First Poundbury, now Port-au-Prince: the Prince with a craving for paving

Charles's ambitious housebuilding plans are not to everybody's tastes, Michael McCarthy discovers

Michael McCarthy@mjpmccarthy
Wednesday 21 December 2011 01:00

It was a little-noticed planning decision, taken last week in the far west of Britain. But it marks a significant step in the onward march of what is becoming a development juggernaut – the property empire of the Prince of Wales. You may think the Prince's Duchy of Cornwall – his landed-estate-cum-business – bakes and sells biscuits and jam, and you're right. Duchy Originals are a top-seller at Waitrose.

But in partnership with another of the Prince's enterprises, his Foundation for the Built Environment, the Duchy also builds houses – thousands of them – and in the not-too-distant future the Prince's vision will influence building schemes abroad as well.

Last week's decision by Cornwall County Council allowed a new housing estate at Tregunnel Hill on the edge of Newquay, the seaside town known as Britain's surfing capital.

As the 174-home site will be built on the same principles as the Prince's development at Poundbury on the outskirts of Dorchester – traditional rural architecture styles combined with traditional materials – it has been dubbed "Surfbury" by locals.

It has also been dubbed "Kensington-on-Sea" as some in Newquay think it has too few affordable homes; others object to the green fields the properties will cover.

The Cornwall branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England was among the objectors. Its secretary, Ted Venn, said the development "proves once again that Prince Charles has failed to follow his commitment to conserve the environment, despite his claim to be passionate about the environment".

Mr Venn added: "He has again failed to live up to his beliefs and... totally ignored the views of local people."

But not everyone in Cornwall, where new homes are needed, objects to Tregunnel and councillors backed it after a rejection in summer.

So the Prince's expanding property empire rolls on. The Duchy is one of the few housebuilders seemingly unaffected by the downturn and in 2009 the Prince was responsible for more new homes than Persimmon, one of the country's largest housebuilders.

Next up are two Cornish schemes. One is the Newquay Growth Area, 850 homes to go up on Duchy land to the east of the town in a specially built community that is expected to "grow organically" over the next 40 to 50 years.

The other, in nearby Truro, will have 98 houses, a Cornish food hall and a Waitrose supermarket.

This was deferred by councillors at the same meeting last week after vociferous local objections.

"We were worried it would be the start of development on the site and there was nothing to stop the area becoming covered in housing," said Truro's Mayor, Councillor Rob Nolan.

"The Duchy might have succeeded in getting what they want in Tregunnel but we're determined to save Truro," said Ian Hibberd, who set up a campaign to stop the scheme and handed in a 627-signature petition against it.

"We don't want a new Poundbury here," he said. "It's always the same story with Prince Charles. He runs around telling anyone who'll listen how much he cares about the environment, but at the end of the day he's a property speculator. Everywhere the Duchy has land, they'll come up with a scheme to build on it."

But a Duchy spokeswoman yesterday insisted it was merely responding to local authority requests. "We've been asked to do these schemes because they are important in terms of helping local need for housing and services," she said.

The Prince's building vision goes far beyond his estate's West Country heartland. His Foundation for the Built Environment is heavily involved with Coed Darcy, a new development of 4,000 homes, again on traditional lines, on a former oil refinery site between Swansea and Neath.

Further north, the foundation has a major role in designing and developing Knockroon – a new housing estate initially of 770 homes in an old mining village between Cumnock and Auchinleck in Ayrshire.

It too will also be built on the Poundbury principles of traditional architecture and materials.

The Prince is even looking abroad now, with the foundation helping with the rebuilding of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, destroyed in last year's earthquake, and exploring the prospect of designing an eco-town in India.

New planning rules 'favour developers'

Proposals to make it easier to build new homes and businesses are weighted in favour of developers and need to be rewritten, an influential committee of MPs warns today.

The Communities and Local Government Committee backed complaints by the National Trust and the Council for the Protection of Rural England that the new planning rules could lead to unsustainable new building across the country. They called for a default answer of 'Yes' to development to be removed from the National Planning Policy Framework before it is brought into force. They also call for the removal from the final draft of the presumption that planning applications should be approved unless the adverse effects "significantly and demonstrably" outweigh the benefits.

The opposition to the plans – not only from campaigners but Conservative MPs, too – will increase pressure on David Cameron and the Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles to revise the framework before it is published in final form.

Oliver Wright

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