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  • Writer's pictureDavid Cope

Estates as the heroes of sustainability

Updated: Jun 25

Land and property owners have the potential to support the transition to a sustainable economy in the UK. Many are already leading the charge, and every single estate has the potential to become a hero of sustainability. Here's how in three steps.

1. Take a long-term perspective

Sustainability is often described as 'meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising future generations from meeting their own needs'. Sustainability is basically about sharing well with future generations. All family-owned estates wrestle with this challenge daily and a lot of effort is placed into considering what can be done today to ensure the estate prospers for the next generation.

But sustainability is no longer sufficient. Humanity has already degraded natural systems due to the economic pressures of 'growth' and 'development'. In fact, one respected group of scientists point to six of the nine 'planetary boundaries' having been breached already, and 'Earth overshoot day' (the point of the year where humanity has depleted resources beyond which the planet can replenish them) gets earlier and earlier.

This is why regenerative thinking has become such a common discussion point. While there is no single definition of what this means, the concept of regenerative agriculture is quickly becoming commonplace, seeking to build back soil health that has been depleted by industrialised food production. Some supermarkets are even starting to use it to promote the environmental friendliness of their products.

For estates to become heroes of sustainability, we recommend they explicitly include intergenerational thinking into their decision-making, for example by asking:

  • If we manage the land in a particular way, will that make it more fertile and productive in 10 year's time?

  • If we invest in this building, how can we ensure it meets the needs of the occupants in 2050 as well as today?

  • If an opportunity arises to generate a new income stream, are we depleting a resource that means similar opportunities won't be available for the next generation?

2. Measure value fully

When the surveyors arrive to periodically value your assets, they'll tell you what the financial asset value is, but estates know that what they own is more valuable than this pounds and pence figure. An estate will often talk about how they cherish the heritage of Listed buildings, will point towards the togetherness generated in the community hall, the jobs sustained in the local businesses and the wellebing of people who live and work on the estate. These all have value.

The 'five capitals' is a way of identifying this wider view of value:

  • Financial (the money in your bank)

  • Manufactured (the real assets in the portfolio)

  • Social (the communities, businesses and connections that use the estate's land and property)

  • Human (the skills, knowledge and health of the people on the estate)

  • Natural (the biodiversity, rivers, soils and air of the estate)

While it is relatively easy to calculate the value of financial and manufactured capital (accountants and surveyors have been doing this for years), calculating the social, human and natural capital values is harder... but not impossible.

Take natural capital for example, the accounting techniques are being developed and can be quite complicated, but start with generating an inventory of the natural capital features and their condition. For example, if you have a woodland try answering these questions: what species of tree are present, what age are those trees, is the woodland being actively managed? Or in thinking about watercourses, are they suffering from pollution, do they have healthy stocks of invertebrates and fish, is the water-flow adversely affected by abstraction?

Similar approaches can be applied to human and social capital. Unlike financial capital valuation, the valuation of the other capitals can involve an element of subjectivity. Therefore, involving local stakeholders (from estate owners and workers all the way through to people who visit the estate) will allow estates to appreciate the value placed on these assets in the widest possible sense.

For estates to become heroes of sustainability, we recommend they take a broad definition of value:

  • Include social, human and natural capital statements in your discussions around estate valuation

  • Start to build an inventory of assets, and their condition, across all five capitals, even if you can't fully calculate their value

  • Involve stakeholders to understand what they value

  • Set goals for the estate to preserve and enhance capital value across all five types

3. Talk about action

Many estates are famously private in what they do. Sometimes this breeds suspicion from the public at large. In many instances, estates are already doing amazing work on sustainability but might not want to draw attention to it for whatever reason. But as a strategy for sustainability, this may not achieve the best results. Here are a few examples of where public engagement and involvement leads to better intergenerational prosperity in the five capitals.

On the Englefield Estate in West Berkshire, one of the country's precious chalk streams runs through the estate. These are exceptionally rare habitats, with 85% of the world's 200 chalk streams occurring in the UK. The estate has partnered with local charity Action for the River Kennet (ARK) to facilitate volunteers to monitor the health of the river and provide data that can support its protection. By building this base of knowledge, the estate can protect its natural capital, while also enhancing social and human capital development.

The Rhug Estate in North Wales has embraced sustainability as a central theme of its management, being an organic estate. They have calculated that they're now better than net zero, and have created a visitor destination in their cafe and farm shop that is based around sustainability, thus building their financial capital alongside the other capitals.

The Atholl Estate in the HIghlands of Scotland has embarked on a native woodland creation project to improve wildlife habitat, improve water quality and sequester carbon. Woodland projects are the ultimate intergenerational endeavour, with any timber harvesting and financial revenue creation being decades away. But these natural capital enhancement projects are also creating jobs, supporting human capital.

On the Grosvenor Estate at Eaton in Cheshire, a recent home improvement project proved that it is possible to reduce the environmental footprint of a heritage building, and give a family a warm, comfortable and low-bills home. This project epitomises the benefits of estates speaking up on sustainability - it builds community support, while also making the case for action by others, shifting attitudes from scepticism to can-do.

For estates to become heroes of sustainability, we recommend they take a positive attitude towards speaking up about their work, creating a positive spirit of action among their teams and the wider community:

  • Involve trusted stakeholders in discussing plans on how to preserve or improve the value of the five capitals across the estate

  • Seek opportunities to achieve improvements in multiple capitals at once

  • Perhaps start small to build confidence, but share the successes and your learnings with others to inspire wider action

  • Involve your team in these discussions, help them build their knowledge and capacity to play a part - consider Carbon Literacy as a route to action

So what now?

Every estate has the potential to become a hero of sustainability by taking the three steps we've described above.

600 strategy is here to be your partner and adviser on sustainability. We have worked with the estates mentioned in the blog, and more. We know the opportunity that exists for estates, but also many of the barriers and pitfalls you will face along the way. We spoke about some of our experiences, and our belief in estates being heroes of sustainability in this podcast.

Get in touch to start a conversation on how we can support your estate in becoming a hero of sustainability.


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