Instant villages threaten rural life: Theme park Britain marches on

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The Independent Online
THE countryside is facing a new threat - from the instant leisure village, complete with village green and new 'olde- worlde' thatched cottages.

These multi-million-pound holiday centres are often built in sensitive rural areas where a real villager would have difficulty getting planning permission for a new porch.

Environmentalists and conservation groups have watched with increasing concern as developers have drawn up plans for them in the Lake District, near Loch Lomond, in Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Kent and Wiltshire.

Their spread will be highlighted this week when planners in North Devon are expected to approve a scheme for a pounds 25m instant village close to Exmoor National Park, despite fierce objections from local people, the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) and English Heritage.

Officials will advise North Devon district council's planning committee on Tuesday that objections should be overridden by social considerations, including 250 permanent 'village' jobs and an annual injection of pounds 3m into the area's feeble rural economy.

The village, to be built on Whitechapel Moors, close to the real village of Bishop's Nympton, will have 54 all-year 'quality' holiday homes, 200 timeshare cottages, a sports centre, country club, golf course and a chapel overlooking a village green. The site is on farmland next to Whitechapel Manor, a Grade I listed Elizabethan building now a luxury hotel.

Peter Beacham, of English Heritage, has advised the planners that the instant village would 'destroy the historic landscape setting of a nationally important building'. Along with Exmoor National Park and the CPRE, he will call for a public inquiry if the scheme wins planning approval.

Elizabeth Burton, chairwoman of North Devon CPRE, added: 'It's terrible news, dreadful, a tragedy to put this thing among lovely wooded hills on top of a Grade I listed building. There's not a single person round here who's got the slightest interest in it.'

The man behind the scheme is a local entrepreneur, John Moore, a taciturn Irishman whose speciality until now has been building luxury nursing homes. Mr Moore has offered impressive sums to achieve his latest ambition: pounds 870,000 for the 300-acre sheep farm for his village site and pounds 700,000 compensation (rejected) to John and Patricia Shapland, owners of the Whitechapel Manor hotel.

Mr Moore's solicitor, Alan Gordon-Lee, said his client was not prepared to talk about his business affairs. He said: 'What these environment groups don't understand is that with planning approval there's a very substantial measure of control. There's absolutely no justification for a public inquiry. It's a free country. The CPRE can have any views they like but that doesn't mean they're right.'

Mr Moore's activities are seen as important because they are part of a trend to create a new rural experience. In the economic vacuum created by the collapse of farming comes a new age of instant hamlets, rural theme parks designed to do for middle-class city families what Billy Butlin did for the working class in the Thirties.

Secure behind high-security fences, the 21st-century's townies will recharge their batteries in leisure centres set in prime countryside yet far from real village life.

Conservationists fear that the Government is prepared to sanction such projects - with a turnover population of up to 200,000 visitors a year - in rural areas because they offer jobs in areas of high unemployment.

In Kent, the local CPRE is calling for a public inquiry into a pounds 100m scheme by Rank Holidays to build the 750-unit Oasis Holiday Village in Lyminge forest, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Folkstone.

Rank claims that its scheme, involving the planting of 500,000 native Kent trees, will revitalise a gale-ravaged Forestry Commission pine plantation, but Kent CPRE maintains that such 'massive' development across 436 acres of tranquil woodland is 'simply not acceptable'. Rank appears, however, to be holding a trump card, promising 1,000 new jobs in an area where unemployment tops 13 per cent.

Kent county planners, meeting last week, urged the planning authority, Shepway District Council, to give Rank its planning permission when it meets on 18 October.

Occasionally, the new squires of instant-village England receive a setback. Last week, Woodspring District Council threw out a plan for a pounds 75m, 350-acre holiday park, complete with glass-domed sub-tropical water gardens, around the Somerset village of Puxton, a historic landscape which was granted Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status earlier this year.

The decision brought an angry reaction from Malcolm King, a local millionaire who had promoted the scheme with a Dutch company, Palm Resorts International. He said he would appeal and activate an earlier outline planning permission - granted three years ago - for developing the area with two golf courses, a 200-bedroom hotel and a leisure centre.

'People are idiots,' he said. 'They don't realise what they've done and they'll now have to live with the mess they've made. For instance, I've permission to put down 500,000 tons of landfill under the old scheme which covers 90 per cent of the SSSI. Under the scheme they've turned down the SSSI would have been left virtually clear and now there's nothing they can do about it.'

Woodspring planners are consulting lawyers to see if Mr King is right.

(Photograph omitted)