Contested Landscapes - Embracing your externalities

A land managers's perspective by John Varley

Contested Landscapes - Embracing your externalities

Thank you for the opportunity to speak at the President's Symposium of the Devonshire Association.  I am delighted to be here at this very important time as society reflects on the future of land and land's management from so many different perspectives.   Today's theme is Contested Devon Landscapes and the emerging consensus that they face "immediate pressures".   I have been asked to speak about the practicalities of delivering sustainable development in this context from my experience at Clinton Devon Estates.


Rather than talk about how we manage land, I'd like to skew my talk to how we manage relationships in the context of our management of some of the most beautiful landscapes in Devon.   As part of this I want to explore how we "embrace our externalities" in terms of our impacts on this landscape and how we engage with others to achieve our land management objectives.  In my mind, if we are to manage in a contested countryside ability to engage is critical in order to determine successful outcomes.


At the Estate we are fortunate to have a remarkable archive.  When I have a spare moment I enjoy delving into the letter books of one of my predecessors, Robert Hartley Lipscomb, Steward to the Estates during the mid to late eighteen hundreds.   We have copies of every single letter he wrote.   One thing I need to say at the outset of my talk today is that from looking back at just this one brief period of history, "immediate pressures"  have been with us for a long time and seem to have been the order of the day even then.  The seemingly insurmountable challenges faced by Mr Lipscomb, were, it appears, eventually overcome or ignored to no ill effect, especially when you consider that today's Estate in East Devon is virtually all an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty!  The "immediate pressures" were not insignificant.  Agriculture faced significant challenges in the late 1800s from competition from cheaper imports, the industrial revolution was bypassing Devon and radical change was gripping the rural economy.


As a professional land manager, the climate, and what we now call biodiversity, were of keen interest to Lipscomb, as was the management of water and soil.  His particular interest, however, was people and he achieved remarkable success for his Principal, owner of the then Rolle Estates, the Hon. Mark Rolle, by engaging effectively at every level of society from parliamentarian to county police chief to commoner.   He was quite clear that being a land manager was the best job in the world, I quote:  "When I compare my work with the work of most professional men I envy very few, if any of them...  our power for good or evil in this world's affairs in a countryside is enormous.  You may do much, very much, to make many hundreds of people of all grades prosperous and contented, or the reverse".   He continued "But far and away above any satisfaction (sic) - above every satisfaction which you can experience - is the inward knowledge that you can look the whole world in the face and say that you have done your duty, and something more than your duty".  Lipscomb's appreciation of the factors affecting his management of the land within his control and outside it was awesome.  In seeking to achieve the right balance of outcomes for the Estate, he practiced the "art of engagement" both internally and externally to his organisation in a way which, I think, provides lessons for how we might address the challenge posed by today's debate.


Lipscomb presided over a radically changing landscape - indeed, he was responsible for changing it!   New model farmsteads springing up over thousands of acres of East and North Devon, rows and rows of new housing, schools, churches (many of the Gothic variety replacing rather less elaborate Norman versions in a few cases), water supplies, canals and railway lines.  He oversaw amalgamation of farms and the introduction of new farming techniques.  Many thousands of acres of commercial and amenity woodland and parkland were planted, some on ancient woodland sites.  Today, most of what he was responsible for has either been listed by English Heritage, given a protected landscape designation or has a local amenity group taking an interest in it.  And he was, in effect, the Planning Authority!  Some responsibility and what a remarkable landscape scale outcome.


The impact he had on the Devon landscape was directly linked to the resources at his disposal  and most importantly, his vision and ability to influence and engage with those who held the power or ability to get the job done. 


So is anything different a mere 130 years later and what are the challenges we face at Clinton Devon Estates today?


As we move out of the current recession, there are major economic, agricultural and environmental challenges in front of us: further reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013; coping with the increasing impact of climate change, with changing weather and temperature patterns, more freezing and more flooding; and whilst we are tackling these, securing enough food to feed an increasing national and global population.

