On Wednesday 30th September a group of Club members gathered under blue skies at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire to hear what has changed since the last Royal Show in 2009.
The six intervening years have been tough – but worthwhile. “It has been a sad story,” RASE chairman and Norfolk farmer Henry Cator admitted. “With debts of £5.5m, a £2.75m hole in the pension fund, a £600,000 trading loss and 93 staff salaries to pay the RASE was effectively bankrupt. It was not sustainable as a business, and certainly not as a charity.”
Today it has no debts, no pension deficit, a staff of just three and half people, and a site that is developing surprisingly quickly as the benefits of a 150 year lease arrangement with the Mars Pension Fund, managed by La Salle Investment Management, starts to bear fruit.
Even the shocking prospect of the HS2 high-speed Birmingham to London railway line scything across the site, from the main entrance to gate three, and within 100m of the main ring, is not all bad news.
A revolution is clearly underway, turning Stoneleigh Park into a novel combination of science park and acclaimed events venue, rebranded as the National Agricultural and Exhibition Centre, to help meet the RASE’s science and agriculture goals, with £50m allocated from the Mars pension fund to create 22% more development and 1500 new jobs, explained estate director Colin Hooper.
Developments already visible include:
- new buildings constructed, including a new HQ for the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board
- old Royal Show pavilions converted into high quality working spaces
- event facilities undergoing major refurbishment
More significantly, Stoneleigh Park is to have its own science park, one of six La Salle is promoting across the UK, alongside Wilton, Havant, Manchester, Kent and Edinburgh. Science laboratories are planned and a memorandum of understanding has already been signed with Coventry University. A National Low Carbon Centre is also planned.
Through its Innovation for Agriculture initiative, in conjunction with 14 other agricultural societies, RASE is now championing best practise, particularly around soil management and precision livestock farming and animal welfare. Renewable energies are a target for the future. Over the past year 65 events and workshops have been held and £0.5m of funding raised.
“We are probably closer to realising the concept of a National Agricultural Centre than we ever have been since 1963, when the first Royal Show was held at Stoneleigh,” said former RASE chief executive and La Salle science park ambassador Denis Chamberlain.
Mr Cator continued: “The challenge is convincing people to stop looking backwards, and instead look at how exciting it is that the society is doing again what it was created to do – sharing knowledge and working together with bodies like the NFU, AHDB, Farmers Club, Worshipful Company of Farmers and other Agricultural Societies. The RASE is not dead, it is rising like a phoenix from the ashes of its own destruction.”
- For a full report – including addresses from Sir Peter Kendall and Jane King of AHDB, NFU President Meurig Raymond and Helena Pettit, managing director of Grandstand (Events) Group – see the Winter edition of The Farmers Club Journal, due out in mid-November.