Last updated: June 28, 2014 12:07 am

Interview: The Prince of Wales, the crown planner

The Prince shares his thoughts on urban and rural redevelopment projects and his broader vision for Britain
The Prince of Wales in the garden at Highgrove House©MMGI / Marianne Majerus

The Prince in the garden at Highgrove House (Photograph: MMGI / Marianne Majerus)

To enter Clarence House, the official residence of The Prince of Wales in London, a short carriage ride from Buckingham Palace, is to step backwards in time. I have been shown into the Morning Room on the ground floor. The powder blue hues, the black and white photographs, and 18th-century porcelain from The Queen Mother’s collection point to an earlier age of deference and order. The silence, apart from the ticking clocks, is deafening.

This is The Prince of Wales’s first in-depth interview with a journalist in five years, and it is the climax of an elaborate courtship. (The Prince is notoriously wary of the media.) Our aim was to coax The Prince to talk about his numerous but curiously little-known urban and rural redevelopment projects in Britain and celebrate them in a special issue of House & Home. We also wanted to probe the future King on the question of leadership, not on pesky matters of foreign affairs (his views on Vladimir Putin are by now well known) but on his broader vision for Britain.

After several delicate overtures, I received an invitation to Scotland to observe The Prince in action at one of his favourite retreats: the estate of Dumfries House, the exquisitely restored Palladian country mansion and centrepiece of one of his most successful experiments in “heritage-led” regeneration.

Upon arrival one early Friday morning in May, I knocked at the wrong door of the mansion and was greeted by a friendly Scottish woman servant: “Good morning, Sir, are you here for the squirrel symposium?”

“No, I am not here for the squirrels,” came my reply, “I am here for Prince Charles.”

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That surreal exchange prefigured a fascinating day on the estate. (I gave the afternoon symposium on the endangered red squirrel a pass.) It was an essential introduction to The Prince’s work and also to the man himself, now 65, who, in his own self-effacing words, has been “around a while”.

One month later, coincidentally on the day after King Juan Carlos of Spain announced his abdication, I am ushered into the Yellow Drawing Room on the first floor of Clarence House to take my seat on a dark cream sofa alongside The Prince’s formidable communications secretary, Kristina Kyriacou. A manservant arrives with a tray of coffee and tea. He directs me to place the bone china cup of char on a nearby table, well away from The Prince, who is wearing a double-breasted suit and City black shoes.

Our 50-minute conversation begins with Dumfries House. The Prince intervened in June 2007, mobilising a consortium of charities and heritage bodies to purchase the house, which contains the finest collection of Thomas Chippendale furniture in Britain. It was a bold move, coming just before the outbreak of the global financial crisis, and attracted some controversy because it involved The Prince using a £20m loan from his charities. The money has since been repaid, but has the overall gamble paid off?

Prince of Wales©Derry Moore/Architectural Digest

The Prince at the entrance of the Tapestry Room in Dumfries House, Scotland. (Photograph: Derry Moore/Architectural Digest)

“I do think it is beginning to achieve what I had originally hoped,” says The Prince. He highlights the good works on the estate: the restoration of the house itself and its 2,000 acres of gardens; the creation of an outdoors centre; a cookery school; and soon-to-be-converted cottages into guest rooms for weddings. These form part of a comprehensive business, social and environmental approach designed to kick-start regeneration in impoverished East Ayrshire, where mining communities once flourished.

“Just by getting things done on the estate, by bringing the house back to life, by starting to build different new things and do up buildings, using them for skills training purposes and raising aspirations and self-esteem – all the things that I wanted to do – bit by bit the atmosphere, that feeling or whatever begins to spread locally. Hopefully, it gradually starts to feed into rising levels of self-confidence.”

Dumfries House is employing and training many young people who come from families with three generations of unemployed. The boys and girls visibly warm to The Prince. He is on first-name terms, knows their families and monitors their progress from apprentice to (usually) full-time employment. He is a good listener and his attention to detail, said to have been inherited from The Queen Mother, is striking. He peppers staff with questions, from the precise placement of trees to the correct pruning of the rhododendrons.

The Prince’s ambitions for reviving the community are practical. He is creating an engineering centre at Dumfries House to revive skills in an industry that he considers vital to the country. Inspiration came from a workshop he convened for headteachers from all over Scotland. “There was this extraordinary feeling among the teachers that engineering is dirty, filthy and manufacturing was dead and gone, all that. So, funnily enough, these workshops helped to bring greater awareness to the possibilities and potential.”

Prince of Wales©Goff Photos

The Prince during a visit to the Building Research Establishment in Watford in 2009 (Photograph: Goff Photos)

The clocks tinkle insistently on the quarter hour. One final question on Scotland: towards the end of our three-hour tour, I noticed part of the walled garden was shaped in the form of a Union Jack. I ask whether this was a subtle hint about Scottish independence.

“No. I just think it looked rather fun. It’s fun the way you lay it out like that.”

