In the latest episode of PropCast, steward and custodian of rural Bradford Estates, Alexander Newport, discusses the unique role of a landed estate as both a business and a custodian of the English countryside and its communities.
Alexander, Viscount Newport’s business straddles a contiguous land holding on the Shropshire and Staffordshire border, encompassing 12,000 acres, parts of which have been within family ownership for over 900 years.
“We’re a family-led organisation,’’ says Lord Newport: not only of his own family background and of his father, The Earl of Bradford, but also that of his wife Eliza, Lady Newport, who also comes from a property and real estate background. Newport has both academic and professional credentials in real estate, having worked as a partner at Quadrant for almost a decade before coming back into the family business of Bradford Estates as managing director. Newport has succeeded in diversifying into a new multi-let industrial estate business across England & Wales, Bradford Industrial, which now operates over 250,000 sq ft.
Although Newport’s vision, “a 100-year plan”, is firmly focussed on the future, with major regeneration and innovation planned, it will be heavily influenced by its heritage. The plan will combine its traditional landed estate origins with a multi-strategy offering that maintains local links while creating new economic activity and opportunity in an area that has faced challenges with job creation and retaining talent.
Bradford Estates’ locale is rural but half an hour to the west is Birmingham and both Wolverhampton and Telford are short distances to the east and west. “There are some very deep rural areas within the estates, but we do have the benefit of the M54 on the southern boundary, and the A5 and A41 trunk roads, making it peri-urban in some areas,” Newport says.
The business is run by a rapidly expanding team of 27 from the estates office in south Staffordshire, with a present focus on bolstering its asset management team to help service a growing portfolio. A landmark new scheme is also proposed from Bradford Estates, Weston, a mixed use net zero development including the largest employment site in the M6 West/ M54 Corridor; with an estimated 9,100 of high quality new jobs created, alongside 3,000 traditional homes and community infrastructure.
Taking full control on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, Newport had time for immersion with local stakeholders and parts of the business before assembling a wider and more involved strategy for its future, having now “brought farming operations back in from contractors, could potentially come full circle and become contractor for other landholders.”
A major goal is creating an SME business ecosystem as part of a thriving local economy supported by Bradford Estates, by providing affordable workspace to help local entrepreneurs grow their businesses.
There is also a recognition that parts of the land holding can be used for other purposes, including renewable energy projects, to deliver growth and opportunity. Business ventures beyond agriculture like wedding venues and nurturing community assets, such as wetland restoration, maintaining rights-of-way and woodland planting afford ways to placekeep as well as placemake.
“We have the benefit of already owning these assets”, says Newport, “some of them for many hundreds of years. We’re looking at incremental improvements and have the luxury of making decisions that a developer who has just bought these assets wouldn’t be in a position to make – we look at it through a long term lens.”
Newport accepts that the onus is on Bradford Estates to connect and engage with local people, businesses and the wider community is greater than for most landowners or developers. For many, they are stepping into a place anew, whereas Bradford Estates’ relationship requires continuing renewal and nurturing to support its custodian position. Consequently, Bradford Estates has prioritised community engagement, including support to local primary schools and careers presentations to encourage interest in real estate and agriculture at the school level.
The agricultural side of the business is also working with a top agricultural university, Harper Adams in nearby Newport, as well as Shropshire based sustainable construction firms to drive local innovation. Bradford Estates is also exploring new agriculture practices, such as drones and farmdroids, with further opportunities to create an all electric ‘smart farm’, tree nurseries and vertical farming under Farms Director Oliver Scott.
“I talk to a lot of local stakeholders including politicians – what I try to communicate is that we do many activities, we’re a landowner, not a developer, not a housebuilder, not a farming business, but a multi-strat organisation that needs special consideration in the local planmaking process,” says Newport.
Those activities are geared toward maintaining the best elements of a community in which Newport’s family has been a fixture for hundreds of years, as well as being reflective of what modern, rural life now resembles.