Reflection upon neoliberal rural Chile: Social upheaval, a referendum and the adoption of a profitable niche.

Carlos Bolomey Cordova is a second-year PhD student at the CRE. He is researching the livelihoods of agricultural producers in southern Chile, and here, discusses how a hardcore neoliberal logic has shaped agriculture in the region in recent decades. He also reflects on how this relates to Chile’s upcoming constitutional referendum.  

Social upheaval and a referendum

Towards the end of 2019, people across Chile took to the streets to protest the country’s hardcore neoliberal socioeconomic model – imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973 – 1990) and further consolidated by successive democratic governments.

Chile’s neoliberal rationale is reflected in the liberal free trade agreements it has signed with most of the world, as well as in an array of reforms that undermined the country’s social fabric. The latter have included the abandonment of both public education and public health, and the privatisation of natural assets such as water and copper. 

When Chile embraced the global market, it became one of the most developed countries in Latin America. However, despite having the region’s second largest per-capita GDP, Chile also has staggering levels of inequality. This has been one of the primary drivers for the recent protests, during which many Chilean citizens have called for dignity and social justice.

In response to these protests, politicians have called a referendum on Chile’s 1980 Pinochet-era constitution, set to be held later this year. This brings the possibility of not only developing a democratically-written constitution, but also of setting boundaries to a fiercely neoliberal model under which private property is the central right and state interference in social life is kept to a bare minimum.

From grain to fruit: Neoliberalism and agriculture in southern Chile

Last winter I travelled from Newcastle to the ‘La Araucania’ region in southern Chile to undertake my fieldwork. Here I witnessed first-hand some of the contradictions underpinning the neoliberal rationale regarding agriculture.

When La Araucania was incorporated into the Chilean national territory in the 1880s, following a military occupation of Indigenous land, it became a region devoted to cereal production. However, farmers across the region are now switching their crops to fruits.

This transition has occurred because of two complementary drivers. Firstly, climate change has been expanding the temperate weather of central Chile southwards, making southern regions warmer and therefore more hospitable to fruit production. Secondly, public policies have encouraged farmers to adopt high-value crops such as berries, primarily for export.

A traditional smallholder field in which maize, beans and quinoa are all grown in the same plot. Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

As a result, many farmers have reaped the rewards of higher crop prices and access to export markets. They have been able to capitalise on Chile’s numerous free trade agreements, as well as its geographical location, which makes it a counter-seasonal producer in relation to the northern hemisphere. Yet, not every farmer in the region has benefitted.  

Some farmers I spoke to at a local farmers’ market have not been able to grow berries because they do not have access to enough water to grow them (berry production typically requires significantly more water than grain production). This is partly a legacy of Pinochet’s constitution, which allowed for land and water to be considered as two separate ‘goods’. For instance, someone who owns property immediately next to a river cannot use water from that river if they have not bought the right to use it. The same problem arises when farmers dig wells: they must register these under the ‘Code of Water Management’, an expensive and bureaucratic procedure. Hence, many small farmers rely on rain water only, a system better-suited to grain production.

If access to water is not fairly distributed among farmers, those who are not able produce higher-profit crops, such as berries, often end up taking on work as wage labours or seasonal farmworkers. Within Indigenous communities, people are increasingly moving away from a highly diversified subsistence farming to selling their labour in the thriving (monocropping) fruit industry. In addition to locking people into a cycle of precarious work, this presents a threat to local biodiversity and the survival of traditional crops, as biodiverse subsistence plots give way to mono-cropped fruit fields.

Reliance on an export model compounds these issues, as producers become increasingly exposed to the fluctuations of the global market. While the government continues to implement schemes aimed at fostering the transition to an export-oriented mode of agricultural production, it disregards the fact that in the process, many producers’ livelihoods have become more precarious.

A government-issued poster encouraging farmers to grow flowers for export
Photo credit: Carlos Bolomey Cordova

A large banner at the entrance of the local rural development office alludes to a previous pilot that sought to help producers to export flowers, illuminating the government’s export-oriented focus. One official said to me that the main problem with the ministry of agriculture is that they are obsessed with export. He added: “the government supports many niche initiatives, but these niches often die… it happened the same with the strawberry growers of an indigenous community here”.

It is crucial to reflect on how a neoliberal logic entails a specific way of addressing agriculture, generating a set of unintended outcomes that obscures those who are left behind by development. The upcoming referendum will shine a light on many of these issues. Some farmers see it as an opportunity to claim water as a common good that cannot be privatised, and to cast doubt on the neoliberal model that has relegated many of them to poverty. Others in the rural elite will fight to retain their water rights and their access to an export-oriented market. Certainly, this conversation will develop as the referendum approaches.

Planting, Stewardship and Value

How do trees and tree planting fit into a sense of place and stewardship? Shane Finan discusses how art can play a role in this in the second of his CRE guest posts.

Photo credit: Shane Finan

Henry David Thoreau saw trees as essential for healthy places: “A village that has them not will not be found to work well. It has a screw loose, an essential part is missing” (Higgins, 2017 quoting; Thoreau, 1906). Thoreau felt the deep loss of the natural environment, and, from extensive observation, saw how the natural environment forms mutual partnerships.

There has been a recent surge in popularity in the idea of tree-planting to ‘re-green our planet’. Botanist and chemist Diana Beresford Kroeger, one of the early advocates of mass tree planting, has recently changed her argument slightly to emphasise the more urgent need to preserve the ancient forests that we have. This follows similar arguments, such as the backlash against a project to plant one trillion trees. Forty-six scientists put their name to a paper arguing that planting alone will not solve the current climate crisis (Veldman et al., 2019), and that unplanned planting, such as introduction of non-native species, lack of fire controls, etc., could be more detrimental than not planting at all.

A photograph of the cross section of an array of cut cedar, with an orange-brown hue on the timber and concentric rings showing the tree ages
Many people only see the value of the forest in what it provides in timber and fuel.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

A detailed study on rainforest preservation has found that indigenous communities are ideally suited to replanting efforts, and simultaneously finds that deforestation has more negative impact than reforestation has positive (Walker et al., 2020). It concludes that “the outlook for Amazon forests and their continued stewardship by [Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities] is tied to the political and economic future of Brazil” (p. 3023). Indigenous knowledge is shown to hold a value that is beyond quantification or economics: The ecologically conscious practices of the indigenous groups helps the forest to thrive.

