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Conservation and Enterprise

Mark Walton
The Hill Holt Wood 10th Anniversary Conference: conversations on how to develop an environmentally and socially sustainable economy.

Conservation and Enterprise: A Meeting of Minds

On 8th June Shared Assets participated in the Hill Holt Wood 10th Anniversary Conference, “Conservation and Enterprise: A Meeting of Minds”.

The conference was billed as a meeting of conservationists, social entrepreneurs, community stakeholders, policymakers, academics and business representatives to develop links and cooperative strategies that can best benefit nature, society and the economy.

It was conceived in response to the tensions that Hill Holt Wood, and organisations like them, face in seeking to develop sustainable social enterprises based on the management of environmental assets.

Speakers including Forestry Commission Chair Pam Warhurst, CEO of Social Enterprise UK Peter Holbrook, Mark Felton of Natural England and Professor Nigel Curry of University of Gloucester spoke of the need for co-creation and new forms of partnership in  environmental management.

Enterprise is often seen as a threat to conservation rather than a means of delivering the resources to effectively manage and improve of the quality of natural assets. However Hill Holt Wood is a shining example of how sustainable, environmentally sensitive development can both enhance the environment and deliver real social benefits. With a capital value of about £2M and annual turnover of £1.2M, it provides quality services ranging from education for excluded young people to sustainable design practice and hospitality services. Whilst the development of the social enterprise has required some development within the woodland site, the remaining 90% has been improved from being undermanaged and rhododendron-choked to being a woodland in recovery.

Examples like Hill Holt Wood are all too rare. They are fortunate to own their own site, have fostered good local relationships and have a strong track record. However they still face serial and serious objections from a conservation establishment that sees our natural assets something fragile to be protected and conserved – even where, in practice, they are often neglected and suffer from a lack of care and resource.

Conservation approaches based only on protection and pure aesthetics risk disconnecting us from our environment, making its value distant and abstract rather than real and connected to day to day benefits such as food, fuel, shelter, knowledge, skills and jobs.

Shared local management could lower the bar to entry for committed and skilled social enterprises who do not wish to own their local green spaces, but who can improve their quality whilst providing a range of local benefits and reconnecting people with their local environment through the delivery of tangible benefits.

As several speakers reminded us at the day, austerity and the failure of current economic models call for new thinking and new practice. This is as true for the stewardship of our natural resources as it is for our approaches to financial management. The level of attendance and energy of participants at the conference demonstrated the appetite to challenge  current orthodoxies and co-create new practices of environmental management. Shared Assets is determined to play our part in this groundswell of change.

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