How Prince Charles the Green champion is concreting over the countryside to pay for his lavish lifestyle
The timing could not be much worse. Hardly has the Prince of Wales finished publicly intoning his familiar mantra about protecting the countryside, than his Duchy of Cornwall is revealed to be doing a feasibility study on whether to build a vast housing estate on some of the country’s most cherished pastures.
Last Sunday, Charles reminded millions of viewers on BBC1’s Countryfile programme that it was important ‘to work in harmony with nature’ for the benefit of future generations.
‘We need to think about what kind of world we’re handing on to our successors,’ he declared.
Indeed so. All but the most rapacious developers would agree with him.
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So why is the Duchy, whose profits from land and property activities provided the Prince with an income of £18.3 million last year, risking accusations that it is rapaciously developing its own land?
Last week, it was revealed there was widespread shock that the Duchy is looking at the lucrative possibility of putting up 1,000 houses on a 103-acre field (of which it owns two-thirds) in a spectacular valley at the heart of Thomas Hardy country, on the edge of Dorchester.
The field was often walked by author and poet Hardy and can be seen from Max Gate, the stone house (now owned by the National Trust) that the author built as his home. It is where he wrote Tess Of The d’Urbervilles, Jude The Obscure and The Mayor Of Casterbridge, as well as much poetry, until his death in 1928.
No wonder Downton Abbey creator Lord (Julian) Fellowes, who lives nearby and is president of the Thomas Hardy Society, is outraged about this threat to what he describes as ‘a most beautiful swooping field’ — though he says he’s ‘absolutely sure’ that the Prince is unaware of the plan.
Were it to go ahead, this would be a classic case of concreting over the countryside.
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Charles, of course, who is chairman of the Duchy, sees himself as custodian of rural Britain. He presides over meetings of the Duchy’s council — whose members include shrewd business heads such as the financier Lord Rothschild and banker Jamie Leigh-Pemberton, who used to earn £1 million bonuses as a City high-flier with Credit Suisse First Boston — at which the decisions are taken on its general policy direction.
The phrase that the Prince likes to use when describing the Duchy is its ‘sense of continuity’. He uses it when referring to its near-700-year history and tradition, and the familiar names and faces still to be found in its rural settlements.
Such communities, he has said, have ‘created the special qualities that are the essence of the British countryside today’. And, of course, that is true. .
This field in Hardy country is not the only battleground over the Duchy’s widespread activities, as it seeks to increase its profits to serve Charles’s lavish lifestyle.
A row has also erupted over the Duchy’s plans to build 100 houses, a supermarket, a recycling plant and a ‘Cornish food-hall’ on a 50-acre dairy herd field that it owns just outside Truro.
‘Why on earth do they want to ruin a valley that is a beautiful area with wildlife, deer, badger — everything you can imagine?’ asks Doris Ansari, who is part of the Save Truro movement.
‘This is on the edge of our town, a lovely, lovely spot. I could just cry. A big shopping development will also ruin our town, especially the farmers’ market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
‘I’ve always been Prince Charles’s No 1 fan, but he’s let me down badly. I could hardly bear to watch him on TV last Sunday, saying what he did. I know people who have written to him asking him to intervene, but nothing has changed.’
One who wrote asking the Prince to reconsider the plan was retired architect Maurice Vella. He said yesterday: ‘I got an anodyne reply from the Prince’s private secretary saying my opinion had been taken into account, but the view was that it was a “sustainable development”.’
Yet another battle is raging over a proposal by the local council for an urban extension of up to 2,000 homes between Bath and the village of Newton St. Loe, on land largely owned by the Duchy.
What's the story? Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes lives nearby the proposed development, and believes Prince Charles has been kept in the dark
As one of hundreds of ‘stop the Duchy’ protesters points out: ‘Haven’t we heard repeatedly from Prince Charles that he is against “urban sprawl”?’
Astonishingly, even the Church has stepped into the row to condemn the Duchy. ‘There is a sense of shock and distrust about the position of the Duchy,’ says the curate of Newton St. Loe, the Rev. Dr Catherine Sourbut.
