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DAMIAN OFFER: Understanding the natural world

By Herald Express  |  Posted: August 21, 2014

at the coast: Damian Offer, director of Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust at Berry Head, Brixham Andy Styles TQAS20140613F-05_C

Comments (0) DAMIAN OFFER, director of the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust, speaks of its successes and challenges.

QWhat is your background?

A I grew up in Greenwich and my interest in nature was inspired by birding expeditions in the New Forest with my grandfather. I studied Geography at Exeter University and then worked in the City for Schroder's investing American corporate pension portfolios in the Far East.

I left Schroder's to do an MSc in Conservation at University College London, which led to my first conservation job as Conservation Officer for the Kemerton Estate in Worcestershire.

The experience I gained at Kemerton took me on to work for the Hampshire Wildlife Trust, developing a new project to provide advice and grants to land managers.

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During my first year in Hampshire I helped develop an innovative new project to re-connect grazing and nature conservation, which I then ran as Project Officer.

I lead the Land Management Team at Hampshire County Council for five years, supervising delivery of a successful £1.7m Heritage Lottery Fund heathland restoration scheme.

Seeking a fresh challenge, I moved to Winchester City Council in 2008 to manage the Landscape and Open Spaces Team; a role that taught me a lot about the workings of Local Government and the challenges it faces in the current financial climate.

I also served as a trustee for Hampshire Wildlife Trust from 2005 to 2013, which I enjoyed enormously. I derived great satisfaction from actively contributing to the development of one of the foremost wildlife trusts in the country.

QHow did you come to join the trust?

A Ever since I embarked on my career in nature conservation, I have aimed towards a senior role in the voluntary sector. I successfully completed Diploma in Strategic Management and Leadership with the Chartered Management Institute two years ago and had since been looking for the right opportunity.

I came across the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust through work on Green Infrastructure and was impressed by the 'landscape scale' approach to conservation of the greater horseshoe bat. When I saw the role of director advertised, it just looked 'right'. Delving deeper, I was enormously impressed with the achievements of the trust over the last 14 years.

However, it was evident that the trust had been through some tough times and that major change had been necessary to turn around an operation that was unsustainable three years ago. I was encouraged to see that the trust had instigated a Recovery Plan and that this was yielding results, improving the bottom line and offering a viable future.

QWhat is it like working for the trust?

A The trust has a wide range of initiatives and activities all running in parallel, so while there is never a dull moment it can be a challenge keeping track of it all!

We manage some of the most special natural places in Torbay, run a 960acre organic farm with cattle and sheep, provide educational events, host school visits, help children and adults access and understand the natural world, run major fund-raising events like the beer festival and also run a cookery school, a community garden and a café.

Fortunately, the trust's staff are all highly committed and very conscientious; keen to do their best for the environment and people of Torbay despite limited resources.

Overall, my experience over the last six months has taught me that the role of director is stimulating, varied and very rewarding.

QWhat challenges is the trust facing?

A Many people don't realise that the trust is an independent charity, separate and distinct from the council. As a charity our biggest challenge is raising money to fund our work. The trust is now on a much stronger footing than three years ago. Financial awareness and budgetary discipline are at the core of the operation and the trust is no longer living beyond its means.

However, the trust still faces challenges, the most significant being proposed reductions in the grant the trust receives from the council for managing the estate.

The trust manages 1,750 acres of land in Torbay, the majority of which is leased from the council. Most of this land is protected in some way, including the European Special Area of Conservation and National Nature Reserve at Berry Head, seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest, 14 County Wildlife Sites and several Local Nature Reserves, not to mention Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Listed Buildings.

When the trust was set up in 1999, the council committed to pay a grant towards the costs of managing the land and assets on its behalf.

In 2014/15 this grant was reduced by £45,000 to £161,000, equating to 36 per cent of the current annual cost of managing the estate.

The trust contributes £120,000 through a combination of charitable funds and volunteer time with the remainder coming from car parks, leases and concessions.

The council has proposed a further £50,000 reduction from April 2015 with more to follow, suggesting that the grant should reduce to zero over the next three years. This represents a major financial challenge for the trust and could jeopardise its very existence. It also raises significant questions over the trust's role in managing land on behalf of the council.

Ultimately, if the cuts go ahead as proposed, the trust will be forced to cease managing many sites across the Bay. Without our management, these sites will quickly deteriorate.

QWhat plans do you have for the trust?

A Firstly, I want the trust to focus on doing what it is best at and not over-reach itself. There remains opportunity for the trust to grow despite the funding challenges we face. We have an outstanding record of bringing grants into the Bay (£7.6m over the last 15 years) and, with an improved operating base, we remain in a strong position to attract more funding in the future.

We are just on the verge of submitting the second stage bid to Heritage Lottery Fund for the Cockington Green Heart Project. If successful, this project will deliver significant improvements to heritage assets in Cockington, making the country park a more attractive and engaging prospect for visitors. We still need to raise £68,000 from the public appeal and I would very much like the Torbay community to help us achieve this target, so we can secure over £1.6m of investment into the heart of Cockington.

Our membership is currently around 2,500, which is less than two per cent of the Bay's population. I would like to see that at least double over the next five years and to see more people recognising the trust's valuable contribution to the environment of the Bay and recreational opportunities. I would also like to see our members more actively engaged with the trust and supporting us through volunteering or fund-raising.

QWhat has been your greatest achievement since joining the trust?

A Taking on management of the 2014 Occombe Beer Festival only one month before the event was quite a daunting challenge. However, it all came together and, with support from the great team at Occombe, it was the best and most profitable festival that we have run to date.

Beyond that, I am just pleased to have successfully grown my understanding of the enormous diversity of the trust's activities, so that I have already begun to make a positive contribution to the future of the organisation.

QWho is your most significant mentor?

AI don't really have a single most significant mentor, taking inspiration and pointers from those that I have worked with throughout my career. I have found that the trustees have proved to be an invaluable source of expertise and guidance over my first six months.

I am particularly grateful to Nick Powe (chair of the board of trustees) for his support and insight as I have settled into the role of director. I am also fortunate to have an excellent management team at the trust, who have long-term experience of the organisation and Bay yet are creative, forward-thinking and keen to assist with the organisation's future development.

QWhat is your management style?

A I have a fairly relaxed collaborative management style. However, I have high standards for my own performance and expect the same from others. I prefer to encourage my team to take full charge of their respective areas of responsibility, guiding and supporting them, so they can achieve their potential and contribute their best to the organisation. Most of the time, my staff will be better placed than me to understand the detail of an issue and my role is to support them in finding a solution that works for the trust.

QWhat awards have the company won recently?

ACockington Country Park recently received the Green Flag award for the 18th year in a row, recognising the considerable effort that the trust and volunteers have put in to the country park.

QWhat other organisations are you involved with?

A It is still early days for me in Torbay. However, I have become a trustee for the Community Development Trust and hope, through that role, to be able to contribute to the success and growth of the community sector as a whole in the Bay.

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