Prince Charles’s new urban village – on a derelict railway yard in St Austell, Cornwall – has provoked the usual derision about “chocolate box” architecture, but it is, essentially, a concept that runs straight up the flagpole of new Labour, saluting the core Blairite mantra “If you’ve got it, flaunt it”.
Like the villagers of Poundbury, the prince’s Hardyesque suburb outside the county town of Dorchester, the prosperous new burghers of St Austell will be able to shut their faux-Victorian doors on the tiresome realities of life. Poundbury turns its back on one of the poorest council estates in Dorset, blotting out the view (and protests) of its underclass, while a new generation of well-heeled incomers cooks bucolic fantasies on its barbecues.
St Austell, grimly workaday under the white alps of its diminished French-owned china clay industry, is too economically downhearted to attract so much as a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. Even its official website admits that “much of the town centre seems to have lost its way”. Few people who live in the genuine Victorian terraces and Edwardian cottages of old St Austell today imagine that they would ever afford one of the 150 high-density replica town houses planned for the new estate where Prince Charles will enthuse over the selection of vernacular chimney pots.
“Cornish philosophy is ‘Enough is sufficient’,” says Bryn Rawlins, the clay town’s county councillor. “Cornwall is the poor man of Europe, worse than Sardinia. The Cornish have a tradition of competing with each other to earn the lowest possible wage, like the tin miners did. So the minimum wage is meaningless here. People will work, particularly in the summer, for £2.50 an hour, on six-month contracts as assistant chefs or cleaning caravan sites. If you get £300 a week in St Austell, you consider yourself well off.”
None of this seemed to matter much when a business consortium, its bobbing experts in regional development and housing-association politics deferring to Charles’s newish Prince’s Foundation, rolled into St Austell four years ago to make its sales pitch. The Duchy of Cornwall has learnt a lot about presentation and public consultation exercises during its decade of expansion at Poundbury. Here, the comparison with new Labour’s wizardry, its obsession with focus groups, the ability to dazzle with concepts pulled from the thinnest of air, is irresistible. The foundation’s own script could have been composed by the same Millbank tribe that underwrote Labour’s 1997 election manifesto. With its motto “Working to connect the art of building and the making of community”, it explains: “The Prince’s Foundation [of which the prince is president] promotes a return of human values to architecture, urban design and regeneration, challenging many conventional attitudes with a more holistic and innovative approach.”
Bryn Rawlins attended that early meeting in St Austell and remains confused about what he thought he heard then and what he sees today. “I’m sure there was a theatre in the original plan and that’s gone,” he says. “And I seem to remember there was nothing like the density of housing, with spaces for trees. They said they had 280 responses from the public consultation, but published none of them, whether people said it was wonderful or a load of crap. What we seem to have ended up with is 150 high-density town houses with other bits crammed on a ten-acre site. So there’ll be 300 cars parked in there by two-car families, and 400 children. So where will they go to school? We certainly don’t have the teachers for it. Do what you will with the phrase ‘urban village’; little by little I get more and more disillusioned about the image provided and what’s actually going to be built.”
Rawlins’s confusion is understandable but flawed, because it fails to comprehend the true nature of either Blairism or Windsorism. The purpose of Blairist rhetoric is to maintain the political power of new Labour and eliminate off-message socialists. The purpose of Windsorism, and specifically its agent, the Duchy of Cornwall, is to make money for the heir to the throne, while indulging his passion for what his foundation’s south-west regeneration manager calls “people places”. Both ideologies function brilliantly, impervious to elitist ridicule, whether it’s Blairism with a nude on its shirtsleeve or Windsorism talking to plants. The Duchy’s skill as a property developer, bankrolled by resources that few hostile district planning authorities could match at public inquiries, has drawn on an apparently inexhaustible public demand for retro housing designs inspired by Poundbury and now eagerly plagiarised by private builders.
