The tale of Elvaston Castle and Country Park is perhaps a familiar one to many local authorities. The very definition of a complicated heritage asset, Elvaston is 130 hectares of Country Park, with a grade II* listed castle at its centre, and a number of associated buildings throughout the Park and listed gardens, as well as housing a local nature reserve.
Elvaston has a rich history and glamourous associations; dating from 1633, and extended in the early 19th century. Home of a celebrated love story (the fourth Earl of Harrington created a private “gothic paradise” for his actress wife), it was later part of the film set for Ken Russell’s Women in Love.
The gardens were designed and laid out by William Barron over 20 years from 1830, and were revolutionary at the time, and remain significant today.
Derbyshire County Council bought the site from the Harrington family in 1969 and opened up the gardens as a Country Park the following year.
Fast-forward 44 years, and Elvaston Country Park is now a much loved local open space, full of biodiversity, heritage and very happy dogs on long and energetic walks. It is the closest open space to the east side of Derby, and has around 350,000 visits a year.
It is not currently a sustainable place, though. The castle is all but closed to the public, with a significant backlog of repairs. The visitor infrastructure is tired, the drainage in need of substantial investment. Derbyshire County Council, like other local authorities, is feeling the effect of substantial budget cuts and can no longer continue to invest in Elvaston to the extent it needs.
Active community groups, including the Friends of Elvaston Castle, have made it very clear that selling the park and grounds to the private sector is unacceptable, and highlighted the value and sense of ownership that local people have over this substantial and important green space.
The council has been working with the National Trust to develop a revised vision for the site and has agreed that setting up a new “single management body” for the estate could offer the best future. The Trust and the council have done substantial work, including lots of community consultation, and developed six “guiding principles” for any new management body, including the protection of public access, a focus on stewardship and financial sustainability, and community involvement. Crucially, the county council will retain the freehold.
But how to move from the current situation to the future vision? What should this new body look like? Who should be in control, and why? These are complicated questions, and are likely to be answered differently by different people depending on where they currently sit, what responsibilities they have and where they see potential. Just the kind of complicated questions that we like!
Shared Assets was brought in to facilitate a workshop for senior members of the council and National Trust, along with some local experts. Our brief was to help them inform the development of this new body for Elvaston.
Shared Assets brought a wealth of knowledge of different models for managing ‘community’ assets, and the thinking and steps that are needed to get there. They developed and led a well-structured workshop, with plenty of room for debate and discussion. Nick Sellwood, National Trust “Future Elvaston” Project Manager.
It was brilliant to work with such an informed group of people, all coming from different perspectives, but united in a desire to see what was best for Elvaston. We designed an interactive and participative afternoon, taking things back to first principles and building up from there a picture of what functions any new organisation would be taking on, what skills and attributes it needed and how it might be organised to fulfil these functions the best.
We spent some time considering the difference between the management and the governance of the site, and the roles of democracy, accountability and enterprise in the future of the site. We had pre-prepared some sample organisational structures for participants to consider and deconstruct, and finished off the day with an open debate and discussion on the next steps.
These next steps are now for the council to consider, but momentum is gathering and we will be watching this space to see what happens next!