Poundbury: A town fit for a prince

It's 15 years since the first stone was laid at Poundbury, Prince Charles' model village in Dorset. As he unveils plans for a second eco-community, Adharanand Finn finds out what the residents think about their royal idyll

'That bloody prince – what was he thinking with all this gravel?" Bill, a retired civil engineer, has only lived in Poundbury, Prince Charles's mock traditional town in Dorset, for six months, but he is already fed up with the loose gravel that covers the pathways throughout the development. Outside his front door he has placed two heavy-duty mats in a vain attempt to stop the stuff entering his house.

"It gets everywhere," he says. "But at least it stops the kids riding their skateboards." It also stops parents pushing their buggies. Samantha, who works in the local café, has two small children and has had to buy an off-road pushchair to cope. "You end up walking in the road," she says. A Spanish lady in the local shop concurs, complaining that you can't wear good shoes in Poundbury or they get ruined by the gravel.

It may seem petty, but the gravel is a hot topic of conversation on the streets of Poundbury. Not everyone hates it, though. As well as its crunch apparently acting as a highly effective burglar deterrent, many agree that it also looks nice. Samantha says one of the local architects told her it was meant to be "easy on the eye. Particularly from the air."

Compared to many new housing developments, Poundbury is certainly easy on the eye. The houses come in various shapes, sizes and styles, and are all modelled on desirable traditional buildings such as country cottages or Georgian town houses. The streets are higgledy-piggledy, and there are few signs to blight the landscape. This does mean, however, that visitors usually get lost on their first outing. In fact, Poundbury's nostalgic vision frequently comes before functionality. While the aesthetics are popular – I didn't meet a single person who thought it was ugly – ask the residents what it is like to live here and the grumbles are quick to surface. Aside from the gravel, within a few hours I've heard complaints about the on-going building works (Poundbury is still expanding), the selection of shops, the lack of signs, the eerily quiet streets, the rowdy neighbours in the social housing and even the absence of dog bins in the park.

Poundbury does have a quirky collection of shops for a so-called traditional village. While there is no post office, there is a state-of-the-art hi-fi shop and at least three wedding stores. Robin and Barbara, a retired couple I meet feeding their pampered dog buttered scones in the café, think the selection of shops may be based on whether they are likely to generate much litter. While they think that is a good thing, they complain that the shops don't sell anything useful. The only shop anyone uses, they tell me, is Budgens, which has to call itself the Poundbury Village Stores on the wall outside, so as not to ruin the old-time effect.

The shop owners have their own complaints, however. The owner of a gift shop admits that he relies on custom from visitors to survive, but with the ban on signs people often fail to find him.

"Lots of shops put up signs illegally a while back," he tells me. "But then Charles came to visit and they had to take them all down."

Prince Charles was granted planning permission to build a new eco-town in south Devon earlier this year and last week agreed to be part of the Government's eco-town scheme, with the crown estate acting as partner in a consortium that intends to build a town of 5,000 houses near Nottingham. I'm in Poundbury because I wanted to see how his last pet project was doing. Sherford, the new town, shares many of the same philosophies as Poundbury, including a strict adherence to building and planning techniques over a century old.

Bill Dunster, the architect behind the groundbreaking BedZed eco-community in the London borough of Sutton, says this is concerning.

"Poundbury is a stage set," he says. "In terms of people and spaces, it's unobjectionable, but as a vision of the future, it terrifies me." If you build a genuine eco-town, he says, it won't look like an old-fashioned village. "If you design houses to maximise solar gain, with passive heat recovery ventilation, rainwater harvesting systems, wind turbines and south-facing roofs covered in solar panels, it's not going to look like Poundbury." Sherford is being based on the traditional Wiltshire market town of Marlborough, complete with Georgian-style town houses lining the high street. The plans for the development paint a picture of a bustling community where everyone walks everywhere, as people did in bygone days.

In Poundbury, however, the interconnected streets and walkways are virtually deserted, even on a Saturday afternoon. The quietness is an attraction for some, particularly the many retirees who have moved here, but it feels slightly dysfunctional for such a large place.

Despite Charles' nostalgia for a time before town planning became enthralled by the motor vehicle, Poundbury is very car-friendly. Most houses have garages bigger than their gardens, and parking is free everywhere. I bump into a couple who have just purchased a new house in Poundbury and I ask them, as they climb into their gold Mercedes, what attracted them to the development. The man smiles at me. "No yellow lines," he says, as if that sums it up.

Poundbury was also supposed to be an experiment in fostering social harmony, with social housing and private dwellings intermingled throughout the development, but here too it hasn't quite worked. Locals from a nearby estate tell me Poundbury has a reputation in the surrounding area for being "a bit stuck-up". Meanwhile, Robin and Barbara, and their dog, are no longer living in Poundbury. They had to move out because of problems with the neighbours.

"They mix up the streets with social housing," they tell me. "Some of the language we heard was appalling, and there were parties that went on all night."

While it's hard not to have some sympathy for Prince Charles when he says he wants to build "places that convey an everlasting human story of meaning and belonging", Poundbury, for all its old-fashioned quaintness, has so far failed to achieve that aspiration.

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