Poundbury: How does the King's vision stack up in a housing crisis?

Thirty years ago King Charles put his thoughts on housing and urban planning to the test and started building Poundbury. What does the experiment tell us about Britain’s housing shortage?


Images: Getty/Duchy of Cornwall

Millions of Brits will head to street parties to mark King Charles’s coronation – but what better place to do it than on the streets he has moulded with his own hands? Poundbury is King Charles’s pet project. Located on Duchy of Cornwall land just west of Dorchester in Dorset, the monarch has spent more than three decades carving out his vision of what Britain should look like across its 400 acres. 

A model village designed to show how building development can enhance the English countryside, to “break the mould of conventional housing development”, as the King put it, he has been overseeing Poundbury’s development since 1993. Originally laid out by architect Léon Krier, the project is due to be completed in 2027, with 2,700 homes built, meaning one for every job in the area. 

To some detractors Poundbury is a sort of “feudal Disneyland”, a prince’s plaything existing outside the realms of reality. But Poundbury’s unique royal origins make it a place of intrigue and curiosity in the context of the long-running housing crisis.  

Françoise Ha is one of around 4,500 people living there and is chair of the Poundbury Residents Association. Ahead of King Charles’s coronation, she is busy. 

“It’s interesting seeing which countries are interested,” Ha tells The Big Issue. “Certain countries like France are very interested, Canada, the Dutch, America as well. “I don’t think people are particularly royalist or republican here. I think we’re here because it’s a beautiful place to live and the vision that he’s made is quite different from other places. 

“Poundbury is an interesting idea. It’s been like Marmite before because it was green fields, but I think it’s good at what it’s trying to do.” 

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What Poundbury is trying to do is be more than the sole preserve of the rich. 

Sure, take a cursory browse on Rightmove and you’ll see the first-floor apartment overlooking Queen Mother Square on the market for a cool £1.25 million. But a couple of pages later there are sub-£200k flats, with some available for shared ownership. One of the principles behind Poundbury is a mix of affordable homes alongside less affordable properties, and 35 per cent of the homes being built are affordable housing for rent, shared ownership or discounted sales. 

The Duchy also has a Discount to Open Market scheme running in Poundbury, which allows first-time buyers to purchase properties at a 25-30 per cent discount which is then passed on to the next owner. 

Houses in Poundbury
Poundbury, Dorchester, Image: CG Fy & Son

There is a mix in the styles of houses on offer too. Take a walk around Poundbury and King Charles’s beloved classical architectural style is on show alongside country cottages built to echo the local area, mixed in with Italian villa-inspired homes. The mix attracts a similarly varied populace of people. This is key to Poundbury’s success and is one of the areas where it has been able to innovate, says Ben Murphy, the Duchy of Cornwall’s estates director. 

“To look back, it’s quite shocking to think now that Poundbury was the first place that integrated affordable housing with market housing. That has influenced national planning policy,” says Murphy. “Developers would think, ‘Oh no, it will detract from the value of private homes’;  perhaps there was a stigma and I think it’s been proven to be untrue and incorrect. 

“All the places that really work well, that have a strong social cohesion, are diverse. It brings vibrancy and vitality to a place and I think it benefits the community at large by having a well-balanced mix of tenures and people from all walks of life. I’m very proud that we delivered 35 per cent affordable housing but when they’re not just integrated but indistinguishable, I don’t think you can really underestimate how important that is.” 

King Charles Poundbury
Then-Duke of Cornwall Charles was pictured welcoming a family into their home as part of the Guinness Partnership’s 250th affordable home in Poundbury in 2015. Image: Duchy of Cornwall

Ha has lived in Poundbury for five years after making the move from Exeter. She has yet to bump into King Charles while walking around town but tells The Big Issue “he likes to know what’s going on”. But she agrees that variety is the spice of life in Poundbury. 

