It was at the public consultation about the solar panels that it happened.
A very nice neighbour plucked up courage to ask me whether the rumour she had heard was true: were we putting a static home site on the land at Chart Stud Farm? After I had checked three times that I had heard correctly, I reassured her that over my dead body would a static home site go up anywhere on St Clere land. But then I started thinking about the broader question. I always imagine that our neighbours trust us, that they see the five generations of Collet/Norman/Ecclestone investment in the countryside and the community and understand that the stewardship of the land and St Clere itself is at the centre of every decision made. But of course, that may not be how it is. I only took over from my father four years ago, so I guess I’m still quite an unknown entity. As the same neighbour asked me, how do you know we’re going to use the money from renting land for the solar project to keep the roof on, rather than buy fast cars?
St Clere’s sister estate in Hertfordshire has just been broken up and sold by distant cousins to developers as there just was not enough money coming in to keep the roof on. It is my belief that that is the worst case scenario, for us, and for the area. So what are my plans to stop that happening to St Clere?
Firstly, we have to keep up with the times. In my view this means renewable energy and superfast broadband. At the top of St Clere hill there is now a mast which provides superfast broadband via wifi for miles around including parts of Kemsing (www.callflowsolutions.com has a map if you want to see if it reaches you) to ensure businesses and tenants on the estate want to remain here for the long term. I’ve set out here before our clean energy investments. Hopefully this means that we are less vulnerable to the increases in energy costs which threaten our bottom line.
Secondly, constant investment in the estate when the going is good. We have renovated 80% of our cottages in the last 4 years, as our best defence against future tough times is happy tenants. Our maintenance programme in the house and gardens is eye wateringly expensive, but better than allowing it to slowly fall to bits through benign neglect.
Thirdly, we now share the house, gardens and estate. There’s another family living on one floor. We open on a weekly basis for events of one kind or another, (details are on www.stclere.co.uk). This has a huge cost for us as a family, but has created another income stream which assists with the maintenance programme.
Finally, we seize opportunities. We bought Chart Stud land and now steward most of the land between Kemsing and Wrotham and we very occasionally sell small parcels of land for housing when necessary. I am proud to be part of Solar Power South’s application for planning for the solar field on our worst agricultural land; between Chaucer business park, the motorway and the railway line, which would provide clean energy for 6000 + homes and a good income for the estate.