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Feature: Blenheim Estate’s approach to biodiversity

Roger File, COO and Property Director of Blenheim Strategic Partners, working in partnership with Blenheim Estates, shows how biodiversity targets can be met, as biodiversity net gain is set to become mandatory from November 2023. 

Biodiversity net gain (BNG) is a key component of the Environment Act which was passed last November. From November 2023, developments will be required to deliver a 10% or 20% increase in biodiversity already present on the land.

Blenheim Strategic Partners’ priority is to deliver attractive, sustainable communities which not only provide much needed housing, but also value green and biodiverse land for communities’ health and well-being.

A strategic approach

The recent launch of Blenheim Strategic Partners, which formalises an existing partnership between the Blenheim Estate, Vanderbilt Strategic Ltd and Pye Homes, coincides with the Bill approaching the statute book.

Blenheim Strategic Partners is a new landlord-led model of land promotion and development through which we will work with other landed estates to create communities that share our values.

Blenheim Estate has excelled in land development, stewardship and investment in communities for over 300 years. We are inspired by the long term approach to sustainable land management taken by the Estate and have a first-hand understanding of creating value which goes beyond financial value.

The Land Strategy Biodiversity is a high priority. This is evident in Blenheim Estate’s Land Strategy, which has five components:

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 up. As a result, four out of five journeys are by car.

To rectify this, we are working with Oxfordshire Open Thought to provide green transport routes to link existing and new communities with each other and with existing infrastructure – in doing so increasing accessibility and reducing reliance on the car. We’ve also opened up a number of permissive paths right on the doorstep of the new homes at Hanborough Gate which enable residents to ‘travel lightly’ in a way that does not threaten the natural world.

Natural Health Service

By viewing the natural resources of our land in the context of a ‘health service’, our woodlands, green spaces and fresh air can be ‘prescribed’ as the most natural of health solutions.

Society is living longer and mental health issues such as loneliness are increasing. 20% of all GP consultations are the result of concerns such as housing, employment and relationship breakdowns. Social prescribing is increasingly seen as a solution. As a landed estate deep-rooted in the community, we have an opportunity to address this. One of our recent initiatives is with Aspire, an award-winning employment charity and social enterprise to provide classes and activities for people facing multiple challenges, helping them move forward with their lives.

Natural Balance

Despite the rural landscape providing immense value, we are conscious that agricultural practices are responsible for up to 25% of all carbon emissions, and so we are working with other landed estates to lead in the concept of ‘natural capital’. This is a new model of valuing our natural capital; an innovative way to attribute the benefits of good air, water, soil, woodland, green spaces and biodiversity to the total ecosystem, and so to generate new income streams (such as through carbon and BNG off-setting) and promote the best long-term decisions.

Landed Gently

This campaign aims to use the lessons of natural capital to become carbon-neutral Estate. Then we plan to go further, to demonstrate carbon-negative land management.

There is no commonly agreed ‘best’ sustainable land management practice: regenerative, agroforestry, and organic farming all have a role to play. Blenheim Estate is working with partners who can guide us on this journey, to find the best model for our sustainable land use ambitions.

Improving energy efficiency is high on our agenda because evolving sustainable practices are key to improving the lives of local people and protecting land for future generations. Inspired to become a net generator of green energy, we are moving to replace the use of fossil fuels with energy from renewable sources. Alongside a team of expert engineers and consultants, we have developed a pioneering scheme which will make Blenheim Estate a net generator of green energy and the Palace carbon neutral.

Acorns and Oaks

After three centuries of caring for the land, Blenheim Estate translates that legacy into local produce, which also spurs local business vitality. By partnering with producers and artisans who share our values, we bring our game, botanicals, grains, gin, bread, wine and beer from the land to the larder.

Quality and legacy

We appreciate that, as a developer, we are in the fortunate position of having estate land on which to provide biodiversity net gain and other sustainable practices.

As Blenheim Strategic Partners, we will work with landowners to identify and gain 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.

30% of the UK’s landmass is owned by long term landowners, and in many cases has been run by the same families for hundreds of years. These families are understandably reluctant to sell off land for housing only to see values spiral after planning consent has been granted and developers taking the larger part of the gains. In taking the longer term approach to land management and stewardship as advocated by Blenheim Strategic Partners, landowners can participate actively in decisions made, create a legacy for future generations, and gain a greater share of the profit over the longer term.

Blenheim Strategic Partners was established because of our potential to work with landed estates throughout the country, to advise and assist in masterplanning and developing sustainable communities. We also plan to use the lessons we have learnt to inspire masterplanning elsewhere.

An 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.

Photos by Andrew Ogilvy

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