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The death of rural England?

* 11 June 2003 *

The death of rural England?

Is rural England dying? A new book by social historian Professor Alun Howkins at the University of Sussex argues that it is.

"During the last century, the countryside has changed absolutely fundamentally," says Dr Howkins. "Now, there are more people employed in entertainment than there are in agriculture, and agriculture contributes only a tiny amount to the gross domestic product."

In recent years, the notion that the countryside is in crisis has been frequently heard. However, as this book demonstrates, this is nothing new.

"In the inter-war period there was a severe depression in English agriculture and an intense sense of crisis," says Dr Howkins. "It took the Second World War - which established the principle of agricultural subsidies and also saw the introduction of modern machinery, fertilisers and pesticides - to keep British agriculture going."

Dr Howkins' work has drawn on the mass observation archive held in the library at the University of Sussex, as well as oral histories, memoirs and contemporary newspapers and official records.

"Since the 1960s and 1970s, the farm labour force has almost vanished, but at the same time, more people live in the countryside now due to people moving out of the cities either to retire or to commute to work."

This phenomenon has led to increasing tensions between 'town' and 'country' on issues such as fox hunting and the impact of modern farming methods on the environment.

In an age where our food is just as likely to have come from the other side of the world as from the English countryside, and with European subsidies set to be radically reduced as the EU welcomes new member countries, the future of agriculture in this country looks bleak indeed.

The death of rural England: A social history of the countryside since 1900 by Professor Alun Howkins is published by Routledge.

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