“Poundbury’s a haven for the petit bourgeois market, which is what the Duchy’s after,” says John Walker, a former chairman of Dorchester’s Civic Society. “They’re the kind of middle class who think they’re buying into royalty, the sort of moderately well-heeled people who’d rather have a repro Constable on their walls than an original Ben Nicholson. There seems to be no end to it. The Duchy’s built an imitation Tetbury Market up there now, and also an imitation Poole custom house. We’ve now got two imitation Poundburys being built in the town, on the old Hardye’s school playing fields and the former county hospital site. You wouldn’t believe that a professional architect could actually design some of those buildings.”
Walker, who was disowned by the Civic Society after criticising Poundbury in the Architectural Review four years ago, believes that the proliferation of such kitsch-me-quick housing estates is turning rural architecture into a bad joke. In any event, the Duchy’s “people place” communities (with their daffy visions of craftsmen toiling under cottage eaves) are illusions of community, as hollow as the pleading rhetoric new Labour uses to persuade us that it can make the machinery of society actually work. Here, the common denominator of both Blairism and Windsorism is total incomprehension of what it is really like to be poor or desperately afraid.
Duchy residents who live in real cottages know to their cost what you have to go through if you take on Charles’s firm. I met some of them in the Duchy-owned village of Stoke sub Hamdon in Somerset a few years ago. Charles had just made a speech in Australia about the environment in Asia being “poisoned from unbridled development”. For two years, locals had been trying to stop him building an estate of 106 houses, complete with car park and “Victorian” street lamps, on prime farmland on the village’s northern boundary – a proposal that environmental groups said would “destroy much of the historic character of the village and Special Landscape countryside”.
While the Prince’s Foundation has picked up kudos for planning an urban village on a brownsite railway yard in St Austell, the Duchy’s activities 17 miles away on the edge of Truro have angered local planners who opposed its campaign to erect 25 retro houses, four of them “affordable” for locals, on a greenfield Duchy site. “The Duchy’s local agent, Charles Somebody-Or-Other, was really a very aggressive type,” says Ros Cox, district councillor and ex-mayor of Truro. “He pushed it through come hell or high water, even though I can’t think of one local resident who wants it. They’re pretending to be very ecologically sound, which is a load of rubbish. He only got planning permission because the county council at one time wanted to build a bypass near the land, but that’s been abandoned because it’s too expensive and the levels are all wrong. We objected and went to appeal and lost. Although serious road-safety objections remain, we can’t afford the cost of another appeal. . . They say they want the development to fit in with local landscape and needs; then they build luxury homes which very few Cornish people can afford.”
Like new Labour and its feverish apparatchiks at No 10, the Duchy reserves a special anxiety for journalists deemed to be off-message, as I learnt three years ago from personal experience.
I had written a story for the Observer about a 74-year-old tenant of a pre-war Duchy cottage on the edge of the Poundbury construction site. Builders proposed to drive a road through his brassica patch to give access to a new chocolate factory behind his house. The old man’s wife was ill in bed, with breast cancer, but Duchy officials told him that a bulldozer ploughing up his cottage garden might be a welcome distraction for a sick woman. The old man told me he was afraid to complain, in case they lost their home.
When, some weeks later, the paper asked me to do a follow-up, the Duchy wrote to its editor enclosing a thick annotated file of all my previous pieces with a covering letter (headed “not for publication”) from its then press officer, Kiloran McGrigor. McGrigor said I was running a vendetta against her employers and that I should be provided with an editorial minder on any future occasions. McGrigor’s letter concluded: “Off the record, you may also like to know that, privately, the Prince of Wales visited Mr Caines [the elderly tenant] on his most recent visit to Poundbury.”
My follow-up piece was not published in the Observer; but then, the chocolate factory road never went through the old man’s cabbage patch either, so there were winners and losers.
I always thought – and still do – that this sad little story said a great deal about the true nature of the Duchy’s aggressive pursuit of its rural utopias and what you do about a dying woman or a cheeky reporter who gets in the way. Last week, I telephoned the Duchy press office to ask them about the “aggressive” little housing estate they were building outside Truro and got (for once) a curiously frank response from a charming PR lady called Colleen Harries.
“I’m not an expert on this,” she said. “But what I do say is it’s the councils who allocate the land for development, not the Duchy. If the Duchy don’t respond to the land already allocated, someone else will.” Pause. “Which newspaper did you say you work for?”