The Conservators of Ashdown Forest case study – Working together and making an impact

Posted on 27/06/2024 by Pandora Ellis.

By Mark Pearson Chief Executive – The Conservators of Ashdown Forest


Background and Context

The Ashdown Forest is steeped in a long history. The responsibility for managing Ashdown Forest lies with the Board of Conservators of Ashdown Forest (CoAF). The Board, created in 1885, has been regulated under a series of Acts of Parliament, the most recent being the Ashdown Forest Act 1974 (the Act).

Our mission is to protect, conserve and enhance the nature and culture of Ashdown Forest as the largest biodiverse heathland and open space in Sussex for the enjoyment, education, health, and recreation of all.

The Conservators of Ashdown Forest are organised as a statutory, corporate organisation. The Forest itself sits in a trust held by East Sussex County Council, with delegated powers to the Conservators of Ashdown Forest. There is a Governance Board, which is made up of half ESCC members, with the other half made up of ‘Commoners,’ people with rights over land.

There’s also The Friends of Ashdown Forest – 60 years old and set up originally to ensure the site is protected and for many years has been very supportive, funding much of the work we do.

Then, three of four years ago, we developed The Ashdown Forest Foundation as a charitable arm of Conservators. This was seen as necessary as we needed to raise funds, which is limited as a statutory corporate.

So, we had a total of three organisations closely aligned to the Forest but not necessarily dovetailing with each other. There were lots of people with different remits, who were not really working closely together.

Challenges and Opportunities

In recent history, we arrived at a detailed ten-year Vision & Strategy for the Forest. However, this lost momentum as the author sadly and unexpectedly passed away.

People were following sections of the Vision & Strategy, but from within their own separate organisations. As a new CEO I quickly realised that the work held in this plan was considerable. It needed the three organisations to come together and figure out what really is important to deliver and then create a prioritised work programme.

Initiatives and Actions Taken

There was an opportunity here to align, work closer together and therefore increase the likelihood of achieving a lot more as one organisation. This is where we brought in CfGS to deliver an action planning workshop: Working together, making an impact.  

The aim was to bring stakeholders from all three organisations together to review the Vision & Strategy and work together to develop an action plan for delivery of this vision. The focus was to make a significant impact will happen by working collaboratively and keeping the Forest at the heart of everything.

The group went through the strategic objectives one by one and set down what it actually meant in reality to the 30 people around the tables. By talking, they were able to get a good picture of each objective and where there were overlaps – for instance on the topic of volunteers. From here, the group were able to prioritise objectives and discuss how they would turn them into actions.

It felt momentous as they hadn’t ever been in the same space before with the purpose of talking about the Forest.  Whilst it was quiet to start with, they suddenly burst into life, and everyone was involved in writing stuff down and talking with together. They all believed in it, which is a good thing in itself.

Outcomes and Impact

It’s a ten-year action plan, and yet we already see short term wins. There was strong agreement that we would undertake a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the three organisations, working out where common ground is, where people would focus attention and what their role is. This is a big step for us as it gives a clear picture of who’s doing what. It’s useful from both an internal and external perspective.

Another big step is the delivery vehicle for the Vision & Strategic objectives. We’ve proposed a costed delivery/action plan which will significantly help us in our partnership across the next ten years, raising funds where needed.

Our third big step or giant stride even, is acknowledging the need for Business Plan, KPIs and an annual report.

Alongside the short-term impact, it was really important to be in the same room, meeting people, putting a face to a name, and creating relationships. It was educational as we were able to learn about each other and break down misconceptions. There are some healthy tensions in some areas, but generally very friendly.

 Lessons Learned

Perhaps the biggest learning is recognition that an event like this can’t be a one off. It’s an ongoing process. From here, we will come together once a year in person and review what we’ve achieved, to anchor the process. We also need to make sure the learning cascades through to every layer of each of the organisations who took part.  

Next time, we want to look at scaling up and thinking though how we involve more people. Also how we mix people up more, so there’s more opportunities to cross-fertilise ideas.

Having a good venue and food helped – our thanks to Cats Protection who offered the venue free of charge. The workshop’s success benefitted from solid preparation and a pre-visit. This planning meant the environment was set for participants to concentrate on what was important.

Future Directions

We all own the Vision & Strategy and now the action plan for the Forest. The next stage is set for the organisations to put their heads together and arrive at the MOU, bringing their governance thinking to life. This idea emerged at the workshop, so it feels right that this element is also co-owned.

Then it’s about keeping pace and not letting things drift. Monthly reminders and check-ins will push and report progress. Maintaining dialogue and relations here is the secret to making the action happen, reminding people that everyone is empowered to be the ‘glue’ here.

Although this case study talks a lot about governance, our biggest battle is a collective one for everyone – that is the loss of biodiversity and wildlife.  The Forest is a valuable site for conservation and it’s in its restoration phase when the backdrop is not particularly positive. Climate change is increasingly scary, and the significant loss of wildlife loss is even scarier. It’s our responsibility to work together to do something about it. Ultimately, we are charged with the conservation of a very important site for Sussex which holds international relevance as a destination.

Going forward, we have to work as one to make change happen. Some of conversations I’ve had since show that people recognise this. They have chased me up and challenged me on several issues and I like that – it shows that this is important to them too.

Read more about the Conservators of Ashdown Forest