Since the beginning of 2020, I have been working with the Kielderhead Wildwood Project in Kielder, Northumberland, in anticipation of an art residency there. The project is a rewilding effort run by Northumberland Wildlife Trust, where members of the community are planting native trees in a large area of north England.

Kielder was described to me by one of the regular volunteer planters as “the remotest place in England”. The village was built to service the local forestry in the 1920s, but over time the forest was mostly cut for its economic value. As a result, the place has lost a large part of its identity. This is something the wildwood project has the potential to restore, and even improve.

Asking local communities to be involved in the creation and maintenance of a forest has benefits. Aside from physically replanting a forest, it creates a sense of responsibility, identity and memory of place that connects the community and that place. Place-attachment is the concept of forming a close cultural, historical or social memory of a place, whereby people value a location and give it an identity that creates a relationship between them and the place. In a recent example from China, the role of place-attachment is seen to be crucial for grass-roots forestry management: “At the policy level, given that place attachment is an important predictor of pro-environmental behaviour towards heritage forests, efforts should be devoted towards the promotion and articulation of the cultural and historical values of heritage forests” (Cheung & Hui, 2018, p. 44).

An image of a corridor of trees that meet above the head, with a person standing facing away from the camera in light winter clothing inside the corridor
The yew cloister in Gormanstown, Ireland, is an example of an artistic and cultural creation of place: The garden was planted in the early 19th Century as a concessionary gift from one of the Preston family, the owners of the estate, who forbade his daughter to become a nun.
Photo credit: Shane Finan

By providing value to place, local residents gain a connection through social, historical and cultural memory. Folk music, stories, sculpture, events, artistic interventions, and the process of engaging people in place are all enablers of cultural association, creating a relationship between people and places. Art groups like Transition and Grizedale Arts promote this sense of place and stewardship by encouraging communities to grow, care for and maintain their places.

Art is valuable in its ability to create connections, and even more so in its creation of a different type of value. Returning to Thoreau, he argued that trees should not be cut unless necessary: “Every tree is better alive than dead…and he who understands it aright will rather preserve its life than destroy it”. This type of value in the life of a tree is a value for the whole forest. Artists create this value by showing the individual as the universal.

Stewardship is about what we value, and why. A steward needs to value each organism, not just the number behind it. The value is not in one trillion trees, or in the 39,000 that the wildwood project hopes to plant, but on the single one that connects the forest together. If one person takes stewardship for that one tree, the forest will survive.

Cheung, L. T., & Hui, D. L. (2018). Influence of residents’ place attachment on heritage forest conservation awareness in a peri-urban area of Guangzhou, China. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 33, 37-45.

Higgins, R. (2017). Thoreau and the Language of Trees: Univ of California Press.

Thoreau, H. D. (1906). Excursions and poems (Vol. 5): Houghton, Mifflin.

Veldman, J. W., Aleman, J. C., Alvarado, S. T., Anderson, T. M., Archibald, S., Bond, W. J., . . . Zaloumis, N. P. (2019). Comment on “The global tree restoration potential”. Science, 366(6463), eaay7976. doi:10.1126/science.aay7976

Walker, W. S., Gorelik, S. R., Baccini, A., Aragon-Osejo, J. L., Josse, C., Meyer, C., . . . Schwartzman, S. (2020). The role of forest conversion, degradation, and disturbance in the carbon dynamics of Amazon indigenous territories and protected areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(6), 3015-3025. doi:10.1073/pnas.1913321117

The City, the Country and Resources

Shane Finan is a visual artist from Ireland. He works with mixed media installation to create places. He writes computer programs for these installations, linking the places that he makes to contemporary technology. In April 2020, he was due to begin a residency with Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC), collaborating with Kielderhead Wildwood Project, Northumberland Wildlife Trust as part of the residency programme ENTWINED. Rural. Land. Lives. Art. The residency has been postponed, but he is sharing some of the background research and development from his project to date (more information

In 2014, after a frustrating period of unemployment, I gained a role as a graphic designer with a print firm in Tallaght, in an industrial estate in south Dublin. Having lived in the city for nearly two years, I had familiarised myself with the passages and rhythms of the city structure. But the time spent in an industrial estate opened my eyes to a supply chain that I had previously been unaware of.

A photograph from a bridge in Tallaght, Dublin, showing the road networks entering and leaving the industrial suburb
Tallaght is an industrial suburb of Dublin that links the city to the countryside. There are many industrial estates in Tallaght that include manufacture and distribution.
Credit: Shane Finan

One of the first things I noticed was the flow of resources to the various industrial units in the area where I worked. The lorries and trucks delivered raw materials, such as glass, fibres, food, plastics or car parts from other parts of the country. Assembly was carried out in the industrial estate, with clients usually based inside the city as the final destination for goods. This dreary industrial estate is one of the general supply lines for the city.

What was striking was the way the chain operated. The cost to the final recipient for any work carried out was high, considering the supply chain and the people involved in moving goods from one place to another. This is natural in supply chain economics, but I had never seen it as acutely before, and it made me realise two things.

The first was the economic imbalance between city and country. Those suppliers who brought materials from rural areas were paid at a lower rate, despite bearing the burden of importing the raw materials, and of transporting them to the south Dublin estate. This imbalance was a micro climate of the macro level economic flow in globalised capitalist markets.

The second was that resourcing was required to operate in the countryside, via an industrial estate, to service a city’s requirements. Because of the need of space and cheaper labour, this meant that there was a necessity for resources to come from areas where they could be manufactured, mined, or otherwise sourced.

Both of these points made me suddenly aware of the fragility of the city, and of its reliance on the countryside and communication infrastructure for resources and supplies. Although on a macro scale, most of these supplies come from international markets, even on a micro (national) scale, this meant that the city of Dublin could not function without these supply chains. More poignantly, the grittiness and dishevelled nature of the work in the industrial estate was an enormous contrast to the “clean” image of the city.

An image of shipping containers at a port in Dublin, piled four containers high.
Dublin port is a major shipping area. The ports provide a route of transmission for goods and services that translate into the “clean” city image.
Credit: Shane Finan

I grew up in the countryside, and had always been aware of the imbalance of cost of living and salaries between the city and the rural. However, this time spent in the industrial estate made me far more aware of the existence of the seen and the unseen in the city: The engine that makes sure the car keeps running.

