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Watchdog takes park chiefs to court over £60m tourist village

A national park authority's decision to allow part of a tourism "village" to be built on its land has provoked an unprecedented legal battle with its own watchdog.

A national park authority's decision to allow part of a tourism "village" to be built on its land has provoked an unprecedented legal battle with its own watchdog.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority went against the advice of its officials to grant planning permission for the £60m private development.

In the first legal action against a park authority since it was created in 1936, the Council for National Parks is seeking a judicial review of the decision in the High Court. The council had warned the authority that the development could cause "serious harm" and set an "unwelcome precedent" and is concerned about the manner in which the decision was taken.

The outcome of the dispute could determine future policy for other parks, which are under pressure to market themselves as tourist destinations as well as provide jobs for local people in rural areas where there are few job opportunities. The dispute concerns plans for the 500-acre Bluestone tourism village near Narberth, which straddles the park boundary close to the Milford Haven waterways. The affected section of the park is mainly cornfields and woodland.

The private development has been granted £16.5m by the Welsh Assembly, and could create about 600 jobs in an employment blackspot.

Ruth Chambers, head of policy at the council, a charity, said yesterday that a judicial review was an "exceptional" step, "taken because of serious legal concerns about the authority's disregard for its own policies and the way in which the decision was made". She said the decision was taken as a last resort and with a "heavy heart", but added: "We think that the park authority's judgement is seriously flawed and are prepared to challenge this in court."

Pembrokeshire County Council had already given permission for those parts of the development, a water world and snow centre, which lie outside the park by the time a decision on the remainder - 340 timber lodges and the village centre which lie within the park - came before the authority. The body consists of 10 county councillors and five Welsh Assembly members.

Despite being warned by its officials that giving permission for the "village" was against existing policy prohibiting such developments and it would be detrimental on environmental grounds, the go-ahead was given in December last year. Since the decision overturned previous policy, the authority was legally obliged to reconsider it in January - which it did with the same result.

The Welsh Assembly, which has powers to either determine the issue itself or order a planning inquiry, declined to intervene, saying it was a local matter.

William McNamara, chief executive of Bluestone, said yesterday that the project would affect two cornfields "right on the edge of the park boundary" and was not overlooked by any dwelling. He said an "enormously complex" management plan would deal with all the ecological issues. He told BBC Wales: "There are no public rights of way. Ecologically it is a very poor area. The reality is that this proposal has been democratically voted in. What they are challenging is the fact they don't like the decision."

Bluestone later pointed out that the application had been "meticulously" scrutinised at every stage by two appointed planning authorities, which both approved the development, and had been independently examined by the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency and Cadw, the Welsh Assembly's environment agency, without objection.

John Evans, a spokesman for the park authority, said it would be seeking legal advice: "At this stage it is too early for the authority to provide a response.''

Maurice Hughes, leader of Pembrokeshire County Council, said the announcement was "very disappointing".

He added: "This development has suffered enough delays already. What is even more galling is that the Council for National Parks is not accountable to anyone and its members are not elected - unlike the county council. It is estimated that Bluestone will plough over £30m a year back into the Pembrokeshire economy and without doubt the majority of people who live in the county want this scheme to go ahead."

The 225 square-mile national park includes spectacular coastal scenery and the tiny city of St David's, which is dominated by a 12th-century cathedral.It is one of 11 national parks in Britain, most of which were given protected status by the Government in the 1950s and 1960s.