An awkward silence follows.

LB: “I had to ask . . . ”

HRH (nervous smile): “Naughty, naughty. You might very well think so. I couldn’t possibly comment.”

Suitably reprimanded, I turn to one of The Prince’s better-known projects: the planned town of Poundbury in Dorset. Designed on new urbanist principles in the late 1980s by the Luxembourg architect Léon Krier, the development has drawn criticism for mixing too many different continental styles and using building materials inconsistent with the traditions of nearby Dorchester. The Prince describes Poundbury as the most comprehensive effort to put into practice the principles laid out in his book, A Vision of Britain (1989). This embraced not only classical tradition (exemplified, for example, by John Nash, who designed Clarence House) but also the development of affordable housing, which he insisted should be “pepper-potted” throughout Poundbury.

“I was accused of going back to, I don’t know what, the Middle Ages. Extraordinary when you think about it. All the volume housebuilders said it couldn’t be done. They wouldn’t be able to sell their houses next to people on the lowest incomes. But it has worked and I think that approach has helped to add social as well as environmental and, funnily enough, commercial value.”

Poundbury is planned to grow in four phases to a total of 2,500 dwellings and a population of 6,000. The Prince says the building costs are roughly 10 per cent higher than average market prices. But Poundbury offers long-term value in the same vein as other areas. He cites Mayfair, St James’s, Bath and Edinburgh – all similar traditional high-density locations but all, admittedly, pretty exclusive.

I was accused of going back to the Middle Ages . . . all the volume housebuilders said it couldn’t be done

For The Prince, the critical element in urban development is that architects and planners respect what he describes as grammatical ground rules. These rules underpin the business of geometry and universal principles going back thousands of years.

“Architecture, the building process, was based on a profound understanding of the fact that man is the measure of all things, so that our proportions are related to universal proportions.”

Islamic architecture follows these principles, he says. So do all the greatest buildings and developments. Together they create a sense of wellbeing and harmony. “Once you get out of human proportions and once you start undoing the grammatical syntax, how can you write – you know that better than me – decent English unless you have some idea of the grammatical context, punctuation, for instance? It’s exactly the same in the building process.”

What are examples of grammatical and ungrammatical architecture in Britain today? The man who described the planned but subsequently aborted National Gallery extension as a “monstrous carbuncle” demurs.

I try one more time for examples of the timeless approach. The Prince mentions Georgian terraces. How about Regent’s Park? “You could [say], yes.” And how about examples of what he calls “gobbledegook”?

None is forthcoming, none will be. The Prince knows by now what makes a good headline. Then he concedes by way of explanation: “It’s the fact that nothing is placed in relation to anything else. Everywhere you go, you find buildings plonked in mad angles to each other, great open spaces, and there’s no coherence, there’s no rhythm any more, there’s no sense of the street.”

We turn to the particular problem of London. Housing prices are rising into the stratosphere. Young professionals can barely afford to rent, let alone buy. Low-income housing is either pushed into anonymous sink estates or exiled to the suburban periphery.

The Prince commissioned a report – through an organisation called Create Streets – which advocates what he describes as the “mid-rise solution. This features a more “traditional and timeless approach” using the mansion block, the square and the terrace.

The Prince believes mid-rise developments create density, an alternative to tower blocks cut off from ground level. These, he says, form part of the “horrendous, soulless peripheral estates of the 1950s, 60s and 70s which created ghettos with no identifiable personal space and no streets”.

If you stick to your guns, sometimes 35 years later, whatever it is, you suddenly find that some of these things are starting to appeal to people

He continues, speaking with a quiet intensity: “There’s a huge opportunity now to bring these features back in a way that would provide people with that walkable, liveable, mixed-use, mixed-income development which will provide great opportunities for people to live in central London.”

I am tempted to suggest that Clarence House, indeed Buckingham Palace, are good examples of mid-rise development in urban centres, but that would surely be lèse-majesté. And anyway, The Prince is pretty unstoppable at this point.

Create Streets says it may be possible to create 300,000 to 400,000 new homes in London just by regenerating current housing estates. Ever the pioneer, The Prince is now talking to Richmond Council about a project to regenerate an area around Ham Close.

There are obstacles: people are worried about extra traffic, for example. “The key is to plan it and phase it and ensure that people can actually come back and live there again when it’s all been finished, to create a genuine mixed community.”

Alongside the passion, there are hints of world-weariness born of being denounced or lampooned by modernists, republicans and others, none of whom is much interested in the fact The Prince has a vast experience of the world. Now in his seventh decade, he has visited more than 100 countries and had intimate conversations with hundreds of world leaders. His favourite exchanges, I am later informed, were with Harold Macmillan (who, twice on request, gave him a valuable reading list), François Mitterrand and Richard Nixon, who advised the young prince to be “a presence” but also not avoid controversy altogether.

