The word ‘stewardship’ can conjure thoughts of funding schemes, tiers and paperwork, but the Blenheim Estate has adopted the concept to mean long-term commitment and investment in the new communities it is helping to build and create.
The Oxfordshire estate, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Blenheim Palace, is embracing a model that not only addresses the housing crisis but also takes account of other requirements, including tackling climate change and building healthy, functional communities.
Stewardship of communities
The estate currently has several sites at various stages of development. They include Church Farm in Radley and Park View in Woodstock, where work is underway on a 300-home development, while nearly 170 have been built at Hanborough Gate in Long Hanborough. Schemes also include features such as cycle routes, air source heat pumps, solar panels, badger highways and bird boxes. It is also aiming to help create new rural communities through Blenheim Strategic Partners, which offers expertise in land promotion, masterplanning and development to landowners. The team believes landowners play a central and long-term role in the creation of communities, with objectives that go beyond the financial. Their active involvement often runs from conception to completion, with pride in the legacy created, says Roger File, Property Director of Blenheim Estate and Chief Operating Officer of Blenheim Strategic Partners.
Roger says: “We deeply care about what we’re doing and want to deliver something a bit different and something that is beautiful and sustainable.”
We deeply care about what we’re doing and want to deliver something a bit different and something that is beautiful and sustainable
Park View demonstrates stewardship on many levels – from the enduring partnership between Blenheim Estate, Pye Homes and Adam Architecture to the creation of a Design and Community Code with covenants and restrictions. The code makes stipulations but also gives a variety of options on future change to give the community a greater sense of belonging. The community was designed to blend seamlessly with its neighbours, and the affordable homes are rented at a 40% discount as opposed to the required 20%. Responsibly sourced and durable local materials were prioritised, and the community will benefit from green spaces, footpaths and cycle paths.
Roger, who has worked at Blenheim for nearly 20 years, adds: “We are already working with landowners and developers throughout the country in recreating this successful approach. We aim to inspire new communities.”
The aspiration is to create sustainable conservation areas, but this does not mean time standing still: “Preservation and progress in the context of conservation are far from polar opposites - rather, conservation areas exist to facilitate change sensitively and responsibly,” explains Roger.
We believe that the value we create, which makes our schemes worthy of conservation, is in the creation of communities, rather than simply houses.
The spaces between the buildings, communal areas, cycle paths and orchards – are a high priority because of their environmental and community value.” An antidote to the ‘build quick, build cheaply’ ethos, Roger says Blenheim Strategic Partners’ approach begins with the landowner and developer relationship. The model enables landowners to retain a long-term involvement and benefit from ‘patient capital’ – the higher land values achieved as developments reach completion.
A principal benefit demonstrated in the communities created by Blenheim is that of a dynamic masterplan. Roger says: “The ongoing involvement of the landowner allows for a more flexible approach, both in the relationship with the new community and regarding surrounding land.
Essentially, there are no red lines around our new communities: at Park View, for example, the homes are integrated within the 12,000-acre Blenheim Estate through a network of permissible paths and cycle routes, creating a unique place to live. “The new community benefits from access to some stunning scenery and the health and wellbeing benefits that come with living alongside nature.” Another benefit of the ‘no red line’ approach is that of innovation and adapatability, such as to counter urbanisation since the pandemic. Roger adds: “Our parking barn concept is an example of this. This approach to parking benefits the environment by taking cars off the streets while also providing a community hub. The barns are flexible spaces that serve as car storage and community spaces, which can evolve as needs change.
“For the immediate future, barns – complete with electric chargers and space for car club usage – are used primarily for car storage. But as transport moves away from private car ownership, the spaces will evolve, accommodating new uses such as a library of things equipment hire, storage for electric bicycles and scooters, and food gardens. “We’re challenging the traditional way of doing things.” What advice does he have for landowners? “Achieving integration requires effective communication.
Constructive, on-going engagement is key to success. “Rather than simply consulting on a planning application, our involvement with the existing neighbourhood is long-term. We invest in community officers because we know their role is crucial in involving individuals and organisations, putting in place its long-term stewardship, and later facilitating the integration of new residents within the wider community.”
Living at Park View
The Cooper family moved onto the Park View development in 2020, having followed its journey from when the planning application was first submitted. Previously, they lived in a smaller house in Woodstock and were looking to upsize. Mum Nimi Cooper says: “When the site was approved and started to progress, we fell even more in love with the architectural design and vision that Blenheim was building. “Having a long-standing family history in Woodstock, we love the story of Park View and that the development is a dedication to local families. We also love the design of the development and the community it is already becoming.”