This fragility was something I learned more about when working on a European Union project proposal about port security. On this proposal, my eyes were opened to the macro-level array of supply chains that exist in ports throughout Europe, and their own fragility. The shipping container industry changed international trade and made possible the macro-level supply chains that supply cities and countries today (Levinson, 2006). Shipping containers are big business, but to maintain supply lines in international trade they are also regulated only insofar as they can be based on the availability of people. Security breaches, like human trafficking or movement of illicit materials, is very difficult to track.

These micro and macro level observations made me acutely aware of a type of balance in supply that I had never considered before: Without the countryside the city cannot function. And more than this: Without the grit of an industrial and agricultural underbelly, the pristine, techno-utopic city would not exist. These might seem like obvious statements to any scholar of globalisation, but their effects were never as strongly felt by me personally until I was wrapped in those structures.

Later in 2014, after an accident on the factory floor led to a co-worker nearly losing his arm, I left the company (still probably in a state of shock) to leave behind the industrial grit and position in the link between country and city. I was lucky to be hired by Trinity College Dublin to manage a European project at this time, and so moved from the semi-city industry to the city proper again.

The experience has not left me, however. I see pieces of the work that I was involved with in strange places – on the seats of Ryanair airplanes, or the side of construction machinery on building sites. I am aware of that link, from country to city, and aware of what it costs people who live in that world between worlds.

But more than everything else, I am aware of the mask that is created between the “grit” of the country and the “cleanliness” of the city. David Batchelor wrote about the desire for a pristine state of existence for modern people in his exploratory book Chromophobia. In it, he outlines how the contemporary citizen strives for a clean, white, dirt-free environment (2000). His exploration of this idea is poignant because it shows up the falseness of the quest for the pristine. He also highlights how the move away from “dirt” is perceived as a move toward civility.

The city operates in this way. This is why there is outrage in cities when there is a visible grime. Cities hide their “dirt”, for example when the Australian government built false partition buildings to hide slum aboriginal neighbourhoods when pitching for the 2000 Olympic Games (Pilger, 2002). Many cities worldwide, including recently in the USA, ban homelessness and force homeless people out of city centres, not fixing the problem but removing its visibility (Lam, 2019).

The end result is a removal of responsibility, a separation between the “dirt” and the “clean”. This is important in any philosophy that suggests a closer connection to nature. This connection between rural and urban has been intentionally eroded in a dream of a pristine city reality. Although an illusion, the dream is, as Kant may have described it, a “Regulative Ideal”. It is an unattainable goal, but one that nonetheless guides the philosophy of the expansion of cities.

An image of a mound of earth on a forest bank
Our fear of ‘dirt’ relates to a fear of the rural, something that has developed in post-industrial western culture
Credit: Shane Finan

This idea was exemplified in the satirical video artwork The Dust Channel  by Roee Rosen, which I was lucky enough to see in Friche la Belle de Mai, Marseilles in 2018. In this video, an operetta about Dyson Hoovers, a couple slowly remove all dirt, filth and grime from their contemporary apartment, creating a clean environment (Rosen, 2016). Simultaneously, police come and joyfully cart away the musicians playing in the opera, all of whom gradually take on the image of refugees or (in this case) Palestinians. The dirt is removed, along with the culture, the music, the history. And all that remains is the Dyson-inspired clean world. Or at least this is the illusion (the video proceeds after the end of the opera to show a Dyson Hoover channel-hopping as it searches for the best news and entertainment about vacuum cleaners amid images of protest and unrest).

By using satire, intense imagery, and a unique imagination, Rosen highlighted the illusion of the pristine as a Regulative Ideal, a false concept of a perfect world. I believe the perfect world has more dirt, not less. It is one where the natural and the city collide, where the desire for the pristine is one of the ideas that dies away.

As I write this, COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in Europe (in the last month it has forced the curator that I am working with to be grounded in her home in Turin before postponing our exhibition launch indefinitely in Clare, Ireland). I have had to postpone my planned residency at Kielder. Uncertainty is everywhere. The pristine is suddenly more valuable, as hand sanitisers sell out and public spaces are seen as unsafe.

In an even stranger turn of events in this saga, the spread of the virus has also amplified xenophobia, in this case anti-Chinese sentiment. Rumours abound about how this manifested, and who may have been to blame. As the first cases occurred in China, this is where the diatribe is directed. In Europe, north Italy has become a pariah for the unclean – in the first two weeks of the pandemic in Ireland, most cases reported were from people who had recently travelled to north Italy.

COVID-19 exemplifies the disconnection between the rural and the urban, between nature and people. In the anthropocentric view, we hold a belief that this type of pandemic is beyond us – our medical incisiveness and antibacterial advancements have, we believe, kept us safe. But in truth, they are potentially making us less so. Although immunity cannot shield us from all disease, our own immune systems need to be practiced if we are to overcome major outbreaks. By killing 99.9% of bacteria, we may have left room for the feared 0.1%.

In each area, we have lost sight of the importance of the network. Divisions are created between the city and the rural, between the civilised and the wild. These divisions only serve to increase our reliance on a system that has already failed us.


Batchelor, D. (2000). Chromophobia: Reaktion books.

Lam, K. (2019, 15/12/2019). Cities are criminalizing homelessness by banning people from camping in public. That’s the wrong approach, report says. USA Today. Retrieved from

Levinson, M. (2006). The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger: Princeton University Press.

Pilger, J. (2002). Globalisation; the New Rulers of the World. In: UK.

Rosen, R. (2016). The Dust Channel. In. Marseilles: Friche la Belle de Mai.

Sociology meets chicken processing in County Durham

Jake Pointer is a first year Sociology PhD student studying the lives of workers in the meat processing industry. Here he shares some thoughts on his recent trip to a chicken processing plant in County Durham.

Photo credit: Nick Bondarev

In late February, I had the chance to visit a chicken processing plant in County Durham on a university trip organised by the Centre for Rural Economy. As my research concerns those working in the meat sector, it was an excellent chance to have my first glance into the working lives within such a facility. I went into this with mixed feelings: my vegan beliefs are naturally against any meat-orientated food producers, but my scholarly mind was telling me to put my biases aside and go in as objectively as possible. In this context, and as I’m quickly learning is the case for all my research, the scholarly mind was certainly the appropriate one to tap into for this visit (although this is sometimes challenging).

