Written Evidence submitted by Professor Karen Sayer (ELM0040)

Evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into Environmental Land Management and the agricultural transition

I am Professor of Social and Cultural History at Leeds Trinity University, UK. I am currently funded by the Wellcome Trust on a National Collaborative Award focused on the health and welfare of livestock farmed in Northern England, as a PI on Thinking forward through the past: Linking science, social science and the humanities to inform the sustainable reduction of endemic disease in British livestock farming. This is a collaborative inter-disciplinary project funded 2018-22 https://field-wt.co.uk/ connecting researchers at Edinburgh University, Glasgow University, University of Hull, Newcastle University, University of Lincoln and the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading, as well as Leeds Trinity University.

I am submitting evidence focused on question 6 ‘What lessons should be learned from the successes and failures of previous schemes paying for environmental outcomes?’ grounded in my research on the period 1947-2001. This is based on my findings to date, supported by the Wellcome Trust, and my previous research.

Executive Summary
During the period 1947-2001 there was significant structural change in rural areas, linked to policymaking and government investment. Investment at the national level was very effective. A powerful driver of change, it resulted in large-scale transformation of British agriculture aligned to the preferred policies of the period. Those policies focused to c. 1985 on global food production, then increasingly on wildlife and on public access to the countryside and amenity via ‘diversification’.

Agriculture Act, 1947 impacts

In the period after the Agriculture Act 1947, significant agricultural change was achieved through targeted work shaped by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (from 1955 to 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food). That targeted work was undertaken by regional advisors and dedicated advisory services (National Agricultural Advisory Service, NAAS), focused on all aspects of agriculture (livestock housing, soil chemistry, veterinary services etc.) with whom individual farmers had direct, on-farm contact. This work was also supported via the circulation of information through films, radio programming and print materials, courses at expanded agricultural colleges, and a growth in Experimental Farms that farmers could visit. Government policy and investment was paralleled by commercial companies, (e.g. livestock feed companies, and companies who manufactured veterinary medicines), who provided their own complimentary advice and information services for farmers underpinned by their own Experimental Farms and R&D structures.

This was a period of experimentation and application, of new methods as well as new technologies, and this resulted in rapid growth in output with reduced input. The intention was to improve/modernise individual farms in the service of the national farm, or to improve/modernise a farmer’s herd/flock in the service of the national herd/flock.

At this time a complex system of payments and controls in Britain was linked to specific agricultural products, e.g. eggs, milk, negotiated between the Ministry and the National Farmers Union and overseen by the Marketing Boards. These payments were designed to increase food production after the Second World War, aligned to international policymaking established at the Hot Springs Conference, USA, 1943 for post-war global reconstruction, and to secure the UK farming industry against economic shock. These payments were broadly successful in meeting their aims, but in my view it was the advice received and information circulated that acted to increase production as much as secured payments. The former was supported by large-scale government investment.

Rural Areas after 1973

The advisory services, outreach and infrastructure originally developed in the immediate post-War period, following the 1947 Agriculture Act were largely dismantled, restructured, and rebranded after Britain joined the EEC. The Common Agricultural Policy replaced the previous system of payments that had been set up immediately after the Second World War.

In the 1970s, a further shift took place as ‘diversification’ – the development of additional on-farm business activities – came to the fore in policymaking, supported by advice given via bodies like the Countryside Commission. These policies were designed to help farming families in areas of high landscape value who could draw in additional recreation and tourism revenue but had little scope to make a profit via the agricultural outputs from farming.

Diversification tapped into the post-War use of the countryside as an amenity, of value to urban populations for health and wellbeing, and expanded that use from the National Parks to other rural areas. It focused on the value of wildlife, and of breeds of livestock considered ‘rare’. Often associated with specific regions and regional food products, it also supported tourism and growth of niche food markets. Targeted to specific farm businesses, advice and Government investment (e.g. grants) were again impactful and effective from a policy viewpoint. Diversification enabled many families to remain in rural areas, who would otherwise have left.

Unanticipated change – farm workers

Throughout the period 1947-2001, as new technologies and farming methodologies were introduced under NAAS (later, ADAS) advice, and small farms were consolidated into larger concerns, the rural population moved from agricultural employment to urban and manufacturing industry.

This can be seen with reference to ‘small’ farmers and unskilled labourers. The former did not have the money to invest in specialist equipment, or were unable to rent or buy land – e.g. as Council-owned farms decreased in number and the cost of land increased. Labouring families who had undertaken unskilled work lost employment (which had largely been casual and seasonal) as farm processes became more efficient/less labour intensive. However, skilled labourers, e.g. those working directly with livestock, such as stockmen, did remain on farms, and have continued to be highly sought by employers.

Though it refers to the smaller farm owner, the Consultation Paper has neglected to consider the impact on the remaining body of farm workers, and policy implementation could therefore have unintended impacts.


In sum, investment at the national level was effective 1947-2001, and resulted in large-scale change aligned to the preferred policies of the period.

The period after the 1947 Agriculture Act, to 2001 demonstrates that:




Timeline FIELD (field-wt.co.uk)

Sayer, K., ‘The Changing Landscape of ‘Labour’: Work and Livestock in Post-Second World War British Agriculture’ in History: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.12920