WINCHESTER College, Britain's oldest public school, may net pounds 100m from a huge housing development that could seriously damage the character of the historic cathedral city.
The college has let it be known that it is prepared to sell its 300-acre Barton Farm estate on the edge of Winchester, which it says has potential for 2,000 houses, if the land becomes zoned for residential development. Local surveyors say that in the current booming land market, each house plot would be worth pounds 50,000.
However, the development would destroy a substantial "green wedge" on the north side of the city - the opposite side from the college - and seriously damage the city's character, according to a government planning inspector who last year threw out an initial attempt by the college to have the site zoned for housing, with scathing criticism.
Undaunted, the college is now making it clear that it remains willing to sell the land, and the huge pressure for housing space in Hampshire may yet give it another opportunity.
It could be part of Hampshire County Council's forthcoming structure plan, which will allocate planned housing across the county for the years 2001 to 2011, starting with a crucial meeting today.
The college's willingness to allow Barton Farm's rolling chalk downland to be covered with bricks and mortar is producing all-party concern in Winchester.
"It's shameful," said Patrick Davies, leader of the Labour group on the city council. "This would completely undermine the character of Winchester if it goes ahead."
"I think it's appalling," said Mrs Pat Edwards, a former Tory chairman of the city council planning committee and now a senior member of the Winchester Preservation Trust. "It's well away from the college, so I suppose it doesn't bother them. It's just an easy way for them to make a lot of money."
To do so, William of Wykeham's 14th-century foundation, whose 675 pupils enjoy, for fees of pounds 14,000 a year, the highest academic standards, exquisite medieval buildings, and the water meadows of the River Itchen, has teamed up with a property development company from Staines, Middlesex, called Cala Homes (South) Ltd.
Together they are trying to take advantage of the vibrant market for housing land in Hampshire, worth pounds 750,000 an acre - once planning permission is given.
In 1995, the government inspector who backed the council's rejection of the scheme pointedly referred to what it would destroy.
"Winchester is characterised by long wedges and fingers of countryside running into the city," he wrote. "These create the green setting for which the city is famous."
Barton Farm was one such, he said, it made a big contribution to the character of the north side of the city, and housing on it would be substantially intrusive. It would bring the urban edge of of the city out into the countryside "in an unacceptable manner, thereby seriously affecting the setting and character of Winchester."
Today, after more than a year's discussion, Hampshire County Council's planning committee is likely to decide on the number of houses Hampshire is committed to build in the period 2001 to 2011. The figure put forward by the controlling Tory group is likely to be 42,400.
However, government planning inspectors who reported last year on the draft of the county's structure plan said that the figure should be 56,000, and John Prescott, the deputy prime minister and environment secretary, could still intervene to restore this.
If the latter figure is chosen, reserve areas for major housing development in the county will be needed, and north Winchester, which centres on Barton Farm, will be one of them: it was visited by councillors from Hampshire, Portsmouth and Southampton on 9 March.
The following month, an interview with the college's estates bursar, Robin Chute, appeared out of the blue in Winchester's weekly newspaper, the Hampshire Chronicle, in which he reiterated the college's willingness to sell.
He was reported as saying: "We have told the county we will make available our land at Barton Farm for housing if directed. We have got to think about how to make the most of our assets."
The college needed large sums to maintain its Grade 1 listed ancient buildings and to replenish its foundation funds, he told the newspaper.
Mr Chute was not available for comment at the weekend, but his colleague Bill Organ, the college bursar, confirmed that the land would still be sold if it were designated for housing. "If the council, in their wisdom, decide there should be housing to the north of Winchester, we will liaise with them to see that the housing is of the most sensitive kind that can be there, and that it meets the needs of the local people," he said.
He confirmed that the number of houses the college envisaged was 2,000. "If the county decided they wanted to develop the entire farm, you could probably get that number in," he said.
Mr Organ said he did not know how much the land would be worth. However, Winchester's leading land valuer, Hume Johnson, a partner in James Harris, the city's 150-year-old firm of chartered surveyors, said it would be worth pounds 50,000 per plot.
"If they were to put that land on the market, they would be knocked over in the rush of developers," he said. "The market here is extremely buoyant." Another surveyor confirmed his figure, saying: "This would be magic money. The market is red-hot."
Winchester College is described in a current guide to public schools as "a marvellous school for robust, able boys." The atmosphere is said to be "friendly, stimulating, decidedly intellectual", and the teaching "outstanding", offering several languages, compulsory Latin and exceptionally strong maths, science and computing.
Environmental studies, however, is not in the curriculum.
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