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Case study: Neroche Woodlanders

Mark Walton

As part of his Clore Social Leadership Fellowship, Mark Walton researched four case study examples of community enterprises that are managing environmental assets in collaboration with the landowner. Last week we profiled Chiltern Rangers. This week are we are profiling Neroche Woodlanders who are taking on the management of woodland in Somerset that is owned by the Crown Estate and leased by the Forestry Commission.

The full research report will be launched at our event in Manchester on 19th September where Gavin Saunders from Neroche Woodlanders will be speaking about their work. Book your place here:

Land & Communities: Creating a 21st century commons.

Organisation

Neroche Woodlanders Ltd. is an Industrial and Provident Society (IPS) established for the benefit of the community. It was founded in early 2013.

The organisation has four founding Directors. It is intending to open the organisation to members and to issue community shares as it develops.

Site
Young Wood is a 40 hectare (100 acre) mixed forest consisting of some plantation and some ancient woodland. It is nested within Neroche Forest (1,000 hectares / 2,500 acres) that runs across the northern half of the Blackdown Hills in Somerset. The site is accessible and level and situated about 2 miles south of Taunton. The Blackdown Hills is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Ownership
Young Wood is owned by the Crown Estate and managed by the Forestry Commission on a ninety-nine year lease.

History
Neroche Woodlanders and the proposal to manage Young Wood on a social enterprise basis arose from the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme. The scheme, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (with match funding from the project partners) ran from 2006-2011. It consisted of 23 separate projects that sought to invest in the natural, built and cultural heritage of the area, make the landscape more accessible and improve local people’s ability to sustain the quality of the landscape.

The Forestry Commission employed a Project Manager for the scheme which brought together a wide range of partners including Natural England, the local councils, Somerset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.

A stakeholder group of local landowners, residents and users was established in 2005 to help design the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The stakeholder group remained involved throughout the life of the scheme, eventually going on to form the Blackdown Hills Trust, a charity that acts as an enabling organisation, accessing funds that other project partners cannot. The Trust has enabled the founding Directors of Neroche Woodlanders to undertake the establishment work at Young Wood that led to the founding of the new social enterprise. The Blackdown Trust is made up of members of the community who have never been employed in the projects. The Neroche Woodlanders’s directors are all practitioners who have been employed in different capacities as part of the Neroche Landscape Partnership Scheme.

“It’s complicated, as always with these structures there are lots of different strands and they all have different historical roots. That’s because it’s real.”

Negotiation
The proposal to develop a social enterprise and lease part of the forest to it was developed by the scheme’s Project Manager who has become one of the founding directors of the enterprise. He had support from the Forestry Commission Regional Development Manager. The proposal also received advice from the Policy Team in Forestry Commission England.

The idea therefore secured support within the Commission. However this coincided with the public outcry at the Coalition Government’s proposals to sell off parts of the public forest estate. The government withdrew its proposals and established the Independent Panel on Forestry, during which time the Forestry Commission was unable to make commitments related to changing the way it managed its forests.

This coincided with the spending review and an internal restructure of Forest Enterprises within the Forestry Commission. The proposal had to be put to, and agreed by, a new management team. It was decided that the proposal would need approval of the Forest Enterprise England Management Board.

Organisational change and political turbulence increased the time taken for a decision to be made.

“That was a constraint and an opportunity. It made everyone a bit more risk averse but the idea of more public involvement in the forest estate became higher profile, which was advantageous on balance.”

The scheme’s Project Manager became a founding Director of the new social enterprise and will lead its forestry work in Young Wood when his contract with the Forestry Commission comes to an end. The constraints of the Forestry Act preclude the Forestry Commission in England from delegating its responsibility for managing the woodland to third parties. It is therefore unable to provide a full lease to Neroche Woodlanders. Instead a management agreement is being negotiated, based on a Memorandum of Understanding between the Forestry Commission and Neroche Woodlanders, comprising a buildings lease, a long term permit for activities, and a standing sale contract for forestry works.

Current Activities
At the moment there are monthly volunteer days with an average of 20 people on site. Volunteers are drawn from the local community and from further afield.
School groups visit the site regularly, some through direct arrangements and others through the Local Learning Partnership. A long term project called “Wild Learning” is being undertaken with adults from deprived communities in Taunton, funded from the local authority‘s adult learning budget. The site is also open for regular family days.

Finances
As a social enterprise, Neroche Woodlanders will raise an income from its activities (sale of woodland products, training services and social programmes) and will use that income to cover its costs and to reinvest in its work. At this stage, with the management agreement still not finalised, the finances of the new organisation remain uncertain. The business plan suggests that the cycle of forestry management will deliver some income in the second year however this is dependent on possible future contracts. A community share issue is being considered in order to provide the new company with some initial working capital.

At the initial stages of establishing the new company the financial situation is uncertain and the first couple of years are likely to be “hand to mouth” with nobody involved drawing a full income. The business model relies on several activities; each of which will deliver a small income, but none of which is lucrative enough to cover the full costs of the operation on its own.

Day-to-day management
In addition to the management agreement, which will establish the permission for Neroche Woodlanders to operate within the wood, a management plan will also be agreed between Neroche Woodlanders and the Forestry Commission. The management plan will outline the short and medium term objectives for the management of the woodland, as well as the range of activities and day-to-day operational procedures that will be undertaken.

Ambitions
In five years’ time the Neroche Woodlanders aim to be a financially sustainable business delivering a better managed woodland and engaging more people in its management in ways that enable them to benefit both personally and collectively. Neroche Woodlanders aspire to be a partner with the Forestry Commission during a period of change and for both parties to view themselves as positive collaborators.

Landowner’s perspective
Neroche Woodlanders has arisen from the landscape partnership project that brought a wider pubic engagement to the forest. The establishment of a social enterprise allows this work to be built on in order to increase use of the site for education and social learning activities without increasing costs to the Forestry Commission. It increases the intensity of the beneficial use of a public asset in ways that the Forestry Commission does not have the staff resources to do itself.

“They bring a set of expertise that we can’t match locally. Local knowledge, local enthusiasm and local affinity with these woodlands which is hard for us to replicate.”

There are no direct cost savings to the Forestry Commission as local operational staff will still be required to supervise and monitor the work being undertaken by Neroche Woodlanders. The peppercorn rent may preclude the opportunity for potential future commercial uses and there may be some loss of potential revenue associated with timber harvesting.

Increased access to the woodland is very important to the Forestry Commission, for whom the woodlands are a public asset, delivering benefits through public access, education and ecosystem services.

You can watch a short film of Neroche Woodlanders here:

[fve]http://player.vimeo.com/video/71670656[/fve]

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