As part of his Clore Social Leadership Fellowship, Mark Walton researched four case study examples of community enterprises that are managing environmental assets in collaboration with the landowner. We will be profiling one case study each week during September.

This first case study explores Chiltern Rangers – a new CIC launching today. Chiltern Rangers is the first example of a spin out from a local authority Woodland Service. It is taking on the management of 14 urban woodlands under the terms of a contract with Wycombe District Council.

The full report will be launched at our event in Manchester on 19th September:
Land & Communities: Creating a 21st century commons.

Chiltern Rangers is a Community Interest Company (CIC) limited by guarantee. It has been established as a local authority spin out by two staff from the Woodland Service at Wycombe District Council. It was founded in December 2012 and commenced trading in September 2013. The CIC has two staff, who are also executive Directors, and two non executive Directors. This interim Board will manage the company and recruit additional members over the course of the first twenty-four months. The CIC structure enables the founders to retain a high level of control over the company as it develops compared with other legal forms. Chiltern Rangers will invest 50% of any operating profits into local charities.

Chiltern Rangers manage fourteen sites in the urban area of High Wycombe, all within two to three miles of the town centre. The sites vary in size from 3 hectares (8 acres) to 16 hectares (40 acres) and consist of mixed woodland, scrub and chalk grassland. Depending on soil types and previous management they are either pure beech and yew woodland or mixed woodland in which ash tends to dominate. One site is a small wetland of about 1.6 hectares (4 acres). There are two local nature reserves and eight local wildlife sites. All the sites are publically accessible and until recently were managed by the Council’s Woodland Service.

Wycombe District Council owns thirteen of the sites and one is leased by the Council from a local landowner. Chiltern Rangers are also leasing a Council owned depot as part of the contract.

In 2011 Wycombe District Council undertook a major service review that included the Woodland Service. It identified a range of options for the future of the Council owned woodlands. These included continuing to manage them in-house, including them in a commercial grounds maintenance contract, or selling them off.

The Council wished to retain ownership of the woodlands in order to retain the environmental, amenity and social benefits they provide. It was also concerned that including them in a commercial maintenance contract would mean that they would lose the links to the community and the volunteering activity that had been developed by the Woodland Service team. It therefore discussed the options with the team and proposed the idea of establishing a staff mutual, utilising support available from the Government’s Mutual Support Programme.

Twenty-one woodlands were included in the original service review. In addition to the fourteen being leased to Chiltern Rangers three were transferred on a ninty-nine year lease to a local conservation charity and four were included in the grounds maintenance contract.

Once the proposed approach had been approved a project team was established inside the Council. The team sought funding and support from the Cabinet Office’s Mutual Support Programme to provide business skills training for the Woodland Service staff and to help them develop a business plan for the CIC.

Each site has its own management plan. This sets out the work that will be undertaken in order to ensure the woodland is maintained and improved. The plans cover woodland management, biodiversity, access, amenity value, health and safety and risk management.

The contract between the Council and Chiltern Rangers is based on a set of method statements. These set out how the work will be undertaken and are linked to the funding agreement.

The Woodland Service staff were responsible for the development of the management plans and method statements and therefore had a substantial degree of input and control regarding their content.

The Council legal team then drew up the contract based on the method statements and this was negotiated and agreed between the legal teams of the Council and the new CIC.

The process of negotiating the spin out and the contract between the Council and CIC took about twelve months.

The contract is for five years and whilst treated as a contract the fee will be paid as a grant. At the end of the five years the contract will be put out to competitive tender and will be treated as a fully commercial transaction.

This is believed to be the first local authority spin-out outside of the health sector.

Current Activities
As well as day-to-day woodland management activities Chiltern Rangers provide training opportunities for young people who are not in education or employment. They are planning to develop apprenticeships, internships and an expanded work experience programme, as well as multifaceted educational packages for schools. They also provide volunteering and team building activities for private companies.

The contract with Wycombe District Council is worth £157,000 in the first year.
This equates to about 80% of the estimated annual costs of the organisation, which are about £200,000 per year. These include salaries, insurance, IT, professional services and other general running costs of the business.

The additional 20% will be met from earned income delivering a range of services to schools, businesses and other landowners. Additional income will be available in the form of grants e.g. Woodland Management and Woodland Improvement Grants available from the Forestry Commission.

The income from the contract drops to about 60% of the operating costs by year 5 so the proportion of the income from other commercial or grant funded operations will need to rise accordingly.

Day to day management
Day to day management of the sites is devolved to Chiltern Rangers within the terms of the management plans and method statements agreed with the Council. The CIC will engage directly with a Client Liaison Officer and will provide quarterly and annual reports during the five year life of the initial contract.

Chiltern Rangers’ ambition is that the sites are all better habitats for wildlife and better places for people to enjoy, and the that the organisation is starting to expand in five years’ time.

In the longer term Chiltern Rangers would like to see the same model applied to other woodland areas that are close to centres of population.

“We need to do more than create wonderful isolated nature reserves and high quality conservation areas. We also need to manage the small pockets of land that link these up much better. Conservation organisations only have the resources to manage their own sites. Organisations like our can help to link these up by managing the spaces in between them.” (Chiltern Rangers)

Landowner’s perspective
Wycombe District Council are responding to the cuts in local authority budgets by undertaking “whole service reviews” to look at how local services can be delivered differently rather simply cut. This includes transferring of assets such as community centres to community ownership, contracting out and retendering services, and considering spinning services out by establishing staff mutuals.

By supporting the existing staff to spin out as a new independent CIC the Council has been able to retain the existing level of service whilst reducing its costs. The costs in the first year are lower than would have been spent by delivering the service in house and will reduce further during the life of the contract.

Through the agreement of detailed method statements and management plans the Council is able to devolve its responsibilities for the management of its woodland whilst maintaining public access and improving the quality of the local environment. In doing so it is delivering on three of its four strategic objectives; environmental sustainability, value for money and community engagement.

“If we hadn’t done this the staff would be in the grounds maintenance contract and the team would be doing that work – litter picking and tidying paths. We’ve managed to retain a small team that are passionate and will be continuing to engage with the community and are in control of their own destiny.” (Wycombe District Council)

You can see a short film profiling Chiltern Rangers CIC here:

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