We caught up with Guy Wedderburn from Callendar Estate to talk about their novel approach to trail management and sustainability, with the help of Bespoke Community Development Company.
DMBinS: The management structure of Bespoke is that it is run as a community interest company (CIC). What were the motivations behind that? And the advantages of this structure for the landowner?
GW: When we first built the trails one of the considerations at that time was to have the trails managed by an independent organisation. We recognise that the landowner would always have a duty of care over their land however having a strong relationship with a distinct organisation does provide a degree of protection from the owner. Secondly, we wanted to provide a structure which gave an element of protection to the community groups we work with who help deliver the project. We are asking them to take on a significant liability as an unincorporated organisation and a CIC was a protection to office bearers. Thirdly, working in partnership with a community based organisation meant there were opportunities to tap into funding which would not otherwise be available and there was a desire to have a more formal organisation who could be open, transparent and credible when fundraising for the trails.
It was putting those thoughts together that Bespoke CIC was born. Callendar Estate entered into a contract with Bespoke to manage the trails which involves monitoring once a month, carrying out routine maintenance such as vegetation clearance and dealing with small scale repairs. This brought about a reporting system, maintenance plan and procedure for dealing with emergencies e.g. trees on trails etc. One of our members is developing an online reporting system where problems can be logged and then the maintenance team can be mobilised to deal with them. Our team leader can log in and interrogate a map based data set, check out problems and plan the work around this. We’re also organising for about a dozen of our members to have trail maintenance packs (including training) so they can become trail inspectors and will each be given a section of the trail to inspect.
DMBinS: Will you be providing your own in-house training for the maintenance team?
GW: Yes, and this will be basic training in hazards such as trees hanging over paths etc. that can be logged, then the team can assess them.
DMBinS: In terms of chronology, was it a case of the trails being put in, then Bespoke being set up, then bringing a staff member in for events and did this then morph into a need for the maintenance team idea?
GW: Partly yes, and partly it was a case of the events job incorporating this initiative into the wider remit of the job.
DMBinS: Was it a case of once the trail maintenance work was up and running, you saw the opportunity for an apprenticeship scheme as part of this?
GW: It was through meeting with the Council’s Outdoor Access Team Leader. We had already worked with the Community Learning and Development team that took children out of the classroom situation so we were quite comfortable with a crew coming out to work with us. We talked through the different apprenticeship options, from three year apprenticeship right down to three month rolling programmes. We decided that the three year commitment was too much for us to begin with as we didn’t have the capacity at that stage so we opted for an initial slot of three months involving chainsaw use, brush cutting, tractor training and they have since moved into trail repair, dealing with problems such as straightlining and breaking bumps. At the moment the trail crew are working on a fairly major refurbishment of a downhill trail, putting in berms to reduce erosion from cornering and to enhance rider enjoyment.
DMBinS: You mentioned that two of the apprentices from this scheme went on to full-time employment. Did you receive funding for this?
GW: Yes, we were able to tap into the Falkirk Jobs Fund where the council funded 50% of the wages for a year. The great thing was that the guys we have taken on have a good understanding of the job, a clear understanding of our safety culture and we know they are competent.
DMBinS: And have they been able to take on more responsibility?
GW: Yes, they have been working with the Community Learning Development team and they are now seen as role models to the new trainees and they have really stepped up to the plate with this from a career development perspective. It is also useful to have them involved to show that the 3-month programme is worth sticking with. There might not be a direct job at the end of the programme but they will come out with transferable skills and be better prepared for the job market.
DMBinS: And in terms of the long-term sustainability of the project, you mentioned the installation of a wind turbine on site …
GW: Yes, this is still at an early stage but might involve a joint venture between Callendar Estate and Bespoke. 100% of Bespoke’s share of any investment return will go back into the work of Bespoke.
DMBinS: This seems like a great business model, taking on volunteers, bringing them out and bringing people in.
GW: Yes, definitely, although it does involve a massive amount of work and arguably it would not work without voluntary contributions from our board members and active members. And the success very much boils down to the skillsets of those giving up their time, from those who have the ability to see the bigger picture of what we are trying to achieve to those who can knuckle down and graft away at the practical elements of the project.
