Architecture: Trouble in the Prince's back yard: The Duchy of Cornwall's plans for a housing development on Somerset farmland has incensed locals, writes Peter Dunn

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The Independent Culture
The Prince of Wales's strictures, delivered in Australia recently, that Asians are 'poisoning the environment with unbridled development', have gone down like a lead balloon in the apple-cheeked village of Stoke sub Hamdon, Somerset.

Here, a group of residents has led a determined two-year campaign to stop the Duchy of Cornwall building an estate of up to 106 houses locked into the community's northern boundary.

The 18 'starter homes' already built in a pseudo-traditional style - complete with fake chimneys - have done little to convince locals that the duchy is making the right decisions.

The duchy has owned Stoke sub Hamdon, one of 34 Outstanding Heritage Settlements in Somerset, since 1337. The new scheme's masterplan, crafted by the Bath architect William Bertram, has the personal endorsement of the duchy's chief executive, Charles, Duke of Cornwall.

Campaigners are protesting that the development far exceeds the limits established in the village's own local plan drawn up by South Somerset District Council in 1988. Where, for example, the official guidelines are for up to 25 houses on 1.9 acres of prime farmland off North Street, the duchy wants to pack in 70 homes. This breaches the local plan's boundary on its northern limit.

Local protests are being reinforced by South Somerset's Council for the Protection of Rural England, which has described the Prince's scheme as 'totally inappropriate', insisting that it would 'destroy much of the historic character of the village and Special Landscape countryside which should be protected'.

In a letter to district council planners the CPRE says: 'Despite some intensive post-war development, Stoke sub Hamdon . . . is a good example of a Somerset village with many items of historic interest. Any development should attempt to enhance such an environment rather than exploit it.'

Stretched on the rack of its own famous policy of consultation - laying on model exhibitions, setting up working parties and facing choleric public meetings - the duchy has just produced a compromise masterplan for a total of 66 dwellings, including the 18 starter homes already built.

However, the original, more ambitious scheme remains on file for consideration by council planners in about two months' time. As Tim Gray, the duchy's development consultant, puts it: 'Willie (Bertram) acknowleges that it's going to be refused but he's asked us to leave it in because he feels it's a better character and quality of development and actually achieves objectives that the new plan doesn't achieve.'

Henry Best, vice-chairman of South Somerset CPRE, remains unimpressed. 'The duchy's behaving like any other commercial developer,' he says. 'They're trying to squeeze as many houses in to get maximum profit out of it, without regard to the needs of the area. CPRE's view all along has been: throw the whole ruddy lot out and tell the duchy to observe the local plan.'

Development of the 18 'starter homes', now occupied after much quarrelling between villagers, has not increased confidence in the duchy's determination to tack on a private estate of quality homes designed to ensure 'integration with the overall character of the village'.

Terrace-built round three sides of a communal car-park, the structures are bleakly rendered, with hamstone-clad end buildings surmounted by fake chimneys. Dog- tooth tile patterns along the roof ridges are designed to look, from a distance, like thatching. Square front doors have been given a rounded, 'medieval' look behind arched architraves. The communal area is lit by replica Victorian lamp standards.

Senior duchy officials, including Tim Gray and the development manager, Sarah Oborn, made a determined defence of the Stoke sub Hamdon scheme last week, emphasising many months of frustration in which senior planning officers had supported duchy plans only to see them sent packing by council committees.

Mr Gray did not deny that the duchy was out to make money: 'We have to proceed in a commercially sensible way,' he said. 'There are commercial objectives, yes, but with good quality and design. At the same time the duchy thought the scheme would best suit the interests of the wider community and meet known market demands. The duchy concluded that there was a need to conceive a master plan that would settle the issues of development of the whole area, avoiding a piecemeal approach.'

He denied the existence of a clear target of 106 houses on the sites but admitted there had been some 'muddle over numbers'. True wisdom had dawned after one of the village meetings. 'A dear old boy came up to me and said, 'There's no problem here but you need a little moderation'. What we'd been seen to do, in our enthusiasm to produce a good development, was we'd just over-stretched the edges a little bit; pushed it, if you like, a bit too far. It was clear we needed to look at it again. It would have been quite wrong to have forced the issue.'

(Photograph omitted)

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