On arrival to the plant, the first thing I noticed was the smell of (perhaps not surprisingly) chicken. As we walked through the large gates and into the reception the smell only grew stronger until, for me at least, it was almost overpowering. After a brief talk from one of the managers about the plant we were split into groups and were given a tour. Before entering the processing areas we had to gear up with protective clothing and hairnets as well as wash our hands thoroughly. It seemed to me health and safety was of high importance here.

Inside the working areas were large machines, which, in various ways, processed the chicken. Slicing, freezing, cooking, bagging, skinning; there was a machine for everything. Many of the workers engaged in these machines had seemingly monotonous tasks, often involving repetitive motions such as continuously unloading a box of chicken pieces into a machine. Within the arrival area it was very cold as this is also where the chicken carcasses enter the plant and so they need to be kept fresh before being processed. This also means that plenty of workers operate in a cold environment. It was also quite loud in the factory, with various machines working away as well as speakers playing music here and there. Having worked in a warehouse some years ago myself, I can appreciate the effect music has on making an otherwise monotonous and often boring task more tolerable.

Whilst the tour was focused on the chicken, I was almost always looking at the workers, trying to use my sociological imagination and see if I could notice anything of interest. Some of the safety signs I noticed were in Polish next to their English counterparts, an indicator of the presence of non-British workers. I felt translating these signs was good work practice as safety should, in my opinion, be the priority in a potentially dangerous job such as this. The work-ethic seemed very high, with the workers seemingly never stopping whatever they were occupied with for even a second. I would not say they looked happy, but rather indifferent to their tasks, almost robotic as ever more chicken came through ready to be loaded into this machine or that. Few were talking at all, with most applying their attention only to their task. I would say that all the jobs required focus as the machines operated at high speed and a lapse of concentration would hinder this, and as a result, production. Many of the jobs also looked very physically demanding, often involving the lifting of large boxes or pulling huge pallets stuffed with chickens.

After the tour, we were led to the small conference room for a short Q and A session with the director of the company. The majority of questions were about the chicken itself; the quality, the manufacturers supplied and so on which the director and his mangers were happy to answer. It was clear they were proud of their work there, supplying high-quality, British ‘protein products’. I inquired about the workforce, in relation to the Polish signs I saw, and was told that around 30% of the employees were Polish. In addition, I was interested to see if they ever have injuries and if so, what the common ones were. The Director seemed a little surprised at my question. The Operations Manager told me the majority are made up of cuts, slips or back problems. I was surprised by how open they were about this. These answers raised more questions in my mind, why so many Polish workers? How are the injuries dealt with? but as I was there as part of a group, I did not want to dominate the session. A question was also posed about the vegan food factory which was operating just up the road. The director was very open to the changing food market and told us it was the company’s responsibility to adapt accordingly. He made a point that the businesses that do not adapt are the ones that close down.

I went away from this trip with mixed feelings. The scholarly side of me was happy with such an opportunity and experience, and I found observing the working environment fascinating. Worker safety did seem a high priority, which I was pleased to see. However, I would have been intrigued to hear from the employees themselves; their thoughts on the job, if they enjoyed working there, job prospects, what they thought of the management, whether the non-British workers integrated well and whether anyone ever thinks of the chickens at all and how they fit in with the process?  These questions I will have to save for another day; with a bit of luck, my research will help answer these and other questions in the future.

Waterway Management and the Dairy Industry in Ireland

Adrienne Attorp is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Newcastle University. Here she writes about some insights gained during recent fieldwork in Ireland.

This autumn I was in Ireland undertaking fieldwork for my ongoing PhD research, which focuses on agriculture policy, land use and waterway management on the island of Ireland. While there, I travelled all over the country, interviewing people from across the agriculture sector, including farmers, civil servants, industry lobbyists and NGO workers. I hoped to find out how the Irish agriculture industry plans to deal with its ongoing water pollution issues.

Dairy is King

Something that became abundantly apparent over the course of my visit is that dairy is ‘king’ in Ireland. This, of course, was not a total surprise, given that it is by far the most profitable agricultural enterprise in the country. Although only 13% of in Ireland’s 137,500 farms are devoted to dairy – there are approximately 18,000 dairy farmers in the country, managing around 1.35 million cows – Irish dairy produce exports totalled €4.6 billion in 2017, accounting for 34% of Irish agri-food exports. What I had not fully understood until I started talking to people was just how much discussion of the dairy industry dominates discourse around land and waterway management practices on the island. This may have interesting implications for how best to address Irish agriculture’s pollution problems.

A dairy farm outside of Wicklow, Ireland.
Photo credit: Adrienne Attorp

A brief History of Irish Dairy Farming

Dairying has a long history in Ireland. Archaeologists at the University of Bristol argue that dairy was an important food source for Neolithic peoples on the island, after their research identified traces of dairy fats in pots found in the region dating between 4,000 and 2,500 BC (Smyth and Evershed, 2016). They note that, as dairy cattle are not native to the island, early farmers – possibly indigenous foragers or incoming farmers, or both – would have had to transport the animals across the open sea to Ireland in small vessels that could hold only a few animals at a time. This was no easy feat, and “…these voyages are unlikely to have been undertaken without a significant degree of determination and broader social support” (Smyth and Evershed, 2016, p. 220). The Irish love affair with dairy clearly has deep roots and continues to be an integral part of the country’s social, cultural and economic fabric.

Fast forward to the 20th century, by which point the Irish landscape had been transformed into a patchwork of small, family-owned farms. This landholding pattern developed as a result of centuries of land rights struggles under British occupation. In the late 19th century, a series of ‘land agitations’ and a changing political environment finally forced the British government to concede to far-reaching land ownership transfers from members of the British landlord class to their impoverished tenant famers (Hannan and Commins, 1992 [1]). As a result, family farms became the central focus of what was previously quite a diverse rural economy. By the 1920s, the majority of Ireland’s ‘active population’ were either farmers or ‘relatives assisting’ with farming (Hannan and Commins, 1992). Dairying would have been one of many agricultural activities undertaken by such farmers. Although the significance of agriculture in Ireland declined as the 20th century progressed, this landholding pattern remained relatively consistent through the middle of the century.