DMBinS: The project has obviously done very well so far. What do you see as the challenges of keeping the project going?
GW: Funding is probably the main issue. If we can get the wind turbine project up and running, there should be enough money to cover core costs such as insurance, wages and vehicle costs. This would greatly help ensure a sustainable business model. Thereafter, I think the next challenge will be keeping up with visitor expectations. When we first built the trails, riders were happy that there was somewhere local to go but now they have developed and are looking for more technical features etc. When we look at what is happening in other areas, there is competition out there to maintain your market position. Once the café build is complete, our next step will be to look at building a red trail on site, so that there is that progression that riders are looking for. We currently have 19km of blue trail, so we are ready for that next stage. The first phase of trail development was funded through Rural Priorities but that fund closed about a year ago and the new fund does not appear to fund specialist access provision such as cycle trails. But on the positive side, this gives us time to get the café built and the turbine in, then we have an ability to self-finance and put up match funding, which is always the challenge with these types of projects.
DMBinS: Moving on to some practical issues on site, you mentioned that you’d had some conflict between different user groups. Could you explain what the issues were and how it was resolved?
GW: We’d had some complaints from mountain bikers about people walking on the mountain biking trails and indeed complaints from walkers being shouted at by mountain bikers. So we took this issue to the Local Access Forum and it was also raised at the National Access Forum. The message that came back was that our signage was adequate but that it could be improved with a slight change in wording. We then went back to our Local Access Forum to endorse the wording. The outcome was that it was clarified that a mountain bike trail was designed for a specific user group and it is dangerous to be used for walking or horse riding, that you are putting yourself and the legitimate user at risk. And if you are putting yourself or others at risk, then it is not responsible access.
DMBinS: Moving on, we’re keen to develop and pilot a national model for rider contribution, running a coordinated national weekend of trail repair events run by existing groups and on key estates across Scotland. The aim would be to establish & support a network of trail repair groups across Scotland, using our promotional help to improve access to these opportunities for volunteers.
GW: Yes, the whole issue of working with volunteers is interesting in that you are limited to what you can do with them. Firstly, because they all have jobs, family commitments etc. Secondly, it is not all about the physical graft. You need tools, equipment & materials. The other issue to think about is that your volunteers are still technically your employees so you need to think about Health & Safety policies and safe working practices. Of course, these things shouldn’t be seen as barriers and it would be useful if there was some way of providing advice and skills to resolve these common issues at a national level.
DMBinS: Yes, definitely. We are currently working with CTC on a trail repair coordinator course for this purpose, to be piloted in 2015. It will cover Health & Safety, why policies are needed, what they should look like. There will be a morning session covering paperwork and an afternoon in the field talking about what you are looking for and how to deal with Health & Safety in the field. There is also another course on trail inspection. Feedback so far has been excellent. Actually, many of the organisations we work with are well versed in working with volunteers and in these cases what they need from us is national coordination in terms of promotion of what they are already doing well.
GW: And timing is important for volunteer based events. We ran our events mostly on evenings and weekends at first, but now we also have a Tuesday Trail Crew which was a daytime thing. This worked well for people who were unemployed, worked shifts or were off due to university/college etc. What we have sometimes struggled to do is to sustain a regular volunteer day, i.e. every second Sunday. We would really benefit from having someone who is willing to be the volunteer crew boss deciding on what to do, what materials are needed etc.
DMBinS: Yes, and this is where the CTC courses would come in handy. If you find someone willing to take on that role, the course can provide them with the knowledge and skills, and you or the landowner with the ability to manage liability issues. It is an expense but we are looking at around £150 per person.
GW: If you compare that with putting some of our apprentices through chainsaw training at £800 per person, then that seems entirely manageable. As long as you find the right person, then we would see this as expanding their opportunities.
DMBinS: Many thanks for your time Guy and it has been a pleasure to hear of your solutions to effectively and sustainably managing a mountain bike trail network.