes the capitalist elite - who between them own two thirds of Britain's land.

Our plan for effective rural reform

Any programme to reduce inequality in the countryside needs to recognize its two root causes, namely exposure to an unregulated free market, and the UK's stilted pattern of land ownership.

That is not to suggest that either of these can be tackled head on through a programme of protectionist measures and compulsory land redistribution: the dogma of neoliberalism and the sanctity of property are currently too entrenched.

Rather we propose a menu of practical steps which many people will find sensible and uncontroversial but which collectively add up to a radical shift in rural policy. These include:

  • The Land Registry should not be privatized. The register of who owns which land should be completed, and made easily and freely accessible on line. A cadastral map for each municipality should be made publicly available at council offices, as it is in countries such as France and Spain.
  • The sell-off of county farms should be halted (except where county farmland can be sold for development and the proceeds used to acquire more or better land). Local authorities should be re-empowered to acquire land for rent to small-scale farmers and new entrants where there is a proven need.
  • Common Agricultural Policy direct subsidies should be capped at €150,000 per individual farmer, releasing an estimated £4 million. The ceiling should be lowered progessively over time to a level that supports a wider range of thriving family farms.
  • Much organically produced food and animal feed is not labelled as such because the costs of certification are too high for small-scale producers. The burden of labelling and certification should instead be borne by farmers who employ chemicals or other ecologically suspect practices, rather than by organic farmers. In other words, food products that have been produced using artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or genetically modified materials should be clearly labelled as such.
  • Increase investment in council housing and social housing in villages.
  • Measures should be taken to ensure that recently introduced government support for self-build housing is focussed on affordable housing, and not luxury housing.
  • All rural local authorities to set targets within their area for the reduction of carbon emissions through renewable energy generation, including solar, wind and micro-hydro - especially community schemes; and through energy saving measures such as insulation of buildings.
  • Support should be provided for the creation of 'village service stations' in rural settlements that combine retail provision of food and essential goods with post-office and banking services, car-hire and minibus services, etc.
  • Include land management (horticulture, arable crops, animal husbandry, forestry etc) as a subject at secondary schools on a par with academic subjects.
  • Reintroduce the fuel duty escalator, a ratcheted annual increase of carbon tax on petrol and diesel, including red diesel, with the proceeds earmarked for public transport provision.



The Landworkers' Alliance is a union of small-scale producers and family farmers who produce food, fuel and fiber. We are a member of the international peasant farming movement La Via Campesina that represents 200 million farmers around the world. We campaign for the rights of small-scale producers and lobby the UK government and European Parliament for policies that support the infrastructure and markets central to our livelihoods.

The Land is an occasional magazine about land rights, written by and for people who believe that the roots of justice, freedom, social security and democracy lie not so much in access to money, or to the ballot box, as in access to land and its resources.

This article is an extract from the Rural Manifesto, launched on 6th January 2016 at the Oxford Real Farming conference with the support of Kerry McCarthy MP, Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In this version, material from footnotes has been incorporated in the text, and subheadings inserted. The policy measures listed represent a small selection from the original.

The Rural Manifesto is also supported by the Family Farmers Association.


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