The Queen 'is holding us to ransom', say villagers

Fury at Duchy of Lancaster's plans to build 4,000 homes on green belt

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The Independent Online

In the red corner there are revolting villagers. In the blue corner, Her Majesty the Queen. At stake is a corner of England's green and pleasant land that the former want preserved and the latter is proposing to build more than 4,000 homes on.

The Duchy of Lancaster estate, which manages royal lands, has submitted plans to build two villages together with an industrial site on land it owns near Crewe in Cheshire. The proposals include building on nearly 700 acres of green-belt land. The plans come as the Campaign to Protect Rural England warned the countryside faces devastation with the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) coming into force. Around 80,000 houses are being proposed in green belts, according to the CPRE.

The duchy submitted the plans to Cheshire East Council, and, if approved, construction will begin in 2015. The duchy provides private income for the Queen.

The scheme has provoked a citizens' revolt in the nearby village of Barthomley, pictured above. Locals say the proposals will destroy their way of life. Two neighbouring councils have also objected to the plans, saying they will harm businesses and regeneration in their area, and Edward Timpson, MP for Crewe and Nantwich, has come out in support of opponents.

Barthomley residents have already accused the duchy of submitting its latest plans at the last minute to prevent them from objecting. The duchy argues its plans will support jobs, deliver new homes and provide "opportunities for green infrastructure" and "enhanced access to the countryside".

The duchy also said the plans will "contribute vital land required for the upgrading of the A500 to junction 16 of the M6". Until recently, Cheshire East has used compulsory purchase orders to buy land to extend the A500, but the duchy is exempt. Campaigners argue the Queen's estate is exerting its influence by offering land in exchange for vast areas of green belt for building. The deal will be worth hundreds of millions of pounds. According to its submission it proposes building on 700 acres of green belt land "west of the M6 but north of the A500 … as this landscape makes a limited contribution".

New rules require council planners to be in favour of "sustainable development" when making decisions. The Queen received £12.9m from the duchy towards her private income in the last financial year, a drop from £13.3m in the previous 12-month period. The Crewe estate is worth almost £63m.

At the end of the last financial year, the Duchy of Lancaster had more than £400m in net assets. It is one of two royal duchies in England, the other being the Duchy of Cornwall, which provides Prince Charles with his private income.

Tom Wilde, chair of the Barthomley Action Group, told The IoS: "The duchy is holding the local authority to ransom on this with the council very clear in their ambition to widen the road. Planning such huge developments should not be done on a quid pro quo basis like this. The building of the new villages will destroy hundreds of acres of the green belt and will be devastating for our village." The group is seeking to raise £10,000 in donations for a legal advice fighting fund to oppose duchy moves.

Sir Andrew Motion, chairman of the CPRE, said last week the new planning rules will "wreck the countryside". He said: "Developing greenfield sites unnecessarily and with inadequate local consultation is the wrong way to make sure that we get the new homes the country so badly needs."

Roughly 13 per cent of England's land area is designated as green belt, covering more than 1.6 million hectares. The CPRE is urging people to write to their MPs as it campaigns to prevent a "building free-for-all".

The National Trust's chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, said last week only designated national parks will enjoy "full safeguarding" and that the new planning laws had resulted in "pandemonium". He added: "This is upending brownfield first in favour of greenfield first."

Ruth Rosenau, a Stoke-on-Trent city councillor, said: "We do not feel there is justification to build at this location. We are also opposed to a significant amount of office space being created." Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council is also negotiating with Cheshire East Council after objecting to the duchy's plans because it says local businesses will be harmed.

A Duchy of Lancaster spokeswoman said: "Major change is always unsettling and, while we understand the views expressed by those affected, the duchy has a responsibility and the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to the aspirations of the elected council and believes that it must consider the housing and employment needs of the wider society. The planning consultation is in its initial stages and the question of any sale of land has not been addressed as yet."

A spokesman for Cheshire East Council said the plans were being considered.