Today, after more than his fair share of controversies, ranging from his private (and subsequently disclosed) communications with ministers to his views on modern architecture, The Prince says: “All I can do is try to demonstrate what I mean on the ground in a different way. If people don’t like it, they don’t like it. But those who do, maybe there’s something there for them to pick up.

“The problem in my case is what I was trying to suggest 35 years ago or something, 40 years ago, wasn’t considered, I suppose, as anyway sensible whatsoever. I don’t know. Anyway, it wasn’t very easy, but if you stick to your guns, sometimes 35 years later, whatever it is, you suddenly find that some of these things are starting to appeal to people.”

He singles out the biological sewage treatment system installed at his official country residence in Highgrove. “Of course it was ridiculed and rubbished and everything else, but of course suddenly everybody wanted to come and look at it . . . Now you find them all over the shop.”

All the schools of architecture and planning and engineering, they are all still teaching exactly the same approach only with sustainable knobs on, so-called

Another tribute to persistence is the anaerobic digester on the edge of Poundbury, now providing power to a number of houses and which is the first gas-to-grid in the UK. All sorts of people have come to take a look, he says, “and there are 20 other schemes now about to go ahead in the UK”.

Seeing is Believing is The Prince’s motto and the name of his 1990 programme that has involved, in his words, spending much of the past quarter century dragging business leaders around Britain to see what is actually happening on the ground.

“It just depends endlessly on asking people to come along and have a look at it. I do this at Dumfries House . . . I promise you nine times out of 10, they come away thinking, gracious me, I had no idea, blah, blah, blah, and getting enthused.”

So does he see himself as the prophet welcomed back from the wilderness?

“It’s not for me to say . . . but it doesn’t feel like that.”

That very week in early June, when I interviewed The Prince, President Barack Obama directed the US to cut emissions from power plants by 30 per cent by 2030. Surely the world is finally moving his way?

He grudgingly agrees, adding that, in the built environment, it is still “hugely difficult”.

Why hugely?

“Because the conventional outlook is very pervasive and very strong and, of course, all the schools of architecture and planning and engineering, they are all still teaching exactly the same approach only with sustainable knobs on, so-called.”

The Prince cites the Building Research Establishment in Watford, near London, and the “Natural House” built out of special materials and in careful proportions to allow people to achieve a sense of greater harmony and wellbeing.

. . . people have just chucked nature out the door, which is coming back to bite us and kick us in the teeth, big time

“All that’s been going on for the last 100 years is that people have just chucked nature out the door, which is coming back to bite us and kick us in the teeth, big time.”

After the harrumph, the philosophical flourish: “What I have been trying to remind people of for the past 40 years is that you can’t operate an entire conventional system, whether it’s economics, business or the way we live and surround ourselves, what we eat, without recognising that there are severe negative externalities that are not being accounted for.”

Is this The Prince’s familiar blast against modernity. Is he – I steel myself – anti-modern?

A mild royal flush follows. “I don’t think it is. I think it’s being modern having to reflect the realities that we are human. But the danger is that we think we’ve become, or have the capacity to be, our own technology – which we don’t.”

The Prince’s vision for Britain in 2014 is unashamedly high-minded. It calls on us to blend the spiritual and technological to better reflect our own humanity, not just in our daily lives but also in the buildings that we populate. We are all ultimately seeking to rediscover the rhythm now at risk in the age of the machine.

Conscious that this all might sound a little new age, The Prince asks for a little more time to talk about another development about which he is proud: the regeneration of Middleport Pottery in Stoke.

“It took an enormous amount of work and effort and despair and frustration because you go around in circles and difficult people who become more difficult . . . and then you have to start all over again . . . So these things are not easy and take years off one’s life, if you really want to know, and reduce one’s level of sanity, leaving one sometimes in a rather frazzled condition.”

Nevertheless 50 jobs were saved, and 30 new ones created. It is small scale but it is a start.

I ask The Prince how he will ensure that his many charities, including The Prince’s Regeneration Trust, will continue when – and I phrase the question carefully – he assumes wider duties as King.

“Well, if we would have any chance of anything continuing, then you have to endow the main ones, somehow. But then it’s . . . well I don’t know. You never know, there may be another member of my family who might be interested.”

A royal pause ensues. “But they might not.”

The wording is vague but the intent is unambiguous. The Prince is determined to leave his mark in town and countryside and he will not end his endeavours when King. For The Prince of Wales, this is a moral and spiritual struggle which can make a difference to ordinary lives. He just wishes, politely, that people would sit up and listen.

Slideshow: The Prince of Wales’s life in pictures

Image of The Prince at Highgrove House extracted from ‘Highgrove: A Garden Celebrated’ by HRH The Prince of Wales and Bunny Guinness, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £35

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Letters in response to this article:

A project’s success depends on participatory design / From Dr Mark A Wolfgram

Developers are fighting shy of zero-carbon housing / From Mr Christopher D Forrest

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