These are challenges that the Estate are thinking about along with how we should further develop our land to meet the housing and commercial needs of a predicted significantly increased population in Devon in the next fifty or so years.


So, how do we achieve Sustainable Development?    Back in 2005 we were fortunate to receive the Queens Award for Enterprise in the Sustainable Development category - one of only eight such awards across the UK.  We received it for our radical integration of resources across the Estate and managing our land and property assets in a totally integrated manner so that we carefully balanced social, environmental and commercial objectives.  This didn't just happen though.  From 2000 we had worked hard to remove the silos of a traditional "business unit" management approach in order to deliver a common approach to valuing the contributions of all the elements of Estate management - and not just the ones which made money.  We developed what we call our "Star Strategy" - five themes which we assess and consider all our activity and results against:  Responsible Stewardship; Achieving Results; Providing for Future Generations; A Winning Team and Opportunities through Partnerships.


This integrated approach has really mobilised the team.  Value is now formally recognised across every element of what we do - and it is rewarded.   Our appetite to manage risk and experiment has increased and a range of innovative initiatives and projects have resulted, ranging from construction of the county's first wood fuel store, now servicing Paignton Zoo's alligator house and also the building we are in today, County Hall, to name just two customers, to the construction of a brand new, environmentally sound, purpose built office in a grade one listed parkland at Bicton.    Currently we are investing in a new technology business developing small scale, high throughput anaerobic digestion systems called New Generation Biogas based in Totnes and in collaboration with North Wyke Research.   In all cases integrated estate operational teams have delivered what would have never occurred if left to the individual areas of responsibility of the past.  And, all these initiatives have been delivered within a framework of handing over something better than what we were given to work with in the first place


Since 2005 we have gone further and moved from a situation where everything we did was considered private and not for public consumption.  Then a very much reactive public relations brief.  Like many land based operations in the county we are a family business.  The Clinton family's commitment to the county underpins all activity, planning and purpose.   Global research into family business clearly shows that private family businesses are generally more successful than their publicly quoted counter-parts.  However, one area where they can come unstuck is when what is family and what is business is not clearly defined. 


This blurring of family and business to some is a core strength but when it comes to being more transparent with your stakeholders it can be a significant weakness.


In Lipscomb's day the boundaries were clearer and to a certain extent less complex.  Today the Estate has worked hard to understand how to build on the strengths of a family committed to the business of land management and the county at large whilst respecting the family's privacy and enabling the business end of operations to be as transparent as possible.   We believe in this approach because we know that we have to work in Partnership with a wide range of players who expect and require transparency from us if relationships are to be effective and complex agendas tackled.  This is very important because in managing in a contested landscape, secrecy has no place.  Building trust is key.  Our experience to date has been that although it requires a lot of energy, time and resource, being open about your agenda is critically important if better decisions are to be made.   Examples have included our approach to the management of nearly 3,000 acres of heathland where we have deliberately set up a charitable trust to demonstrate our openness in the management of this site; presentations and consultations on a regular basis to local meetings of councillors, the public and amenity groups of our plans and ideas for the future and I guess our website where we are, I think, recognised as one of the more open rural estates in the UK.  My favourite example though is the initiative led by our Estate Surveyor Clare James and Farm Manager George Perrott who affix A3 plastic covered signs on our field gates informing the public exactly what is being grown in the field and what its end use will be.  It is cheap to do but the feedback we have received indicates it is remarkably effective and valued by local people and visitors alike.


Today we are developing a third area.  We are reviewing the practise of engagement with our external partners and stakeholders.  The art of engagement which Lipscomb perfected we hope to take a stage further to deliver a better result for the management of land and property across the Estate.  Business gurus call it managing our externalities.  Let me try to explain.


When your neighbour plants a beautiful lawn that you see from your window, you're the beneficiary of a positive externality; when he mows that lawn while you are trying to concentrate, you're the victim of a negative one.