Prior to Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC; now European Union) in 1973, the Irish dairy sector was not particularly significant economically. The majority of Irish dairy was consumed within Ireland, with UK being the country’s only meaningful export market. This changed with entry to the EEC. Common Agricultural Policy price supports translated into a huge increase in milk prices, which, alongside improved access to the European market and general productivity gains, greatly stimulated production. Irish dairy output doubled between 1970 and 1984 (Donnellan et al., 2015). A similar trend occurred across the EEC, and by the late 1970s, there were considerable milk surpluses across Europe. In 1984, the EEC brought in a quota on dairy production to curb this, which dampened the growth of the industry and became one of the key factors resulting in the consolidation of dairy farming in Ireland. Between 1984 and 2014, the number of Irish dairy farms declined from 80,000 to 17,500. This was accompanied by a 470% increase in output per farm, a 350% increase in average dairy herd size and a 48% increase in output per cow (Donnellan et al., 2015). The trend was, unequivocally, ‘go big or go bust [2]’.

The Irish Dairy Industry Post-Quota

The EU milk quota was eventually lifted in April 2015. As a result, the volume of Irish dairy output increased by 60% between 2015 and 2019, translating into a €2 billion per annum increase in value (National Dairy Council, 2019). This rapid growth contrasts starkly with the prospects of dairy farmers in some other countries around the world, notably the United States, where the industry, which is the largest globally, is facing significant economic pressures and decline. For example, according to a recent New York Times article, in Wisconsin, a state known as ‘America’s Dairyland’, the number of dairy herds has fallen by half since 2005, and nearly 1,200 dairy farms have closed in the past two years alone.

Undoubtedly, there are multiple factors contributing to these contrasting fortunes. However, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, is Irish dairy’s USP as the ‘green option’: predominantly grass feed, it is touted as the “the lowest carbon emitting dairy sector in the Northern Hemisphere”. This, along with the sector’s comparatively high animal welfare standards, has attracted a strong international demand for the industry’s various products. Today, over 90% of Ireland’s total dairy production is exported to more than 120 countries, and despite its small size – both geographically and in population terms – Ireland is consistently one of the largest dairy exporters globally.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council's November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

The Dairy Industry and Ireland’s Waterways

While this growth may be great for Irish dairy farmers and for the Irish economy more broadly, for those concerned with waterway management in Ireland, there is less cause for celebration. Ireland is a country covered in water, with 513 groundwater bodies, more than 800 lakes, and over 70,000 km of waterways (Fanning et al., 2017). Diffuse agricultural pollution (pollution from various sources, such as runoff from a field, as opposed to one single ‘point’ source) is the most significant source of water pollution in the country, and run-off of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, the majority of which comes from animal waste (van Grinsven et al., 2012), poses a particular problem (Mockler et al., 2017). ‘Green’ credentials or not, the Irish dairy industry’s ongoing growth ambitions may not be compatible with water quality targets Ireland is statutorily obliged to meet as a member of the EU.

This is not to suggest the dairy industry is uniquely responsible for Ireland’s water pollution problems. The Irish agriculture industry as a whole is very animal-production focused, and in terms of numbers, the Irish dairy herd is vastly smaller than either the beef cattle or sheep herds: there are 5.35 million beef cattle in Ireland – nearly four times the number of dairy cows – and approximately 3.9 million sheep (Teagasc, 2017). Moreover, from what I can gather through my interviews thus far, the dairy industry has been leading the way within the agriculture sector in terms of trying to improve its sustainability. Dairy Industry Ireland has initiated a broad reaching sustainability initiative called ‘Dairy Sustainability Ireland’, and according to many of the policy makers and extension workers I spoke to, dairy farmers are often the most likely to engage with efforts to mitigate pollution.

A Billboard from the Irish Dairy Council’s November 2019 #LoveIrishDairy campaign.
Photo credit: Agriland 2019

This is, of course, not only because of some altruistic desire to help the environment, although for some farmers, such as those involved in the innovative BRIDE project, this does indeed play a leading role. Mainly, the dairy industry appears to be acutely aware of its obligations to maintain water quality under Ireland’s current Nitrates Directive derogation [3], and is very wary of losing this privilege. However, it is clear there are also other factors at play. Practically speaking, because the majority of dairy farmers farm full time, they tend to have more capacity to engage with extension services and stay up-to-date with industry trends than do their counterparts in the drystock industry, many more of whom farm part time. Because dairy is profitable, dairy farmers also tend to have more access to capital, enabling them to invest in measures that help mitigate pollution. Furthermore, dairy farms are often based on some of the best quality land, meaning that in many cases, nutrients are less likely to run off from these farms into waterways. Drystock farmers on more marginal land may have greater runoff issues, even if they farm less intensively. Last, but not least, public opinion plays a big role; current ‘plant-based’ diet trends are making the industry sit up and take notice, and public awareness about the environmental impact of agricultural practices generally is also placing pressure on the industry.

What does this mean for Ireland’s commitment to have all of its waterways achieve a ‘good’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027? Clearly, engaging with the dairy industry will continue to be very important. It is a very big player, and dairy farmers seem to have the willingness and capacity to address water management issues. Equally, since drystock farmers are also a big part of the pollution problem, but are harder to engage, then more creative ways will need to be found to do so. Furthermore, the discussion cannot be about dairy and drystock farmers only. Although industries such as pig, poultry and mushroom are far less significant, both in terms of economic output and of number/size of farms, they are still a major pollution risk, particularly in some regions of the country where they are concentrated. How exactly improvements are to be achieved remains to be seen, but I hope that my research will provide some insight as to how to bring everyone on board. King or not, the dairy industry is but one of several players that have to work together to reach Ireland’s environmental goals.

Sincere thanks to the Enviresearch Foundation for funding this research visit.

[1] Hannan, D. and P. Commins (1992). The significance of small scale landholders in Ireland’s socioeconomic transformation. The development of industrial society in Ireland. J. Goldthorpe and C. Whelan. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 79-104.
[2] This is, of course, a relative term. Today, the average size of an Irish dairy herd is 80 cows, whereas in the United States it is around 230. In some cases, American CAFOs may house thousands of cows.
[3] Under the existing Nitrates Directive derogation, approximately 7,000 intensive farmers in Ireland (mostly dairy) are able to farm at stocking rates higher than permitted than baseline Nitrates Directive rules. Most argue this is critical to sustaining existing levels of dairy production in the country, let alone expanding them.

