The good life?

The shocking truth about living and working in the countryside

Reading time: 6 min

If you took a train from London to Gatwick Airport in Crawley, you’d be astonished by the breathtaking rural scenes.

It’s hard to imagine that one of the biggest cities in the world is surrounded by hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland. But what was once an agricultural haven is now a vanishing way of life for many.

Landworker caught up with Unite Kent, Surrey and Sussex branch secretary Richard Neville, who was a tractor driver for over 40 years. In the last few years, Richard also worked as a fencing contractor.

Richard said that full-time jobs in agriculture have been decimated over the years.

“The nature of agricultural work has changed massively since I started in the 1970s,” he explained. “What we would term a traditional farm worker who actually lives on the farm has almost entirely vanished. Most arable work, and any farm work that involves machinery, is now done by contractors.”

Indeed, according to a Houses of Parliament research briefing on agriculture in Sussex, the entire agricultural labour force in Sussex in 2021 comprised little more than 10,000 workers. Of those, just 41 per cent were employed full-time.

Richard highlighted in particular the decline in the number of dairy farms, which were once abundant in the area.

“There used to be many little farms when I first came to the village of Balcombe, with herds of 150 to 200 cows. Now that’s all gone – in the immediate area I know of only two farms with several hundred cows on each dairy unit. Even milking cows is now all contract labour – there just aren’t any proper jobs in the sector in this area anymore.”

The Argus highlighted several years ago the steep decline in dairy farms in Sussex – reporting that between 2002 and 2015, the number of dairy farms more than halved in West Sussex from 124 to only 60. The sharp drop, the newspaper noted, was driven in large part by supermarket milk price wars.

The decline in agricultural jobs in rural areas in Sussex has also been accompanied by a loss of an entire way of life. Many farm workers used to live in tied cottages, but as Richard highlights, these too have virtually disappeared.

The Rent Act (Agriculture) 1976 grants housing protection to farm workers living in tied housing and Richard’s father, who was also a farm worker, was on a board that decided on cases related to tied housing. Back when his father was on the board, there were hundreds of cases heard each and every year in the area.

“But just before the Agricultural Wages Board was abolished in England in 2013, in the whole of Surrey, Kent and Sussex, we’ve dealt with under 10 cases,” Richard explained. “That gives you an idea of how much the sheer number of agricultural workers has dropped.”

Now that there are virtually no farm workers living in tied cottages, many of these cottages have been converted and sold off or rented out to an influx of wealthy London commuters.

“It’s pushed up house prices massively,” Richard noted. “Barns and cottages will get converted into properties that landowners sell off with a few acres of land and horse paddocks, and millionaires from London will buy them since they can get a really quick train into London.”

The arrival of large numbers of London commuters over the years, which has increased even more since the pandemic, has in many ways changed the truly rural character of the area.

And the situation Richard describes is a similar story throughout rural areas in the UK. According to one estimate, property prices in urban areas increased by a quarter since 2017, while in rural areas, property prices have shot up by nearly a third.

In a list of the top 10 most expensive rural places to buy a house, seven are in the South East, including Horsham, not far from where Richard lives. There, the average house price is £452,139.

But even as agricultural jobs in Sussex have disappeared, there is still demand for farm workers. Last October, a debate in Parliament was held about agriculture in Sussex, led by Lewes MP Maria Caulfield who highlighted what local farmers had told her.

“[They] all said the same thing: they need an all-year-round supply of staff, not just seasonal workers,” Caulfield said in the debate. “Particularly in the south-east, where the cost of living is high, it is difficult for farmers to find workers to do quite low-paid but difficult jobs.”

Richard said he despairs of many farmers’ hypocrisy.  “The cost of living here is so high, and what cottages farmers did have, they’ve sold off or rented out so they’ve got nowhere to house any workers who can’t afford to live in the area in the first place,” he pointed out.

“When it comes down to it, farmers are just not prepared to pay the going rate – all they want is dirt cheap labour. You’d think in a free market, when there’s a shortage of labour, wages need to go up to fill that demand. They don’t understand that link between lack of pay and lack of labour. The trouble is farmers just want to have their cake and eat it too.”

And so in the end, while there could be potential for a renaissance of rural work in Sussex and the wider South East – this is entirely dependent on those in charge understanding the true value of the labour that farm workers do. Otherwise, as it stands now, truly rural life in the area will continue to be a relic of the past.

By Hajera Blagg

Find out more

This story first appeared in Unite Landworker, the magazine for rural workers. Read the latest online copy here

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