The big idea is to take on responsibility for externalities - what economists call the impacts you have on the world.  The side effects - or in the positive case, the spillover effects - of a business's operations.  They're the impacts that a business has on its broader environment, either directly or indirectly,  but is not obliged to pay for or otherwise take into account in its decision making.  The classic case is pollution.  For land managers and farmers taking responsibility for externalities goes with the territory of doing business; unintentional positive and negative impacts on the environment, and of course, landscapes.


So, what constitutes a responsible business in an era of advanced scale, sensors and sensibilities?   The Harvard Business Review, in discussing the topic in this month's journal, concludes that:


"Stakeholders regard a company as responsible when they perceive that it is steadily internalising externalities - that is, using sensing capabilities to measure and manage its impacts on society.  Conversely, when the public perceives that a company is producing an externality that it could take greater responsibility for but isn't, that's when mechanisms of compulsion are brought to bear, from regulation to riots."


The choice is to take charge of the impact or have it thrust upon you.  The worst of all worlds is to be made responsible and still not be considered responsible.


At Clinton Devon Estates we recognise that as a responsible land manager we need to take control of our externalities.   The land and landscapes we manage today may look similar in terms of topography and soil type, however, the communities that have evolved and the economies that have developed are very very different from 1880.  The requirements on our land and those who own and manage it to deliver a wide range of benefits and products for society are huge.  Commentators on our work have existed for generations, however, today they are in droves, both local voices - many offering regular and detailed technical advice on how to manage our business, and also regional and national policy makers and regulators.  In addition, over the past twenty years or so regulators have engaged with us in various ways from their base in Brussels.  From what I know of the man, Lipscomb would have been perplexed, to say the least.


Since 2005 we have upped our level of engagement recognising that unless we proceed in partnership we will fail and scarce resources will be wasted.  Although it takes time, energy and occasionally a well developed sense of humour, we have tried to engage across every level.  We are a private family business, yet we have taken the conscious decision to make our business and our business plans transparent to those outside the organisation.   We believe in the concept of multipurpose land use and enabling, as far as possible, balanced agendas.


A good example is our stewardship of the 3,000 acre Pebblebed Heaths in East Devon.  Until 2005 we kept our management plans of this important SSSI, SAC and SPA to ourselves and although accepting around £20,000 a year from the public purse to help fund our conservation activities we also directly funded our work from our property business to the tune of between £50 and £75,000.  Even so what we could deliver in terms of conservation outcomes was severely limited.  Market research indicated that we got little credit from local people or regional and national bodies for this work, many thought the land was owned by the local council or the National Trust.  In 2006 we formed a charitable trust to manage the site and appointed three external trustees, published a book, web site and engaged with the public and policy makers at every level.  The Trust was awarded entry into a flagship Higher Level Stewardship scheme in 2007 which now funds around £200,000 a year over ten years and we are involved in a very proactive programme of engagement with local communities, schools and policy makers.  The profile of the site, Trust and Estate have all been raised.  The benefits to all three have been considerable.  The benefits of this landscape scale initiative to current and future generations by the active engagement with such a wide range of players are immeasurable.   The benefits would not have accrued however without active engagement.


We have been able to demonstrate clearly the spillover effects of the externalties of our woodland management for the benefit of the Nightjar, the benefits of integrating our farming resources and working with tenant farmers in ways we had not contemplated five years ago.  In addition, contrary to perceived wisdom that military training is bad for the site the externalities, or "spillover effects", of Royal Marine Commando training on the precious landscapes are now recognised as formally delivering wide benefits - from improved habitats for the Southern Damselfly (only Royal Marines and Red Devons are prepared to tramp all over the wet heath), to encouraging the life cycle of the Silver Studded Blue Butterfly by camouflage training and some of the best areas for the Dartford Warbler are around the grenade range.


Our approach to the regulator has also changed.  Previously, across the Estate, we had adopted a cautious approach to engagement with English Nature (now Natural England), the Environment Agency and English Heritage.  Some even considered these bodies the "forces of evil and darkness" to be avoided at all costs. 