Changing Trade Regimes and the Future of Agriculture and Rural Communities – Session at the 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress, Trondheim, Norway

Changing Trade Regimes and the Future of Agriculture and Rural Communities – Session at the 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress, Trondheim, Norway

This week we are delighted to have a guest post from Jane Atterton, Policy Researcher at the SRUC’s Rural Policy Centre. She reflects on her participation in a session organised by the CRE’s Carmen Hubbard and Adrienne Attorp at the recent 2019 European Society for Rural Sociology Congress (ESRS) in Trondheim, Norway.

Vegetable farm outside of Trondheim

Working group 27 at the ESRS 2019 Congress, titled ‘Changing Trade Regimes: Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture and Rural Communities’, featured five speakers each focusing on different challenges and opportunities currently facing agriculture and rural communities across Europe – a fascinating session which covered an incredible breadth of topics.

Dr Carmen Hubbard opened the session by presenting the key findings of her recent ESRC-funded project on Brexit and how UK agriculture and its different sectors may survive or thrive.

Dr Hannah Chiswell from the Countryside and Community Research Institute then provided further reflections on the future of UK agriculture, including the need to strengthen the farmer voice in current Brexit debates.

SRUC’s Dr Jane Atterton then discussed some of the key issues facing Scotland’s agricultural sector and its rural communities, set in the context of current policy drivers in Scotland, including community empowerment, land reform and inclusive growth.

Dr Paul Swagemakers from the University of Galicia in Spain provided some comparative reflections on the changing nature of the dairy sector in Galicia and the Netherlands.

Finally, Professor Scott Prudham from the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto provided a historical account of the evolution of, and current challenges facing, the Languedoc wine sector.

Speakers and participants then engaged in a lively discussion covering issues ranging from the role of cooperatives in wine production, environmental degradation, the importance of understanding the reasons for a range of different behaviours such as xenophobia and voting patterns, the future of the LEADER approach in the UK post-Brexit, and the importance of taking a historical perspective to understand current situations.

The session demonstrated the breadth of perspectives that can be taken to explore Brexit, from quantitative, economic approaches reviewing potentially different spatial and sectoral impacts, to more qualitative, social considerations exploring the behaviour changes of farmers and rural residents. The session also revealed that, although Brexit is often viewed as a unique situation, farmers and wider rural businesses and communities across Europe are dealing with the implications of policy changes and there may be learning that can be shared.


This blog was originally posted on SRUC’s Rural Brexit Hub. Thank you to Jane Atterton and SRUC for permission to post it here.

What do arts practices bring to rural sociology? Reflections from ESRS Congress, Trondheim

What do arts practices bring to rural sociology? Reflections from ESRS Congress, Trondheim

The CRE’s Dr Fran Rowe reflects on discussions held during a panel she convened with Dr Menelaos Gkartzios at the recent European Society for Rural Sociology Congress in Trondheim, Norway.

Encounters with artists and their contemporary arts practices proved a rich seam of enquiry and discussion at the recent Congress of the European Society for Rural Sociology in Trondheim, Norway. Hard on the heels of their recent rural arts research visit to Japan, Dr Menelaos Gkartzios and Dr Frances Rowe of the Centre for Rural Economy convened a working group at the Congress to explore contemporary arts practices and rural development. After an introductory presentation by Fran an invited panel, comprising Professor Mike Woods of Aberystwyth University, Professor Esther Peeren from University of Amsterdam, Natalie Leung from University of Austria and Professor Mike Bell from University of Wisconsin, offered contrasting interdisciplinary perspectives which led to a fascinating discussion.

First off, Mike Woods reminded us that artists and rural sociologists share an inquisitiveness about the rural, an interest in differing rural narratives and an orientation toward working with communities to enact change. He argued that rural sociologists and artists could be seen to embrace an action research practice. This is exemplified by the artists’ residency programme run by the Centre for Rural Economy, in collaboration with Berwick Visual Arts in Northumberland, North East England and Newcastle University’s Institute for Creative Arts Practice. Work by artist Sander Van Raemdonck, for example, has used a walking arts practice to engage communities and planning professionals in issues of housing development in the Spittal peninsular in Berwick (as discussed in a recent paper here).

The use of space outside the art museum or gallery, with artists engaging communities through their creative practices can provide fertile ground to challenge assumptions about the rural and raise fresh questions. Mike drew on his recent experience of working with The Whitechapel Gallery’s Rural initiative and artists’ collective Myvillages, to emphasise that artists bring a creative palimpsest of methods for interrogating issues as broad as ageing in rural communities exploring the expressive, or more than human dimensions of rurality.

Esther Pereen’s research exploring the cultural imaginations of the rural across five continents brings a fresh lens on contemporary rurality and how it is represented in popular culture. Frequently the well-worn stereotypes of an idyllic and unchanging rurality persist and can prove remarkably obdurate. This tendency can persist in how artists, via commissions and residences, are expected to ‘give rural communities what they want’, rather than giving space to aesthetic responses to rural issues and places that are emergent and uncertain, and sometimes challenging to rural communities, as Frances Rowe found in her PhD research into three contemporary arts organisations in England and Scotland.

Natalie Leung’s research exploring farmers’ reactions to specific artworks in a mountainous rural region experiencing an ageing population and widespread land abandonment, is discovering how farmers ‘use’ encounters with artworks via the Echigo Tsumari Art Field help them to make sense of their own identities through experiences of working the land. For example, for some farmers art has helped them to express an open-minded acceptance of change and that nature inevitably takes over when people leave, whereas for others, art inspires them to continue farming, reaffirming the values of their relationships to the land and contributing to rural resilience.

Finally, Mike Bell shared some music played by his group Graminy (listen to an example here!). Combining artistry with rural sociology, Mike’s compositions have emerged from a collaboration with arts organisation The Worm Farm Institute that explores the role of fermentation in food, helps to surface in a different way issues of global importance such as climate change, and engages people in conversations about them in non-confrontational ways. This approach may go some way towards circumnavigating the contested binaries of climate acceptance and denial that are so prevalent in the US today (and manifesting themselves elsewhere.)

The discussion following the presentations extended the contours of the conversation, for example to hear about how theatre has helped to surface issues of neighbourhood planning and power relations in communities in North East England, to the limitations and realities of community engagement in high profile art festivals in Japan, to the challenges and opportunities of using creative practices as sources of data in academic journals. It is hoped that collaboration in this growing space of rural socio-cultural enquiry will continue to develop, with exciting possibilities for future research and knowledge exchange.

