Country estates and diversification: handing over the baton

The threat of subsidy reduction is forcing any landowner to look at new ventures

19/11/18

The future for country estates is uncertain at the best of times, but as Britain prepares to leave the EU, landowners are seeking ever more creative ways of generating income. Some of the most ingenious ideas are coming from the younger generation…

For several decades now, country estates have been developing alternative income streams alongside their core business activities. Recently, however, the threat of subsidy reduction as we come out of the Common Agricultural Policy is forcing any landowner to look ever more closely at new ventures. The associated costs of owning and running a large, listed country house are burdensome – and not getting any less so. According to the Historic Houses Association (HHA), the value of outstanding urgent repairs across its membership is currently estimated to be almost £480m.

Agricultural and residential lettings – very much the traditional method of raising revenue on a country estate – still deliver the lion’s share of gross income, according to the latest figures from Savills’ annual Estate Benchmarking Survey. However, more and more owners are looking at new and innovative ways of generating income – particularly at the point when the younger generation is coming on board to help manage the estate or take over the reins entirely.

James Del Mar of Rural Solutions, a consultancy service that advises owners on diversification opportunities, has witnessed this trend first-hand. “Generational handovers have always brought about a different approach, but now the appetite for change is unreal,” he explains. “There’s an increasingly intellectual approach to analysing business opportunities and a desire to understand what people want locally and to concentrate on delivering that,” he explains.

Changing attitudes mean that it’s no longer taboo to openly explore alternative methods of raising revenue; on the contrary, owners are looking to each other to see where success may be found. Rural Solutions is currently advising clients on projects that range from creating a safari park for endangered species in East Anglia to building an ice-cream factory, planting vineyards and how to commercialise a stretch of coastline, as well as the tried-and-tested spin-offs of hosting weddings, constructing glamping sites, opening farm shops and developing housing. “I’ve noticed that the younger generation aren’t prepared to come home and sit behind a desk,” says Del Mar. “Many have pursued careers outside of estate management and see that there’s currently an opportunity, with low interest rates and the significant asset value they are sitting on, to raise capital and be more entrepreneurial in their approach.”

Ben Cowell, director general of the HHA, agrees and says that his members are a “constant source of inspiration when it comes to rural diversification”. The different ways they are exploring – to keep the roofs repaired and contents of their houses intact – include adventure playgrounds, imaginative art installations, outdoor cinema and other commercial activities. The organisation is responding accordingly: it recently hosted a “heritage chat” on Twitter devoted to innovation and entrepreneurship and, this year, is putting on a new programme of events for so-called ‘next generation members’.

Nina Barbour is one representative of the younger generation channelling this entrepreneurial spirit. She inherited the Bolesworth Estate, in Tattenhall, Cheshire, upon the death of her father 10 years ago, when she was in her mid-twenties. A passionate equestrian, her vision was to put Bolesworth on the international show-jumping map by investing in a world-class showground on the estate. “The diversification began very much with her father converting old farm buildings into commercial lets,” explains Bolesworth’s estate manager, Matthew Morris.

Together with the team at Rural Solutions, they have established a strong strategy for current and future growth. “Aside from hosting equestrian events and CarFest North for BBC Children in Need, the estate works closely with tenants who run The Ice Cream Farm – the world’s largest ice-cream shop, according to Guinness World Records,” explains Morris. “We’ve also done a joint venture with a partner to build a care village for the over-sixties on estate land. We’ve kept a number back to let to local people on an affordable basis – it’s been great to be able to do something for that generation who come from this area.”

The Iford Estate, near Bradford-upon-Avon in Wiltshire, is run very much as a family partnership. William Cartwright-Hignett took over as managing partner in June 2016 when he and his wife, Marianne, moved into the manor house, following his parents’ decision to retire and move to a property nearby. “My mother has always had a forward-thinking approach to management of the estate and I like to think that we continue that today,” explains Cartwright-Hignett. “My wife brings a strategic business understanding from her previous career in London and I have always been involved in SMEs and start-ups. Rural estate business diversification is, for us, about strategic planning for business stability into the future.

The Cartwright-Hignetts’ approach is to be in tune with and connected to the local community. They run events such as the annual wildlife and community butterfly day, as well as opening the Harold Peto-designed garden to the public and building a new tearoom. “But with narrow roads, we have limitations,” allows Cartwright-Hignett. Turning their attention to food processing, they recently established a craft cider business, Iford Cider, which was awarded the Bath Good Food Award in its first year of production. But while looking at other opportunities, they are careful to strike the right balance. “Too much diversification risks overstretching the resources, so we are also streamlining and cutting back on less productive activities to ensure that we are fit for the future.

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