Harsh realities intrude on Prince's dream: Fears are emerging about the new 'model' village of Poundbury. Peter Dunn reports

ACROSS 400 acres of prime farmland owned by the Duchy of Cornwall in Dorset, the Prince of Wales is personally supervising the creation of an 18th century- style cottage community where people in low-cost rented homes will live cheek-by-jowl with the well-to-do, cooking steaks on gas- fired garden barbecues.

The first phase of 61 dwellings (precursor of 2,500 to be built over the next 20 years) is well-advanced. Its chocolate-box skyline confirms that there will be no television aerials on Poundbury's slated and tiled rooftops (pictures will be cabled in), and the chimney-pots are all different as the Prince believes that 18th-century cottagers replaced cracked pots with any old style. The narrow streets are being named, by royal decree, after streets in Thomas Hardy's novels.

The Prince visited the site recently and met some of Poundbury's first inhabitants, Glenn Petre and Julie Bird and their daughter Rebekha, 3, working-class tenants of the Guinness Trust-operated low-cost homes (rents pounds 54 to pounds 74 a week); and Commander Joe Warren (RN retired), 69, and his wife, Rosemary, who are buying a four-bedroom pounds 115,000 cottage across the road.

The Duchy's skilful marketing of the Prince's dream, with its core philosophy, to create a decent, more caring, classless society, has obscured the most fundamental questions: will it actually work or is it destined to become an enclave of wealthy retired folk feuding with their working-class neighbours? Is Dorchester's picturesque new suburb a panacea of social engineering or the inspiration of a kindly man who has never actually had neighbours?

Concerns are already being raised. Three weeks ago Trevor Jones, chairman of Dorset County Council's policy and resources committee, warned Tony Baldry, an environment minister, that unless the Government brought work to the area Poundbury would end up 'a retired persons' ghetto'.

Few local people, even those in work, can afford Poundbury's house prices, which range from pounds 70,000 to pounds 145,000. Only six (out of 26) private homes have been sold since an open weekend in March, the majority to elderly newcomers.

Potential buyers have been critical of the density of the housing, the smallness of the rooms and the lack of privacy. Playing space for children outside their pocket- handkerchief gardens is limited.

'It's all quite dinky,' said one designer juggling iron Habitat cots in one of the showhouse bedrooms. 'You'd need quite neat children.'

Although Poundbury's building quality is high, the real thing - stone-built and thatched, with a mature garden - can be bought for less in most villages in the area.

With rural crime increasing, senior police officers have expressed fears that the 'cosy' nature of Poundbury, with its high walls, shadowy alleyways and hidden car parks, could create ideal conditions for criminals.

There have been complaints overheard from potential buyers (censoriously quoted in local papers) that pounds 70,000 was too much to pay for a private house built adjacent to a long-established council estate, Victoria Park.

Many of these reservations surfaced two weeks ago when Eddie Fry, the builder whose firm is constructing the first stage of Poundbury, took a party of fellow Bridport Rotarians and their wives to look at his new homes.

'There must have been 100 of us and I couldn't find one that thought it was attractive,' one of the wives said later. 'It's all too close up to each other and the houses are too small.

'I'm not being mean, but you're paying pounds 120,000 and you have the Guinness Trust property near you and you're looking out at Onslow and Daisy (characters in the BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances) in their garden, which is a consideration, let's face it.'

Some residents of working- class Dorchester, including the mayor, John Antell, who lives near Poundbury, are concerned about the social impact of the new suburb up the road. He said: 'I'm just a very ordinary working chap and I'm looking after the largest council estate in West Dorset which, for reasons only the Almighty knows, the Prince has decided to descend on with his Poundbury dream. A lot of people live here on pounds 140 a week and less, and it's that which determines their quality of life.

'The houses at Poundbury must go to people with a fair amount of wealth and my concern is we'll finish up with a latter-day Windsor with a lot of very wealthy people living next door to my people. I can only hope and pray the social mix will work but I've got great reservations about it.'

Other community leaders in Dorchester believe the mayor is too pessimistic. John Lock, chairman of West Dorset district council planning committee, which approved the Poundbury scheme, said it has had the 'wholehearted support' of the town.

He says Dorchester has benefited from Duchy land released for local causes since the Poundbury project became serious business in 1987. These included a new rugby club and ground, and land for the district hospital, YMCA, Boys' Brigade, and a children's centre.

Andrew Hamilton, the Duchy's development director, urged people not to jump to conclusions. He said: 'It's very premature to judge the scheme on the basis of 61 dwellings.

'There will be another release of land later in the year when there will be smaller properties which will be much cheaper. Give it a chance, that's all I ask.'

Mr Hamilton said the Duchy shared local concerns about lack of investment in Poundbury's much-vaunted element of craft workshops or light industry.

Mr Antell added: 'Dorchester's evolved as a town over 2,000 years, pre-dating the Romans. It's a Dorset market town from the last century as Hardy knew it and now it's outgrown its Mayor of Casterbridge boundaries and is like a ripe plum.

'What concerns me is that in practice the Duchy is a set of very hard-headed businessmen and they market the Prince in the same way another organisation markets its product.

'At the end of the day, you feel it's almost like the Gods on Mount Olympus playing with the mortals.'

(Photographs omitted)

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