Academia, policy and practice – How can we ensure our research findings make a difference?

Adrienne Attorp and Beth Clark summarise what they learned about policy making from Professor David Freshwater during his recent visit to the CRE.

This February, the Centre for Rural Economy (CRE) was lucky enough to receive a visit from Professor David Freshwater of the University of Kentucky. While here, he spent an afternoon with CRE PhD students and early career researchers, and spoke to us about his work as a researcher and policy analyst in the field of rural and agricultural policy, which has included many years working as a consultant for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He also shared with us his thoughts and reflections on farming, including what he thinks are the biggest challenges facing the industry, and imparted some words of wisdom to those of us interested in working to influence policy. Some highlights:

The Challenges facing Farming

According to Professor Freshwater, policy is the biggest threat to agriculture because it is in a constant state of flux. This observation could not be timelier for a UK-based audience given the imminent arrival of Brexit and the looming threat of a ‘no deal’ exit, or a last-minute announcement of tariffs. Brexit aside, given the short-term focus of politicians that accompanies short stints in power and party changes, and the lack of overall strategy, it is not surprising to find that this makes longer-term planning difficult for farmers.

We also discussed the structure of farming and farm income, with farm support moving away from direct payments in a number of instances towards a more risk management-based approach. This reflects a need to change the approach to payments as a country and its economy develop. Related to this, Professor Freshwater highlighted the need for diversification, citing off-farm income sources as a means of risk mitigation. While some would portray this as a negative narrative as it suggests the farm is not a profitable entity without a separate source of income, Professor Freshwater offered a different perspective, arguing that a portfolio of uncorrelated income sources can in fact provide more resilience in an ever-changing climate. He pointed out that most households are multi-income, so why not farming households also?

How to Influence Policy Making

Politics precedes policy (and audience matters!)

“If you want to change policy, you have to talk to politicians”, Professor Freshwater told us. He also underscored that in order to influence policy effectively, researchers must “be immersed in the politics of [their] time”. Why? Because it is essential to understand both the context in which policymakers are working and the agendas they have, in order that research can fit into this context and align with current political values. This does not mean ‘selling out’, so to speak, it just means it is important to think about how you frame the problem and potential solutions, so as to make the most impact. Audience matters.

In addition, Professor Freshwater highlighted that policy can struggle with the unique. Generalizable findings and recommendations are much more suited to political interests. Thus, it is important to consider the smallest number of variations a policy may have while still being effective. He also stressed the need to ensure that any policy suggestions are both cost and outcome effective.

Further, similar to the pressures farmers contend with, the time constraints faced by policymakers make implementing long-term change difficult. With changes to political parties happening every four-to-five years or less, planning in two-year periods is often more feasible, with short-term recommendations more likely to be implemented.

Tell a story

Anecdotes and stories make policy impacts real, we learned. In policymaking, this is where qualitative research comes into its own. These anecdotes and stories should form part of your overall narrative on a subject, but crucially, we must always back them up with statistics. Furthermore, once you have your narrative, stick to it. Never contradict yourself!

Some final pearls of wisdom…

To be effective outside of academia there is a need to avoid the ‘tunnel vision’ that academics so often have, and to have an overview (even a not very in-depth one) of other disciplines. (This is evidently a strength of the CRE, given the diverse expertise of staff and students, not to mention the broad range of collaborators that we have and continue to work with.)

And finally, Professor Freshwater made a plug for theory, emphasising that, by approaching research from a theoretical perspective, researchers can be deductive, as well as uniform in their approach to comparing and evaluating different policy alternatives. This subsequently provides rigour to their work.

So, what are the take-home messages? Other than the need to ensure we keep an open mind and read more broadly, we came away with a number of key points for preparing a policy brief:

  • Create and tell a story about why your research is important
  • Provide evidence of the impacts of what you are recommending
  • Be consist in telling this same story to different people
  • Consider how generalizable your findings are

Many thanks to Professor Freshwater for helping the CRE’s early career researchers expand their research arsenal. Watch out policy world!


‘Art in the Countryside: In Praise of Japan’

The CRE’s Dr Menelaos Gkartzios writes here about the Japanese take on “art in the countryside”, which he experienced first-hand last year during a 5 month stay in the country, and about exciting new opportunities made possible by the newly announced ESRC-AHRC UK-Japan Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Connections Grant

What does art do? And what happens if you take artistic practice outside the museum, the art gallery, the cultural quarter, the metropolis itself? I have been working on these questions for a couple of years now, mainly through the collaborative art residency that we run between the University’s Centre for Rural Economy and Berwick Visual Arts. This has offered a rich context to explore notions not only of engaged arts practice, but also of artistic research. A special section for the academic journal Sociologia Ruralis on ‘art in the country’ is forthcoming, edited along with Dr Julie Crawshaw (Northumbria University) and Dr Marie Mahon (National University of Ireland, Galway). There seems to be an increased interest in the rural social world in established art venues; for example the Whitechapel Gallery has been running an exciting session on ‘The Rural’, and Guggenheim has already announced the ‘Countryside: the Future of the World’ exhibition).

Meanwhile, in the far Far East, contemporary art is taking place in the countryside. Last year I was given the opportunity to do fieldwork in rural Japan as part of a visiting associate professorship post at the University of Tokyo. I came across a tradition of significant contemporary art festivals in the most remote and depopulated locations of rural Japan – many of them led by the Tokyo-based Art Front Gallery, following the vision of its director, Fram Kitagawa, who has received praise for his contributions in this field. It was fascinating to observe how some Japanese art professionals even dismissed the very idea of the art experience in museums and formal art spaces as ‘western’. Of course art is abundant in Japan – it’s a philosophy that enters the everyday: from arranging flowers, to serving tea, from separating the public and the private social spheres in performative ways, to writing Japanese syllables and Chinese ideograms.

The research team at Oku-Noto

The most prolific of these art festivals has been the Echigo Tsumari Art Trienalle which takes place place in a disadvantaged mountainous area, but my fieldwork took place at the very first edition of the Oku-Noto Trienalle, also organised by Art Front Gallery, which coincided with my 5 month stay. Fieldwork included an ethnographic diary while attending the festival and visiting the artworks via structured bus guided tours, as well as in-depth interviews with visitors, curators and other art professionals, local policy makers and local community groups involved in the art-making. I would have never been able to do this work had it not been for my colleagues in Japan supporting this endeavour – particularly Dr Hironori Yagi and his students. We were a group, so important in Japanese culture.

