We founded Whistlewood Common in South Derbyshire in 2013 as a permaculture project seeking to demonstrate ways to live more sustainably.
When ten acres of land came up for sale, Melbourne Area Transition wondered how we could afford to buy this field to realise those ideals. We came across the Community Benefit Society model as a way for the entire community to engage with the project.
Co-operatives UK funded advice on setting up the necessary governance structure, business plan and share offer document, and within four months we had raised over £50,000 from community shares to match a grant from the National Forest Company. We then set about designing the site, as a new type of community woodland – with everything being edible or otherwise useful.
The design includes forest gardens, orchards, food gardens, edible hedges, coppice trees and craft materials. Habitats for wildlife were created, and ponds, swales and streams, with links to surrounding woodlands. The great benefit of community shares is that we instantly had 170 members, which included over ten community groups.
Working with so many local people was very exciting and the design formed part of my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design. Since 2013 hundreds of community members, school groups, scouts and guides have planted over 3000 trees and 150 fruit trees as well as creating infrastructure such as a treebog (design from Permaculture magazine!) and a kitchen in a shipping container.
Right from the start we realised that, for the project to succeed, we would need to include permaculture principles and processes in the design for the organisation, as well as for the site.
We drew in ideas from a wide variety of models, such as consensus decision-making, sociocracy, the Transition movement and co-operatives, and because we are currently a volunteer organisation, our ways of working need to be a hybrid of many different ideas.
The challenge is to allow people to develop their own skills and interests, whilst supporting them in projects on the site. The directors act as facilitators to support infrastructure, workshops and events. The permaculture principle “Go where the energy is” has guided us.
As with all voluntary organisations there is a core group that drive the organisation, with a much larger group that participate in working groups, events, educational workshops and volunteering activities. Some key volunteers have drifted away, due to a variety of factors, such as ill-health, family and work commitments, but we seem to find new volunteers that are willing to turn out in all weathers.
During 2017 we have expanded the range of workshops, including natural crafts, fruit tree pruning, forest gardening and a course entitled “Think like a tree”, a people and permaculture programme. Events such as our midsummer music festival attract new visitors, raise funds, promote permaculture and showcase local talent. Last year we produced just one bin bag of landfill for 400 people!
What the project needs now is an all-weather building so that we can run workshops all year round, host school parties, and even keep people dry on rainy June days! Inspired by roundhouses such as those at the Sustainability Centre and Hill Holt Wood, we commissioned Straw Works to design a straw-bale, timber roundhouse that will use local materials. We also need tracks and parking areas.
The designed building
The organisation is now seeking to attract new members and investors, with a share issue, matched by the lottery-funded Power-to-Change programme.
It would be fantastic to secure £80,000 of lottery money for a permaculture project, but the deadline we have been given is very tight (21st July 2017) to raise £80,000 to secure the match funding. Investments start at just £50, with the maximum being £10,000. We have members all over the UK (and internationally) and each member has one vote regardless of the number of shares held. Whistlewood’s community shares are withdrawable and this is a fantastic model to allow people with only a small amount of cash to become members, in addition to allowing those who have money in the bank that isn’t earning much interest to invest with a social purpose.
The Directors have worked tirelessly over the last year on a very sound business plan and share offer with support from the Community Shares Booster Programme, Making Local Woods Work, Acorn Co-op Support and Co-op Culture. We achieved the Community Shares Standard Mark that will give confidence to investors.
I won’t deny the level of work and of detail involved was challenging, but we hope all our hard work will pay off when people see what a great social and financial investment this is. As a social enterprise our educational elements are supported by business activities, ensuring the organisation is sustainable into the future. The community benefit society model, with community shares is a fantastic way for community social enterprises to be sustainable ethically and financially, and we hope our project can inspire others to follow.
To find out more about investing, please see: www.whistlewoodcommon.org/buy-a-share
Power to Change: www.powertochange.org.uk
Community Shares Unit: www.communityshares.org.uk
Co-operatives UK: www.uk.coop
Making Local Woods Work: https://makinglocalwoodswork.org
Co-op Culture: https://culture.coop
Straw Works: http://strawworks.co.uk