Don't mention the restoration! Prince quits heritage body in censorship row

The Prince of Wales has resigned as patron of Britain's most venerable heritage society after a heated falling-out over his conservative architectural views, The Independent has learnt.

Prince Charles quit as patron of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which William Morris founded in 1877, after it rejected a foreword he had written for a handbook on the restoration of old houses.

The Prince forcefully took the view in the piece that old houses should always be restored in their original style, while the society, despite its title, is committed to employing the best of modern architecture and design in restoration projects.

When it asked for the foreword to be amended, it was rebuffed and told it was all or nothing. It chose to reject the piece, issuing a virtually unprecedented snub to the Royal Family. The Prince, taking the view that he was being censored, responded by ending his association with the society.

The embarrassing rift took place several months ago but has until now been kept entirely confidential.

Yesterday, the society's secretary Philip Venning confirmed that the Prince had quit over the issue of his rejected comments.

The Prince's office also confirmed that his five-year association with the society had come to an end.

The row will further reinforce the image of Prince Charles as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative in architectural matters, a view which was given wide currency last month when he intervened to secure the abandonment of a £1bn high-tech development at central London's Chelsea Barracks site by the leading modernist architect Richard Rogers.

An infuriated Lord Rogers accused the Prince of "an abuse of power" and of acting unconstitutionally.

In the dispute with the society, the Prince's rejected foreword was intended for The Old House Handbook, a guide to repairing and caring for old buildings written in association with the society by two of Britain's leading architectural commentators, Roger Hunt and Marianne Suhr.

Hunt is a well known architectural journalist, while Suhr is a chartered surveyor, writer, and expert on historic buildings who co-presented the television series Restoration alongside Ptolemy Dean and Griff Rhys Jones.

Mr Venning said the Prince had agreed to write the foreword at the request of Hunt and Suhr and although the society was happy with most of his comments, there was one section which "could not be squared" with its views and with what the book was saying about new design in connection with the restoration and extension of historic buildings.

The Prince felt the issue of "honesty" in conservation – using design and materials of your own time, to which the society is committed – had been used too often to justify unsatisfactory alterations and ugly additions.

The society asked the Prince's office for the passage to be amended, but its request was refused. As a result, Mr Venning, in consultation with his executive committee, rejected the foreword and wrote another one himself.

Shortly afterwards, the Prince's five-year tenure as the society's patron was up for renewal and he decided not to continue in the position, ending his relationship with the society.

Asked if he regretted the Prince's departure, Mr Venning said: "The fact is, we agree with so much of what he says, but on the issue of new design there are occasions when we disagree, and we won't disguise the fact. We were pleased he was our patron."

The Prince of Wales took over as the society's patron after the death of his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who had been patron since 1977. The society has yet to appoint a new patron.

The 'grandaddy' of conservation groups

Founded by the socialist architect, designer and writer William Morris, the SPAB is the world's oldest environment campaigning group, the "grandaddy" of all conservation organisations, preceding the National Trust, for example, by nearly 20 years (the Trust's founder Octavia Hill was a SPAB member). Over its 132 years of existence it has been supported by many of Britain's leading cultural figures, from Burne-Jones and Ruskin in Victorian times to John Betjeman in the 20th century and more recently, by figures such as Griff Rhys Jones, Jeanette Winterson and Bill Bryson.

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