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Branching out

Hill Holt Wood's ambitious plans to turn empty houses back into homes

Hill Holt Wood's ambitious plans to turn empty houses back into homes

When Karen and Nigel Lowthrop bought Hill Holt Wood, an ancient deciduous woodland in Lincoln, it was in a very poor state. But, they had a vision and today, almost 20 years on, it is a successful charity and social enterprise now embarking on a new venture to provide housing for some of the most disadvantaged people in neighbouring Gainsborough.

From little acorns

At Hill Holt Wood, the woodland is seen not just as a space to be managed and enjoyed, but one that can be used to achieve other goals too. Not only does the charity insure it runs the woodland sustainability, but it is also used to provide education, training and employment advice, as Tim Sleight, head of finance explains.

“We run programmes for 12-16 year olds that have been excluded from school, helping them to get their GCSES by teaching them land based skills. We also help young offenders, the unemployed and disadvantaged youngsters and last year, we merged with The Bridge, formerly YASIG (Young and Safe in Gainsborough)a charity offering services and activities 13 to 24 year olds.”

“Although it is a community-controlled business, it is important to still make a surplus. Being profitable ensures the community enterprise will last.”

Karen Lowthrope, founder, Hill Holt Wood

Hill Holt Wood is a charity, a trading charity, and social enterprise – a business that is run for the good of the community and the environment, not in the interest of shareholders. However, that  doesn’t stop it from making a surplus that can then be reinvested in the community.

“When we set up Hill Holt Wood as a social enterprise, we did it as you would for any company,” says founder  Karen Lowthrope. “We planned the business, decided on our core income streams and worked out our finances.

Wooden buildings at Hill Holt Wood

Wooden buildings at Hill Holt Wood

“And, although it is a community-controlled business, it is important to still make a surplus. Being profitable ensures the community enterprise will last.”

Hill Holt Wood has a wide range of sources of income. As well as being contracted to run educational programmes, the team look after 300 acres of open space – parks, other woodlands, footpaths etc – on behalf of the council.  There is also a small architectural practice on site – Design:hhw,  which provides internships for graduating students and specialises in sustainable design.

The site is home to The Hive Cafe, which opens on Sundays offering homegrown local and organic food. Hill Holt Wood also has a conference centre available for hire, and thanks to the beautiful woodland surroundings,  it is a popular venue for weddings birthday parties and other events.

Home improvement

Thanks to this diversification, Hill Holt Wood is a very successful social enterprise, and as a result, is able to continue to reinvest into the community. Now, as well as offering a range of training and support services to vulnerable young people, it is starting to provide affordable supported accommodation too.

“We believe that by targeting specific areas, streets can be reclaimed one house at a time, improving overall quality of life and property values at the same time.”

Tim Sleight, head of finance, Hill Holt Wood

“Following a successful bid to the Empty Homes Community Grant Programme, we are working in conjunction with West Lindsey District Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to renovate six homes in Gainsborough,” says Tim.

“Each home will have three or four bedrooms and have a high eco spec; Design:hhw will help with this. We will also be using local materials, including timber from the woods we manage, and labour wherever possible and the construction work will also provide the opportunity for training and development for young, unemployed and low-skilled people in the community.”

Once finished, the homes will be let to those in need within the community, with special preference to young people in need of safe and secure living space.

“Once the tenants are living in the homes, we will help develop their living skills such as cooking, hygiene and finance management. The idea being that eventually, once they have gained suitable sustainable employment, these young people will be much more independent and able to move into a bigger property or even part-purchase a home,” said Tim.

Renovation of three of the houses is complete and fully let, and there is already a waiting list of potential new residents.  Rent comes from a mix of housing benefit, support package fees and direct rent from those who are working, and is then reinvested into supporting tenants and renovating more accommodation in the area.

“This is a very worthwhile project,” says Tim. “South West Ward is one of the most deprived wards in Lincolnshire – more than 20 per cent of properties here are empty and many more are in desperate need of restoration.

“We believe that by targeting specific areas, streets can be reclaimed one house at a time, improving overall quality of life and property values at the same time.”

www.hillholtwood.com

words: Rachel Mason

CV
Hill Holt Wood

In 1995 Nigel and Karen Lowthrop bought a 34 acre woodland in Lincolnshire – their vision was to create a community woodland. In 1997, they established  Hill Holt Wood Management Committee as a link between them and the surrounding community. It is now a charity and environmental social enterprise, specialising in supporting disadvantaged young people struggling to get into training and employment. It has its own on site architectural team that specialises in low energy design, and has won awards for its eco-buildings.

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