After his victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a grateful nation gifted the first Duke of Marlborough land near the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, where he built Blenheim Palace, later designated a World Heritage Site.
Now, though, a second battle of Blenheim is brewing, over plans by the estate to build 1,200 homes on its land. And the modern populace appeared to have secured a major advantage against the development: UN backing.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites – which is also known as Icomos and advises Unesco, the UN body which made Blenheim Palace a World Heritage Site in 1987 – has written to planners on Cherwell District Council opposing the “Woodstock East” development.
Peter Marsden, the chairman of Icomos-UK, claimed the proposed project – part of which lies in David Cameron’s Witney constituency – risked diminishing the “outstanding universal value” that made Blenheim Palace a World Heritage Site to rival the Taj Mahal and Egyptian pyramids.
He wrote: “We believe the development would physically overpower the existing settlement. Changing the character of Woodstock would further harm the setting of the World Heritage Site.” Mr Marsden also raised fears about the visual impact of the development, whose closest buildings would be about a mile from the palace – the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The intervention delighted Woodstock. Peter Jay, 78, the veteran journalist and broadcaster who is now a Woodstock town councillor, said “Save Woodstock” banners have popped up “all over”.
“We are pleased that Icomos has written. This proposed development is a dire threat to the integrity and enjoyment of our environment, our community, and our homes.”
Mr Jay refused to discuss the current resident – the 12th Duke of Marlborough, Jamie Blandford, who served time for drugs offences in the 1980s – who took a place on the estate’s board of trustees after his father’s death in October.
There was, however, a withering assessment of Mr Jay’s local MP, the Prime Minister.
Mr Cameron told The Independent: “I absolutely appreciate the concerns of my constituents. That said, we cannot oppose all proposals for new housing. We need to strike the balance between building sensible, new homes, and keeping communities together.”
“That,” said Mr Jay, “reads like a press notice from Dickens’ ministry of circumlocution. It falls way short of what people in West Oxfordshire, might reasonably hope for.
“In a decade or so, this development would almost double the size of our small town, which took anything up to 900 years to reach its current extent. This would be a terrible, philistine, anti-social act and the community strongly, and quite rightly, opposes it.”
The Blenheim Estate, along with the developer Pye Homes, argue that to save the World Heritage Site it is necessary to build on farmland nearby.
Daniel Hayman, the project’s spokesman, said selling land for Woodstock East would generate £40m for the estate, plugging a £1m shortfall in its annual income, meaning it would no longer struggle to carry out the structural maintenance on the palace required under the Icomos-approved masterplan.
He said that the 20-year development would include a primary school and affordable housing, adding: “We are starting discussion with Icomos to allay their fears and feel we have a good chance to mitigate the impact on the setting.”
A decision is due next month.Reuse content