Fury at homes plan in ancient deer forest

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Britain's most upmarket estate agents has become entangled in a row over plans to develop one of Dorset's finest estates, which is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty by government heritage bodies.

The controversial proposals to build 21 luxury homes on the 7,500-acre Rushmore estate, deep in the heart of Dorset, are pitting resident against resident. While some back the scheme, others fear that it will lead to the area being opened up for more development, and are set to challenge the plans in the courts.

At the heart of the row is Savills, the estate agent which is represented on Rushmore's board of trustees but which is also engaged to manage the sporting estate and its properties. Last month Savills reported record profits of pounds 7.6m and paid two employees bonuses of more than pounds 500,000 each.

The Rushmore estate, complete with 100 houses and nine farms, is the family home of Michael Pitt-Rivers, the great grandson of General Pitt- Rivers, recognised as the father of British archaeology.

Mr Pitt-Rivers has dedicated his life to maintaining and enhancing the estate with his long-term companion, William Davis. But Mr Pitt-Rivers is in failing health and the estate is in the hands of the trustees who claim to need to raise pounds 1.2m to safeguard the estate when Mr Pitt-Rivers dies.

In order to raise the funds, the estate, which is managed by Savills's Philip Gready, has applied for planning permission to the three district councils in whose jurisdiction the huge estate lies.

The most controversial application is for a 42ft high mansion overlooking the Cranborne Chase and the neighbouring village of Chettle.

Its parish council chairman, solicitor Edward Bourke, is among those opposing the proposals. He believes that without the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) status the Rushmore estate enjoys, the plans would not even have been considered.

"The irony is that because the Government turned the area into an AONB, it enabled the estate to set up a heritage trust," he said. "They are now trying to persuade local councils to throw out the rule book on planning law so they can raise the money to support the trust."

Mr Bourke has already sought counsel's opinion and says that the advice is clear cut. "To the extent that the council consider it legitimate to take into account the financial arguments, they must consider what weight to attach to them. They will obviously need to be completely satisfied that the estate has convincingly proved its financial case and that no other funding source exists or is likely to exist in the future," he said.

Mr Bourke, himself an estate owner, added: "It would create a completely unacceptable precedent if estate owners were able to secure planning permission for dwellings in the open countryside in order to provide money to maintain and enhance their estates."

But much of the money raised will not benefit the estate at all and will go directly to Savills in its capacity as estate managers and agents.

Savills manages the estate on behalf of Mr Pitt-Rivers and his companion Mr Davis. If the development proceeds under normal commercial terms, Savills is likely to receive hundreds of thousands of pounds from the proposed scheme in extra management fees and marketing commission.

Its agent, Philip Gready, in turn could well benefit under his company's profit sharing incentive scheme. Last year, Savills employees shared out more than pounds 14m in bonuses.

The Rushmore estate is ancient and parts of it have been a private deer forest since before the time of King John. The Pitt-Rivers family inherited the estate in the early 18th century and continued to manage it as a deer forest until disenfranchisement in 1829. The boundaries of the woodland within the estate have remained unchanged since 1618 when the first plan of the area was published.

More than a quarter of the estate has natural tree cover and there are 13 miles of broadleaf avenues, a herd of fallow deer, wild macaws and few houses outside of designated areas.

The National Heritage Adviser to the Countryside Commission, Paul Walshe, was moved to describe the estate in the following terms last year: "The Rushmore estate has been officially designated by government as an outstanding part of the nation's heritage.

"The layered depth and complexity of heritage interest on the estate gives it an extraordinary quality, which is matched in few other places in the United Kingdom, and a distinctiveness which is unique.

"It is a jewel of enormous value in the nation's landscape crown and one whose designation as a heritage landscape signals that it should be accorded the highest conservation priority."

Mr Gready defended the role of professional people's involvement in trusts. He said: "Quite often, a solicitor or accountant can be a trustee and they might benefit from that trust."