Today, we take "risks" by including them in our plans and exposing planned activity early in the process.   It can be frustrating and energy sapping but overall, when mutual trust is established, significant gains can be made.  Our view is that you need to adopt a confident approach in engagement.  As well as our work on the Heaths with Natural England, our in-hand farm provides training for Environment Agency personnel enabling contacts who we can discuss our future water and slurry management strategies with.   English Heritage, once a body we viewed with great suspicion, we now actively discuss plans with for development on our Grade One Listed Parkland at Bicton and the management of important Scheduled Ancient Monuments across our landholdings.  We don't always agree - the proposal for a wind turbine caused a long silence on the telephone - however, once trust is established, sensible discussions can be held about future plans for some of Devon's most precious landscapes.  In virtually every case, in recent years, engaging with an open mind and in a transparent manner has resulted in a better outcome.  Yes, some of it is painful but as my old regular army Commando Gunner Colonel told me as I emerged from a freezing lake carrying a very heavy machine gun - "Pain is fun Lieutenant Varley".


In terms of larger housing developments we are more conscious than ever of the legacies and footprints we leave behind.  One development we are currently assembling is causing us to think carefully about the development principles we wish to espouse and who we engage with and how.   A few months ago we entered into a public consultation over a planned development of 17 acres for commercial employment land use on a green field site.  We engaged local media, used targeted direct mail and a web based feedback process as well as a consultation meeting.  We received one formal response!


Nothwithstanding this experience, my thesis is that without active engagement, transparency of objectives and really understanding, and embracing, an organisations real externalities you are unlikely to address the elephant in the room.  It is not some difficult technical, scientific or policy issue which is causing us to consider  that our Devon landscapes are "contested".  It is people.  Unless the actors on the stage can agree a script then there is no play.


So to finish I'll try to pull together some of the concepts and approaches I have discussed and actually address what I was asked to talk about, that is a "case study of multipurpose use".  To do this I'll focus on one area of the Estate in East Devon.  The Lower Otter Valley.


Our project is looking at future options for the Lower Otter Catchment and how we address the inevitable implications of flood and river management assets in poor condition and more unpredictable and severe weather events.


The history of the Lower River Otter can be seen to be a battle between man and water that has lasted for generations.


In the Dark Ages, trading vessels would have plied the river as far as a mile upstream - but by the 1500s, the efforts of the landowner to keep the channel navigable failed and the silting created a marshland.  It then took the brawn of French prisoners of war and some impressive civil engineering to create embankments which would turn the wet marshy valley into agricultural land.


But this was not a war that could be won so simply - since 1959 there have been 21 floods affecting property and roads.  Those incidents have included the substantial floods in October 2008 when a foot of hail fell in 2 hours damaging homes and businesses, blocked roads, regular inundations at the local cricket club not to mention the frequent problem of standing water on farmland remaining for days or even weeks as the embankments designed to protect actually stopped the drainage of water.


In recent years the Estate has become concerned about the increasing incidence of flooding.    No one was prepared to take any leadership or responsibility and a blame culture was rapidly emerging, which resulted in questions from MPs, statutory agencies hiding behind legal loop holes and local authorities finding themselves between a rock and a hard place.  This wasn't a contested landscape - it was turning into a war zone.


After some truly bizarre meetings when financial support was promised by a range of stakeholders and nothing was forthcoming, in 2003 the Estate paid for flood modelling and investment in a penstock to try to manage the flood water.  It had some effect but to be truly effective it required a wide number of agencies to work together and although a lot of words were spoken, not much materialised.  At that stage we hadn't thought too hard about "embracing our externalities"! 


Last year it was decided that the time had come for a new phase of the battle to begin.


In late 2009, after the severe flooding the previous year, the Estate allocated a further budget and commissioned a specialist environmental consultancy firm to produce a strategic review of drainage and flood management in the valley and to put forward long term options for its future protection.


That's where Haycock Associates came in - a company that specialises in preventing and dealing with the aftermath of flooding by creating natural solutions.  According to founder, Dr Nick Haycock, "extreme events are our speciality".  Not surprising then, that Haycock was called in by the National Trust following the dramatic Boscastle flood of 2004.


