Anyone who has cut a hedge knows how many branches it generates. Urban forester Phil Benn has set up an urban tree station in Greater Manchester to ensure that nothing of the woodlands he manages goes to waste. To extend the scope of the project, he has set up a community benefit society and is launching the first share issue with Microgenius, an innovative website that links people with an interest in sustainable energy with communities that are developing micro-generation projects.
The Greater Manchester TreeStation, the first in the North West and only the second of its kind in the UK, became a social enterprise in March 2012. It manages woodland across the region on behalf of local councils and produces wood products such as sawn timber, firewood and biomass chip for local heating. It encourages its customers to use locally grown beech, oak, ash and sycamore rather than import hardwoods from South America.
Phil explains that he wants to scale up the operation.
“There is a strong community of environmentalists across Manchester that see the benefits of wood as a sustainable, low carbon and low cost fuel. A number of the councils in the region are installing wood burning stoves into social housing and we see an opportunity to keep it local. We are already maintaining the woodland as an economic and social amenity and it would complete the circle to provide the woodchips and logs as firewood.
“We have a good base of supporters and volunteers and by selling shares we hope to raise the capital needed to be in a position to tender for these biomass projects, generating a sustainable revenue stream.”
Greater Manchester TreeStation is based in a deprived area and Phil sees opportunities to build skills in the local community.
“Arboriculture and forestry are skilled occupations and use potentially hazardous equipment , so training is essential. Our plan is to take on apprentices and create job opportunities within the community.”
The society wanted to reach a wider audience to raise £140,000 with its share offer and has teamed up with Microgenius, a not-for-profit website that manages the logistics of the share offer and makes it easy for members of the public to invest in environmentally beneficial projects and make a financial and social return.
Emily Mackay founder of Microgenius says:
“Greater Manchester TreeStation is a good example of an ethical organisation with a sound business case and a mission to reduce carbon emissions and give value to local communities. Microgenius will facilitate the share issue and we have already seen huge demand for woodland projects. Woolhope Woodheat, a similar project based in Herefordshire, sold out within 10 days.”
Emily sees more opportunities for wood fuel projects.
“The government’s Renewable Heat Incentive is encouraging installations of new woodchip boilers and this will create a demand for fuel. However, there is a danger that this will be sourced from overseas, undermining the benefit of these schemes for carbon reduction. TreeStation is a good model for encouraging local fulfilment and I hope other social enterprises will see the potential.”
TreeStation’s ethical and environmental ideals are underpinned with strong business acumen.
Patrick Browne, the Finance Director, is a chartered accountant with 25 years’ experience of working with small businesses and 10 years’ experience in the social enterprise sector. He says:
“Our aim is to keep it local, and we have already received funding from DECC for the main equipment needed to produce woodchip biomass. Our business is a unique combination of tree work, consultancy, firewood, timber and woodchip production. We help local authorities to improve and regenerate woodlands for wildlife and for social amenity: and trees removed go back into the community as kitchen tables, firewood, or boiler fuel. There is consistent demand for our services and we are confident that the share offer will provide a 5% interest return on investment.”
The tree work side of the business is now managed by Nick Torr, who recently received the Institute of Chartered Foresters Top Student award.
Nick says: “For me, what the TreeStation is working towards is a no-brainer – we have this valuable local timber resource all around us, even in our urban environment, which needs to be responsibly managed to help create the sustainable future our children deserve.”
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By Rachel Holdsworth