Crichel Down at centre of new planning fight: Peter Dunn on the latest row over land that once toppled a Cabinet minister

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The Independent Online
LIKE THE old phosphorous bomb recently unearthed by a ploughman on the broad wheatfields of Crichel Down in Dorset, a new planning row has broken out on the scene of Britain's most infamous post-war land scandal.

The same figure who dominated the events that, in 1954, led to the resignation of a Cabinet minister is again leading the fight. Lt-Cdr George Marten, 74, is still head of the farming dynasty that has run the Crichel estate for 500 years.

In the Fifties his target was the civil service; the issue, 720 acres of the estate's land, which had been requisitioned during the war as an aircraft bombing range. The phosphorous bomb was a relic of those times. After the war, instead of returning the land to the estate, it was kept as a government farm. Cdr Marten forced an inquiry, which was highly critical of Whitehall officials. The ensuing outcry prompted the resignation of Sir Thomas Dugdale, Churchill's Minister of Agriculture.

This time Cdr Marten is leading a campaign by residents of Witchampton to stop the building of a pounds 5m compound of eight luxury mansions to be known as Treasure Island. The site is a mile outside the village, right in the heart of the estate. The enemy is East Dorset District Council which wants to to sell a derelict paper-mill site to Yellow Three Developments, a property firm.

The estate sold off the land in the mid-Fifties to help it through a cash crisis. The council bought it in 1983 for pounds 253,000 in an abortive attempt to keep it going to save local jobs.

Yellow Three's pounds 630,000 offer to buy the site, subject to planning permission, seemed an ideal way out for the council. The plans for Treasure Island show a series of pounds 400,000 mansions with such names as Tall Chimneys, Water Ways (with a river running under its glass living-room floor), and a mock-Tudor pile called Keystone.

The paper mill's old sluice gates on the river Allen are essential to the control of flooding on the surrounding estate farmland. Emotion is running high: 'My father, like me, has a pathological hatred of anyone who abuses authority,' says Napier Marten, the commander's son.

The council's planning committee meets next month to decide the issue. The Martens and villagers, complaining that the authority is 'effectively plaintiff and judge in its own case', want a public inquiry.

Last Wednesday Cdr Marten attended a protest meeting in Witchampton's village hall. Father and son mortared council officials with relentless questioning.

Napier Marten sees echoes of the earlier campaign in the affair: 'It was similar in the way the elected establishment and its officers and servants were driving roughshod across individuals. Then they were dealing with an individual, my father. At the paper mill they're dealing with an entire community.'

Locals fear that the development will distort a close-knit community hanging on, just, to its post office and village school. A plan, supported by the estate, to build starter homes on the site to revitalise the village, languishes in district council files.

Diane Hankins, parish councillor and a teacher who has lived in Witchampton for 22 years, said: 'We don't want rich people who will close their electric gates on the village, who will send their children to public schools and never want to be part of village life. The only thing those people will want from us in their incredibly expensive houses is cleaning ladies.'

The estate still retains a covenant on the mill site which gives it a veto over developments which are 'offensive or obnoxious'. Last week Cdr Marten said he would take out an injunction if Yellow Three's scheme endangered the water sluices.

Keith Mallett, the council's chief legal officer, said last week: 'From a legal position any covenant can be over-ridden. This one says consent should not be unreasonably refused provided the new use is not offensive. We've looked at the site as residential development and quite clearly such a use is not offensive.'

Attempts to contact Yellow Three proved difficult last week. According to companies' records, its managing director is Kerry Reed, a Poole entrepreneur and head of Poole Joinery, specialists in plastic window frames.

He lives in a large mock-Tudor house with electrically operated wrought-iron gates in Winterborne Zelston, a village near Poole. Standing at his front door he declined to discuss the project. He offered, instead, to set up a meeting with associates. This did not materialise.

Tony Newman, an estate agent which handles properties built by Yellow Three Developments, was also taciturn. At Mr Newman's office in Poole, one of his subordinates said: 'I've been told not to give too much information away about the development.'

Council officials were surprised to learn last week that Newman's was already offering Treasure Island homes for sale, even though planning permission has still to be agreed and Yellow Three does not yet own the site. One property, according to an advert published last week in a local paper, is the paper-mill office block, offered at pounds 220,000 'as is' or pounds 345,000 converted as 'Gold Brick Manor'.

The Newman employee explained that Yellow Three could convert it in 'maybe eight to ten weeks'. He added: 'Their timescale is quite quick. They're putting up blocks of low-rise flats in 10 to 12 weeks.'

One person who did agree to talk about Yellow Three was John Pittard, architect of the Treasure Island scheme. Mr Pittard, who lives near Witchampton, shares some of the villagers' fears about the suburban nature of the development. 'Frankly, the houses describe the sort of person who would be likely to buy one of them, a fact of life I'm afraid.'

Napier Marten said last week: 'People here are not Nimbys. What they're saying is there should be consultation, a matter of downright good manners, actually. They're frightened, I'm frightened, because of the way they're being treated by our so-called electees.'

'Good for them,' the commander said crisply. 'I'm absolutely with them.'

(Photographs and map omitted)