In a letter to the local newspaper, the Bath Chronicle, she declared witheringly: ‘The Duchy is clearly enthusiastic about the possibility of the huge financial gain to themselves if the proposed housing development goes ahead on this world heritage site currently owned by them.
‘Their enthusiasm is surprising given that a large section of the proposed development will destroy green-belt land currently sustainably farmed, producing local food for the community and for primary schools throughout the county.’
The Bath Preservation Trust has also called for the proposed urban extension to be stopped. And who is the trust’s patron? No less than the Prince of Wales.
What seems clear is that the crucial element of ‘sense of continuity’ associated with the Duchy of Cornwall is the profit motive, now made so much easier to achieve by the Government’s new house- building targets.
TV hit: Prince of Wales appeared with Julia Bradbury on BBC's Countryfile - it is hoped he is sticking to his principles regarding protecting the Green Belt
There is nothing wrong with profit, of course. But to a man such as Charles, steeped in charitable enterprises and moved almost to tears by the endless assaults on our natural environment, profit can hardly be the sole consideration.
Yet the fact is that there’s a harsh commercial streak in the Duchy’s make-up that belies its ancient history, going back to its creation in the 14th century to provide income for Princes of Wales.
It covers 136,000 acres, half of them in Devon but also encompassing land in 22 counties — from the Scilly Isles through the West Country to Herefordshire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, South Glamorgan, Cambridgeshire and Wiltshire. The vast sweep cuts across priceless acres of London, and includes surprisingly diverse freeholds, from the Oval cricket ground to Dartmoor Prison and the Holiday Inn, Reading.
Unlike other property companies, it is exempt from capital gains tax (on condition that the Duchy’s capital gains are reinvested in the business) though Charles has to pay income tax (last year it was £4.5 million, leaving him with £13.8 million).
In the meantime, as the Duchy’s profits have risen, some of those rural communities and weather-beaten rural characters about whom the Prince likes to talk so romantically have found that the Duchy can be a tricky landlord.
For example, tenant farmers on the Scilly Isles have, in recent years, faced huge rental increases that have sometimes doubled. Some say they face financial ruin.
Islanders complain of the remorseless way the Duchy has been moving into the holiday rental business as long-term tenancies on cottages come to an end.
Instead of being made available to locals, they are often converted into snazzy cottages for lucrative holiday lets.
In the pretty Cotswold village of Daglingworth (population 263), locals talk bitterly about how an ugly barn made of concrete, asbestos and timber was moved into their eyeline. This happened so that it no longer spoiled the view from an old granary on the edge of the village that the Duchy wanted to sell as an executive home.
Seven years ago, the Duchy of Cornwall was valued at £500 million. Today, it has shot up to £730 million. This is largely thanks to the skills of accountant Sir Michael Peat, the Prince’s former private secretary whose specific brief was to increase Charles’s income generated by the Duchy.
Sir Michael, who previously worked for the Queen, retired from the Prince’s employ — and from the council of the Duchy — in September 2011.
Since then he has taken his accountancy and business skills to several private boardrooms, such as a £250,000-a-year position on the board of Evraz, a steel company owned by Chelsea Football Club’s owner Roman Abramovich.
He served Charles well. The Duchy’s income has helped the Prince increase his household from 98 in 2003 to 135 in 2005 and now to 160, which includes 26 personal staff — a number that’s comparable with the retinue staff of a small head of state.
Meanwhile, yet another Duchy development is in the pipeline, on 250 acres east of Newquay in Cornwall. It has outline planning permission to build 3,250 homes over 20 years, a deal worth anything from £5 billion to £10 billion, depending on house values.
One thing is sure: Prince Charles won’t be short of money in the coming years.
As anti-development protester and retired architect Maurice Vella says: ‘It does seem very wrong that Prince Charles says he is pro-farm and pro-environment, and yet much of the Duchy’s land could be concreted over for profit.
‘His Duchy is a business that has a lot of privileges and clout that’s not available to other developers. He should be very, very careful how he uses such power.’
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