The festival was so successful that it was difficult to find accommodation, so we stayed in a Buddhist temple instead – think of it: tatami rooms, low lights, emptiness. There was art even there. As I am going through my field notes of the festival, I read numerous stories about re-using abandoned buildings important for the rural community. At a closed school we rang the bells loud; a closed bath house – central in Japan’s social life – was filled with foam and people again. Nature is never to be underestimated in Japan and that was also evidenced in the artworks – some of them were actually destroyed because of typhoons. But nature was equally never glorified. Engaged artistic practice was abundant and residents talked with pride and strong emotions about being involved in the festival. And then there were the odd stories, the almost insignificant connections that the art festival made, that really mattered: getting lost and being looked after while cycling at night to view light installations; making friends.

‘Table Runner’ by Tomoko Konoike

I am extremely excited to say that this is only the beginning. We will explore further this adventure of art in the countryside across Japan and the UK. Our collaboration has just received funding from the newly announced ESRC-AHRC UK-Japan Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities Connections Grant. I am delighted to lead, with our University Dean of Culture and the Creative Arts, Professor Vee Pollock, a new research network with the University of Tokyo, Art Front Gallery and our established collaborators in the wider region, Berwick Visual Arts and Scotland’s Stove Network. The research network aims to explore the contribution and potential of contemporary art in support of sustainable rural development. Stay tuned and get out of the city.


Reflections on CRE’s visit to the House of Lords

Dr. Ruth McAreavey, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle University, writes about her recent visit to Westminster as part of a delegation from the CRE. 

While walking down Milbank with colleagues from CRE in December, it really felt that we were at the heart of the action. Westminster was buzzing, demonstrators were out in full force, space on College Green was at a premium as the media pitched their broadcasting tents. This happened to be the first day of Teresa May’s 5-day Brexit debate extravaganza to allow MPs to debate the ins and outs of her deal. It was also the day that Lord Cameron was hosting academics from across the UK to discuss Brexit. Jeremy Phillipson, Guy Garrod, Mark Shucksmith, Fran Rowe and I were part of that delegation, representing the CRE. We had been invited to help present the key findings from four papers published by CRE that discuss the rural policy implications of Brexit for the four corners of the UK – Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

Before we were allowed to do so, we first had to navigate Westminster’s rather chaotic security system, which felt like something out of a Mr Bean movie rather than a genuinely effective measure to prevent acts of terror. Indeed, it was reminiscent of security at Marks and Spencer’s in Royal Avenue, Belfast, during the 1980s. Our detention in a rather small and stuffy waiting area gave my colleagues just enough time to raise my anxiety levels, stoking the fear that someone might ask me to explain the Irish backstop (which, thankfully, I didn’t have to do)! We eventually made it into the elegant committee room, with time for a bit of small talk before we got going. Notable from the outset are the different politics: Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, while England and Wales voted to leave, with geographic pockets of leave/remain existing across the UK.

As well as important political divergences, there are significant geographic differences between and within the four nations. This is especially the case for England and Scotland. The fragile upland communities of Scotland are remote and much less connected than the borders of that country. Meanwhile, according to the OECD, England is not remote, as the countryside has ready access to urban populations. Similarly, Northern Ireland has no remote rural categories. Anyone familiar with its geography will know that it’s easy to drive across the region in a matter of hours.

Not only do the four nations diverge on politics and geography, each nation has a number of unique Brexit-related concerns. Devolution is a particular issue for Wales given the areas of retained UK government powers that have direct impact on rural Wales, such as immigration. This has implications beyond agriculture, affecting food processing, manufacturing and health and social care. In Scotland, within the food and drink industry there are very real concerns that the specialised export markets, including for Scotch beef, farmed Scottish salmon, whisky and other fish, will be overlooked in trade negotiations that are likely to focus on larger sectors such as financial services or car manufacturing. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, the ‘Border Problem’ probably needs little elaboration. It has been the major blockage for the progression of May’s Brexit negotiations. Spanning 300 miles and encompassing 275 border crossings, the border is quite porous, and it lies at the heart of complex food supply chains, raising serious challenges for managing exports post-Brexit.

Rural planning varies across the UK. For example, the bounded nature of the English village has given the English countryside its idyllic character, but it has also led to challenges of rural housing, as locals often cannot afford to live in the places where they grew up. Rural communities themselves have changed a lot since the UK joined the EU in 1973. They continue to change, representing diverse traditional and cosmopolitan interests, all of which need to be carefully considered within future rural policies. Investment in sustainable infrastructure is essential to achieve rural economic growth in all nations through the mechanisms specific to each jurisdiction. For example, empowering and enabling English Local Enterprise Partnerships will be an important part of that process. Generally, the value of rural economies is often not fully understood, and the considerable public goods they produce are regularly overlooked. Going forward, and in the absence of the Common Agricultural Policy, it will be increasingly important to recognise these public goods to ensure their continued creation in the longer term.

The question of how to govern rural areas most effectively is shared across the four countries. While the context for doing this differs in the different jurisdictions, questions remain: Is a targeted rural policy desirable and/or effective? Can a single policy serve both urban and rural areas? Connected to this is the issue of funding. Both Northern Ireland and Wales have been net recipients of EU funding, but this level of funding is not guaranteed in the future. Who might champion rural needs in each of the four countries? Should funding be ring-fenced? Is there a role for rural proofing?

These and many other themes were picked up in the course of a lively Q&A session, during which it was noted that policymaking occurs in silos, even after decades of this recognised weakness. Someone provocatively asked ‘What’s the point of market towns?’ The intent of course was to stimulate debate rather than write off market towns outright. Many seemed to share the viewpoint that they have an important role, connecting both with their rural hinterland and with urban centres.

And that was the end of the formal proceedings, which were followed by some light refreshments and further chat. Walking out of the House of Lords, we took a detour through the Commons, extending our walk through the splendour of the buildings, marvelling at their wealth and sophistication. I couldn’t help but wonder about the juxtaposition of that grandeur against the shabbiness of the democracy that led to the Brexit vote.