PROPERTY JOURNAL

Estate seeks to set sustainable example

A 300-year-old estate has established an innovative partnership to encourage sustainable housing development – and hopes to share lessons with other landowners

Author: Roger File

20 December 2021

Architects image of modern housing in rural setting

Church Farm is one of the sustainable developments being created by Pye Homes, part of the Blenheim group © Blenheim Estate

Around 30% of the UK belongs to long-term landowners, and in many cases has been run by the same families for hundreds of years. They are understandably reluctant to sell off land for housing then see values spiral with planning consent as developers make the biggest gains. 

Blenheim Strategic Partners is advocating a longer-term approach to land management and stewardship. By following our example, landowners can participate actively in decisions, create a legacy for future generations, and gain a greater share of the profit over the longer term. 

The recent establishment of the partnership built on an existing relationship between the Blenheim Estate, Vanderbilt Strategic Ltd and Pye Homes. We offer a new landlord-led model of land promotion and development, which will work with other estates that share its values. An Oxfordshire-based partnership, our priority is to create attractive, sustainable communities that provide much-needed housing and green and biodiverse land.

The Blenheim Estate takes a long-term approach to sustainable land management. It draws on more than 300 years of stewardship, and has a first-hand understanding of creating value that goes beyond the purely financial. This is evident in the five components of its land strategy:

  • Grass Routes

  • Natural Health Service

  • Natural Balance

  • Landed Gently

  • Acorns and Oaks.

     

Grass Routes

Our neighbouring towns and villages are beautiful places, but connectivity is poor. Links to railways are haphazard, cycle networks are inconsistent, and footpaths do not join. As a result, four of five local journeys are by car. 

To rectify this, we are working with Oxfordshire Open Thought to provide green transport routes. These aim to link existing and new communities with each other and existing infrastructure. In doing so, we hope to increase accessibility and reduce reliance on the car. 

We've also opened a number of permissive paths on the doorstep of the new homes at Hanborough Gate. These enable residents to travel without threatening the natural world.

Natural Health Service

By viewing the natural resources of our land as a health service, our woodlands, green spaces and fresh air can effectively be prescribed to support health and well-being.

As society is living longer, mental health issues such as loneliness are increasing. Concerns such as housing, employment and relationship breakdowns are the cause of 20% of all GP consultations. The prescribing of 'social' remedies such as exercise and fresh air is therefore seen as a potential solution.

One of the partnership's recent initiatives is in collaboration with employment charity and social enterprise Aspire. Together, we are providing classes and activities, such as guided walking for people facing multiple challenges, which we hope to open out further to include woodwork, gardening and more if funds can be raised.

'Woodlands, green spaces and fresh air can effectively be prescribed to support health and well-being'
Natural Balance

The rural landscape provides immense value through farming and tourism, for instance. However, we are conscious that agricultural practices are responsible for up to 25% of all carbon emissions. We are therefore working with other landed estates to take a lead in the concept of natural capital. 

This is an innovative way to attribute the benefits of good air, water, soil, woodland, green spaces and biodiversity to the total ecosystem. Doing so enables new income streams such as carbon offsetting, and provision of biodiversity net gain (BNG). The latter is becoming a mandatory requirement for new development under the Environment Act 2021. Understanding natural capital also can inform better long-term decisions, such as investment in energy efficiency, providing natural habitats to encourage biodiversity and the re-use of natural resources where appropriate.

Landed Gently

This campaign will use our comprehensive understanding of nature and the benefits that it brings to make the estate carbon-neutral. Following this, the aim is to achieve carbon-negative land management.

There is no commonly agreed best practice for sustainable land management practice. One positive practice is regenerative farming – a reduction in pesticides, to restore soil fertility and encourage biodiversity. This, along with agroforestry – the introduction of trees on agricultural land – and organic farming all have a role to play. The Blenheim Estate is working with partners to identify the most suitable model for its sustainable land-use ambitions.

These include improving energy efficiency. This is high on our agenda because developing sustainable practices can improve the lives of local people and protect land for future generations.

We also want to become a net generator of green energy. We are therefore replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy in heating, lighting and vehicle power. Alongside engineers and consultants, we have developed a pioneering scheme that will make Blenheim Estate a net generator of green energy and Blenheim Palace itself carbon-neutral, as described in our environmental strategy

RICS sustainability support

If you are interested in the topics covered in this article, read how RICS can help your business to act on climate change.

The Responsible business framework addresses how to support environmental, social and governance factors in real estate.

The World Built Environment Forum sustainability report gives a global picture of what is driving demand around sustainability in real estate and land.

Acorns and Oaks

Blenheim Estate also uses local produce to support community business vitality. We partner with producers and artisans who share our values and supply our game, botanicals, grains, gin, bread, wine and beer. These partnerships are found in the catering and retail functions of Blenheim Palace, and the craftsmanship and building services used in the development of our homes. We are also working with local schools in operating environmental sensor networks which monitor air quality throughout the Blenheim Estate and in the community of Woodstock, allowing residents, schools and organisations to understand and manage the impact of climate change. 

Sharing lessons with landed estates

As a developer, we are in the fortunate position of having estate land on which to provide BNG and carry out other sustainable practices.

Blenheim Strategic Partners will work with landowners to secure local plan allocations for development land and encourage a sustainable approach to its stewardship. We will also work with developers to create sustainable communities inspired by and built around the natural environment. 

Beyond this, the partnership was established because of our potential to work with landed estates throughout the country, to advise and help with masterplanning and developing sustainable communities. We also plan to use the lessons we have learned to inspire masterplanning elsewhere. 

One important lesson is that good planning and design can create intrinsic links with the natural environment and enable communities to thrive. It's also about understanding the value of land holistically rather than prioritising high housing density and quick sales: creating sustainable communities with wide-ranging and lasting values. 

Hill Rise is another of Blenheim's sustainable developments © Blenheim Estate

Roger File is chief operating officer at Blenheim

Contact Roger: Email 

Related competencies include: Land use and diversification, Planning and development management

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