An experiment in housing design and urban living in south-west England celebrates its 25th anniversary this year with critics still divided about its success.
Poundbury in Dorset was announced in 1987 as an urban extension of Dorchester, a town dating from Roman times and located 130 miles south-west of London. Yet this was to be no typical late 20th-century suburb. Its 400-acre site was owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, an estate with the Prince of Wales as its head. Poundbury was to be a town in its own right, overseen by the prince with the aim of “breaking the conventional mould of the way we’ve been building and designing places for the past century”.
The prince appointed Léon Krier, a Luxembourg-born architect who supported the US-led New Urbanism movement. This argued for sustainable communities with limited reliance on cars and an emphasis on small, dense developments where varied property types would co-exist with shops and social facilities.
Krier created an ambitious plan for a town of 2,500 homes, two-thirds of which would be privately owned and the remainder rented to local people through housing associations to create a social mix. Most properties would be in tree-lined terraces or crescents, while streets would be protected from the modern blight of car parking with vehicles confined to designated spaces to the rear of adjacent homes, shops and offices.
Properties would have to meet the prince’s tough building regulations. Utility pipes were sunk into channels in gardens rather than on main roads, cable TV was permitted but satellite dishes were not, and energy efficiency measures such as condensing boilers, photo-voltaic tiles and ground-heat recovery systems were standard.
Those ambitions are still respected at Poundbury although the town has been affected by the downturn. Agents say house values have dropped 10-15 per cent since 2007 and the overall development – originally due for completion in 2015 – has another 10 years of work ahead. So far 1,100 homes are finished, 250 are under construction and another 1,000 will follow.
However, some critics have long believed that Prince Charles’s vision of the future looks too much like the past. Some of the properties look Georgian, others reflect the arts and crafts era, and Victorian terraces pop up too. The new town hall, for example, is based on a pastiche of period Cotswolds buildings.
Justin McGuirk, former editor of design magazine Icon, called one Poundbury building “an escapist fantasy” and accused the prince of “indulging architectural visions”. Stephen Bayley, a cultural commentator, says the place is a “sterile, suffocating dormitory town”, noting that many younger residents commute to towns such as Yeovil rather than, as the architect had envisaged, working in Poundbury itself.
Despite the criticism, estate agents claim Poundbury’s homes have sold more rapidly and at higher prices than those in adjoining Dorchester. Rightmove, the sales portal, says an average terraced house in Poundbury costs £305,358 whereas in Dorchester the cost is £228,270.
Margaret Morrissey, a retired educationalist who moved to Poundbury in 2007 after 15 years in Dorchester, says: “There’s an active community, the population is more mixed than many believe, the social housing has been well integrated and it’s easy to get around on a new electric bus system.”
There are downsides. “It would be nice to have larger gardens and you can get fed up of the building work. But you know what Poundbury is when you move in, so it’s part of the deal,” she says. The town’s wide, clear roads have been used by joyriders and its green spaces have attracted illegal squatting by travellers on at least three occasions, although the residents’ association stresses such issues are typical of any modern community.
Julian Bunkall of estate agent Jackson-Stops & Staff says most buyers are retired owner-occupiers or investors who are attracted to Poundbury because it is “stylish, convenient and manageable”. “There’s a wide variety of styles of property from apartments to two, three, four and five-bedroom houses. There is quite a lot up to £500,000 but much less over £500,000,” says Paul Chivers of Greenslade Taylor Hunt, another local agency.
The most expensive homes on sale include a five-bedroom Georgian-style house built in 2004 with a landscaped garden (£575,000 through Domvs). The same agent is selling an octagonal-shaped detached three-storey house, also with five bedrooms and with Japanese-influenced landscaping, for £535,000.
All the homes here exist cheek-by-jowl with other properties so buyers seeking more space and privacy must look beyond Poundbury’s boundaries.
Savills is selling a nine-bedroom Elizabethan manor house in Dorchester for £1.75m. Buyers seeking new-builds with more modern designs than those in Poundbury may be interested in a £100m regeneration scheme in central Dorchester called Brewery Square; Savills is marketing a three-bedroom apartment here with panoramic views of the town and a 24-hour concierge service for £1.25m.
There are new properties under way in Poundbury too. Developer Morrish Homes is building four-bedroom mews-style houses (up to £565,000 through Connells). Specialist retirement developer McCarthy & Stone is planning a 62-apartment assisted-living block for over-seventies, to go on sale in 2013.
This influx of older residents, along with agents reporting an above-average number of mature buyers, may fuel the belief that Poundbury’s traditional values appeal only to a more senior subset of the population. Undeterred by such criticism, the Duchy is working on two other projects that espouse similar principles.
At the Newquay Growth Area, a coastal resort in the far south-west of England, work begins soon on a 30-year project for 3,000 homes, a biomass energy centre, a school, shops and business zones. Nearby at Truro, a joint venture by the Duchy, Cornwall Council and Waitrose supermarket will create 97 homes, an organic food centre and a transport hub.
The Duchy claims support for these schemes from local authorities and developers shows the prince’s approach to building is gaining momentum. Critics are less convinced, nick-naming the coastal scheme Surfbury and the supermarket-backed venture Trolleybury, and accusing both of turning the clock back in terms of design.
A quarter of a century on, the Poundbury approach remains divisive.
● Quiet, restrained design and tone
● Mix of apartment and house sizes
● Active community
● Streets appear empty during weekday working hours
● No property offers large grounds or great privacy
● Ongoing construction work
What you can buy for …
£100,000 A late-1990s one-bedroom retirement apartment
£1m Two substantial new five-bedroom terraced houses