The Blenheim Estate has created a ground-breaking plan that steers the future direction of its 12,000 acres of land. Estate Director Roy Cox discusses the thinking behind it with Knight Frank’s Andrew Shirley

If you wanted to build a model to exemplify Knight Frank’s Five Cs approach to strategic estate planning (Carbon, Capital, Cooperation, Community, Communication), you couldn’t really ask for a better example than the Blenheim Estate in Oxfordshire. “As a major legacy land-owner, a multimillion pound business and a world-renowned visitor attraction we have both a significant responsibility to help, and an opportunity to make a real difference,” points out Dominic Hare, Blenheim’s CEO. Across the whole estate, which includes the iconic Palace, the aim is to become carbon neutral by 2025. Working with the community is also at the heart of everything it does. “We want to be the lifeblood of the local community and to enhance the lives of local people. If Oxfordshire does not thrive, then neither can we,” adds Mr Hare. What really catches my eye, though, is a short film titled ‘Always Growing our Legacy’ on the ‘Land’ section of the estate’s website. Beautifully shot, it communicates powerfully the five initiatives that Estate Director Roy Cox and his team have created to make the most of the natural capital and resources across the estate.

Even the names given to each of the initiatives – Grass Routes, Natural Health Service, Natural Balance, Landed Gently and Acorns & Oaks – have been crafted to resonate with a wider audience beyond the estate’s peers and professional advisers. “Land is something common to many estates and because of that their roots are embedded in their local communities in a way that many other businesses simply are not. We wanted a fresh approach to land that would create a sense of intrigue beyond our normal audiences and breathe life into the role of land once again,” explains Roy. In terms of building a sense of intrigue, it works. I’m particularly fascinated by the Natural Health Service. In fact, it turns out to be exactly what it says on the tin and is a very innovative way of making use of Blenheim’s abundant natural capital.

“By joining the natural resources of our land with the health service, our woodlands, green spaces and fresh air can begin to be prescribed as the most natural of health solutions. Social prescribing – as it has become known – is increasingly a government priority,” says Roy. “Society is living longer and we are learning more about long-term health conditions, which in our area particularly include mental wellbeing and loneliness. GP’s surgeries are struggling to cope when, as a nation, 20% of consultations are for matters of housing, employment and relationship breakdowns. As a landed estate, a long-term holder of property and a visitor attraction, we are uniquely placed to respond.”

By cooperating with local social enterprise groups and charities such as Aspire, which helps vulnerable people to find employment and housing, the estate is able to provide classes and activities for people facing multiple challenges, helping them move forward with their lives. “One of our key goals is to support projects which enhance the health and wellbeing of our communities which are vital in developing a ‘social licence to operate’,” enthuses Roy. Grass Routes is all about the long term canvass using the estate to help connect communities in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way. With a series of permissive paths and cycle ways linking the villages around the estate it also helps shape future development away from continued sprawl. “Our neighbouring towns and villages, within which we are a major holder of property, are beautiful places, but are seen largely in isolation. 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 in our area are by car. In a world where climate change is centre stage improved connectivity will not only be key to the property we hold, but also that which we build,” Roy says.

By joining the natural resources of our land with the health service, our woodlands, green spaces and fresh air can begin to be prescribed as the most natural of health solutions.

Roy Cox, Estate Director

Of the five initiatives, Natural Balance Landed Gently are perhaps the most relatable for smaller estates that can’t offer the same scale and levels of public access as Blenheim, but will be looking for new sources of income as the Basic Payment Scheme is gradually phased out. “Natural Balance 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 and promote the best long-term decisions. We want to be the first generation to truly leave this land in a better state than it was found. We are already seeing these principles work their way into legislation and this is how future generations will measure us,” Roy explains. Landed Gently takes things further and is more ambitious. “This is the long-term change in a world where many are looking from the outside at landed estates. For many reasons the way we manage land cannot continue in perpetuity – it will deplete one of our greatest assets. We will use the lessons of natural capital to first become carbon-neutral. Then we want to go further, to demonstrate carbon-negative land management,” he says.

“There is no commonly agreed ‘one best’ sustainable practice amongst farming methods such as regenerative, agroforestry, and organic. We are working with partners who can guide us on this journey, and together we will find the best mix, or model, that proves effective for our long-term asset,” Roy adds. Given the food-chain issues seen during the Covid-19 crisis and a growing demand for local food, Acorns & Oaks seems particularly pertinent at the current time. “Blenheim stands for three centuries of caring for the land. As we have shown with our bottled spring water, we can do more to translate that legacy of care into great tasting local produce, that also spurs local business vitality,” emphasises Roy. “By partnering with producers and artisans who share our values – not putting labels on jam jars ourselves – we can bring our unique provenance from the land to the larder. Game, botanicals, grains, even grapes can become charcuterie, gin, bread, wine and beer.”