To quote Nick:

"It seems that the flood protection that has worked for years and the stability of the surrounding farmland is now unzipping itself.  Facing a future where sea levels and climate change will create more unpredictability now is a good time to look for long term solutions - solutions dictated to us by nature - not the other way round."


The Haycock team have used evidence from a wide variety of scientific data sets and observations from local residents and land users alongside archive material and information.  The engagement with local people has been very very powerful and positive - Nick would spend long periods of time with local protagonists who could tell their story.  In many cases their story made a lot of sense and added to the evidence.  The investigation also included the mapping of the valley, looking at the topography and drainage currently in place; taking in those features such as the disused railway line and former refuse tip which have an adverse effect on the flow of floodwater in the 4km long section of valley.


Technology has also played a major part - Haycock specialises in the creation of two dimensional models which help create a fuller understanding of flood dynamics of an area.  The team created what is known as a "digital terrain model" using a program called LisfloodM-MPI. It may not be a catchy title, but this Bristol University developed software is a powerful tool -creating detailed maps showing the rate, depth and direction of water flow through a landscape in any given rainfall and tidal conditions.


At the end of the investigation the report identified three main problems:-

* Insufficient drainage through the sea outfall at Salterton.

* Impedance of floodwater as it passes through the floodplain.

* Tidal influences on flooding.


But listing the problems being faced was only the first stage of the project - the next step was to look at possible solutions.


The investigation has shown that the impact of poor drainage and flooding is becoming worse and more damaging and this will be the pattern in the future as the performance of drainage becomes increasingly challenging, the regular blocking of the sea outfall gets worse and we experience increased runoff combined with higher tides.


If this situation is just allowed to become progressively worse, farming of the floodplain will become less viable, conservation management more demanding and recreational access more difficult.  If no action is taken then at some point, either due to fluvial flooding or tidal flooding the current embankments, which are nearly 200 year old, will fail and the resulting impact will be extensive loss of terrestrial land and access.


The strategic review led by the Estate has put forward ten detailed options which address single issues or combination of issues.  The options include phasing the retreat of agriculture from the marshes in some locations, drainage improvements in other locations and enhancing the life of some of the embanked lands through small modifications.


It is a fact that some of the options could raise challenges in terms of the long term management of the Lower Otter, its commercial use and as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Hence, the process has included a review of the proposals with key stakeholders and the development of a plan for the way forward, currently led by the Estate Property and Land Team.  Our objective is to create an exemplary project that builds on the unique history of ownership and use of this valley, and ensures it has a viable future for the Estate and the wider community.  The engagement continues to involve open discussion with statutory agencies, local amenity groups, local authorities, affected businesses, land owners and farmers.  The consensus achieved to date has been remarkable.  The Estate has acted as facilitator and, whilst it has to be said that we have financed the work to date, it is hoped that others will provide support as the work moves to implementation.


In due course the report will be available on our web site along with our thoughts on how the work maybe progressed over the coming months and years.


So, challenging times ahead.  The key to success is developing and getting agreement to a common vision.    Active, confident, engagement, taking leadership and working with all players, no matter how frustrating you find them, pays dividends in the end.   Managing contested Devon landscapes is never going to be easy, but it is more about people than the land itself and as we say in my native Yorkshire - "There's none so queer as folk".


ENDS                                                                                     24 April 2010


We are trustees for life of the countryside

– 22nd Baron Clinton, 2002

Do what you can to elevate your profession. It is an honourable one

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892

to set out against the Scots, the King’s enemies and rebels

– Instructions given by Edward 1 to John de Clinton on 8th April 1298, prior to him leading the Royal army to victory at the Battle of Falkirk. As a direct result the Clinton Barony was formed on 22nd July 1299

Handing over something more valuable than we have today,

– Estates ethos

But our power for good or evil in this world’s affairs in a countryside is enormous

– Robert Lipscomb, Steward 1865 – 1892