With a rich 900-year history, Bradford Estates is a landed estates business that sees itself as responsible for its sustainable stewardship of farming, forestry and property on the Shropshire and Staffordshire borders. It uses its 12,000 acres for regenerative farming, forestry, leisure, residential and commercial use, and development. We speak to Managing Director Alexander Newport about his vision for the estate.
What is the history of Bradford Estates, and how is the land used differently now?
Bradford Estates’ principal landholding has changed over the centuries from being based in Shropshire, the West Midlands and Lancashire to being in Shropshire and Staffordshire. Arable farming is increasing on the land, which was previously used for farmed livestock and off estates. We also have a portfolio of 240,000 sq ft industrial estates from Yorkshire to Kent. The estates comprise 10,800 acres of farmland and 1,200 acres of woodland. We are transforming our landed estates business with a 100-year plan to deliver sustainable economic growth from our land and property holdings. This strategy includes regenerative farming, wetland restoration and woodland planting, and redundant agricultural buildings are being converted into industrial units for local employers. We currently have over 150,000 sq ft, with a target of 500,000 sq ft in the next five years.
Which projects did you prioritise first, and how do they help you reach your goal of net zero?
I didn’t do anything dramatic in my first year as managing director so I could familiarise myself with the area, businesses, stakeholders and residents. Our core management functions are managed in the estates’ office rather than by consultants, which gives us more control and lets us forge an identity and create ambassadors. Improving external communications has been important as there was confusion with my family’s ancestral home Weston Park, now managed by a charitable trust. We rebranded to reflect our approach of balancing heritage and innovation. We are working to improve the quality of our let property portfolio alongside the reuse of redundant buildings for commercial and leisure purposes. We also took the farm back in-house after 40 years to deliver our regenerative aims and develop our farming identity, and have appointed forestry managers to manage our forestry more actively and commercially. Among our developments is the new settlement of Weston - a sustainable, modern place that provides jobs, homes and community facilities. Each project aims to maximise sustainability and low-carbon opportunities with net zero in mind. We are exploring ways to lower our carbon footprint with materials and technology. Our farming business is regenerative and will be all-electric, eliminating fossil fuel use as a ‘smart farm’ through judicious woodland planting and enhancing soil organic matter to achieve a positive carbon balance target by 2030.
What is the greatest obstacle you have encountered in your time as Managing Director, and how did you overcome it?
Planning is perhaps our greatest obstacle, but there should be a high bar for rural development. Early communication is key, especially on the quality of design you aspire to. We hold community open days to speak to locals about any concerns.
If you want to put across the benefits of your plan, you need to engage through door-knocking, community events and social media.
2022 was the first year that your team completed harvest instead of using contractors. How did it go?
We are lucky because the area benefits from a reasonably high level of rainfall and also has irrigation reservoirs for our crops. This year saw rain in the spring, which helped compensate for the drier summer months. Our yields look to be where we budgeted, so we are pleased, given the challenges experienced elsewhere. Before inflation began to rise, we bought in stocks of fertiliser for the 2023 harvest. Overall, we are pretty happy.
Do you think further support is needed to encourage tree and hedge planting work, particularly given that the estate is undertaking some planting projects?
We have had support from Severn Trent Water and the Tree Council to plant hedgerows and trees. We have also applied for the Forestry Commission’s England Woodland Creation Offer for 250,000 trees across 350 acres, and have planted hedges at our own cost, with 20,000 trees planted in the last three years. There seems to be a lot of accessible support out there already.
You have a plan to restore many of the bridleways and walkways across the estates. How will these be maintained on a long-term basis?
We will do it partly through our farming team and our partnership with the Justice Service, which is helping to maintain community assets through its work with offenders.
We are looking to build different leisure businesses, which will give us more maintenance heft as part of our 100-year plan.
What tips would you give fellow landowners who are looking to do something similar?
Get to know your assets, important stakeholders, the regional business environment and the local community. Doing so will make change more straightforward and help unlock opportunities. Secondly, do not underestimate the connections between different land activities. Forestry works alongside farming, and farming machinery can help with construction activities. Internalising all key business functions can bring a benefit greater than the sum of the parts. Finally, build a strong team – it can be lonely otherwise. Find high-quality people who share your vision and can help to execute projects, because you can’t do everything yourself. Also, the support of a partner is vital – I recently got married, and am fortunate to have my wife, Eliza, working with me on our 100-year plan to deliver a stronger future.
The CLA are holding a Next Generation event at Bradford Estates on the 26th and 27th April 2023. More information will be available on our website soon.