“It’s a very cosmopolitan place, compared to other places,” says Ha. “You’ve got people from Northampton, from Scotland, you’ve got people from all around that are coming here to retire or because they just think it’s a nice place to be for families as well. I think there is a difference between perception and reality here. It’s supposed to be a place where people of all generations can live together.” 

King Charles has never been shy about chiming in with his thoughts on architecture. He famously raised eyebrows when he described an expansion to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle” while addressing the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1984. 

Four years later he wrote and presented his first documentary, A Vision of Britain, showcasing his housing ideas for the future to millions watching on the BBC. 

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In a book of the same name that was published the following year, the future king says he was moved to share his thoughts after seeing the “wanton destruction which has taken place in the name of progress”.  

“The sheer, unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings, and of housing estates” raised his ire. As did the “dreariness and heartlessness” of urban planning. 

King Charles, it is fair to say, does not care much for modernist design. Neither has he been shy to intervene in planning decisions. 

In 2009 the then-Prince of Wales was accused by Ruth Reed, RIBA president at the time, of “an abuse of his position” for attempts to block planning decisions, including plans to develop the former Chelsea Barracks in West London. But it’s the foundations laid out in A Vision of Britain that underpin Poundbury to this day. While much of its design ethos looks to the past, Poundbury has also been a demonstration of having amenities within a 15-minute walking distance. 

The idea of a ‘15-minute city’ has proven controversial in recent months with conspiracy theorists painting the idea as a war on cars or a method to control people’s movements. That’s nonsense, of course. But the issue was on the mind of notoriously green-focused King Charles 30 years ago. 

Original architect's plans
Architect Leon Krier’s original Poundbury plans (1988)

“It’s not about denying the existence of cars or containing people within an area, it’s more about giving people choice,” says Murphy. When you live in Poundbury we’re just saying, chances are you don’t need one because we’ve everything you need – offices, retail, restaurants, cafes, a pub, a doctor’s surgery – and it’s all accessible.” 

 However, there is something of a catch for residents – the Duchy’s hand is never far away.  If you want to live in Poundbury you are subject to certain rules designed to keep it beautiful. 

Want to take your rubbish out to be collected? It has to go out the back of your home, not the front. Want to paint your front door a different colour? You’d best ask the Duchy for permission and, even then, you’ll only have a choice of a few approved colours. Want to swap the wooden window frames for PVC? No chance. 

“You have to be careful that it’s not going to be an issue for you and if you think it will be, then maybe it’s not going to be the right place for you,” says Ha. “There are people who come here because they want that uniformity. They want certain rules in place and they’ve been in places where they didn’t have them and they were frustrated.” 

Aerial view of poundbury
An aerial view of Poundbury. Photo: Duchy of Cornwall

But what can other areas of the UK learn from Poundbury? Murphy tells The Big Issue that building quality homes even if it means a wait for profit is fundamental to an area’s success. Perhaps that’s easier for an operation with the resources of the Duchy of Cornwall than it is for a major housebuilder with shareholders to answer to. But, then again, perhaps not. 

“It’s totally scalable. I mean, it’s really just taking the lessons of the past about what we know and love about our historic towns and cities, what makes a successful place,” says Murphy. “It’s not really been a model followed by the volume house builders in the UK because they’re just not set up as businesses to deliver a mix of uses and they’re looking at a much shorter return on investments on an annual or even quarterly basis. 

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“Whether it be a local authority or a developer, if they are more patient about their capital return, they will reap greater dividends. We are a land and property business, it’s not a charitable endeavour, but I think his Majesty absolutely understood that if you build quality and deliver local needs it will create value and commercial success. You’ve just got to have the stomach for it. You’ve got to be a bit more patient about those returns.” 

The Duchy of Cornwall is trying to demonstrate Poundbury’s scalability firsthand with another planned community in Nansledan on the outskirts of Newquay in Cornwall. Dubbed “Poundbury’s big brother” by Murphy, 630 homes have currently been built in the development over the past five years and it is projected to be completed in around 2045, offering 4,000 homes and 4,000 jobs.  

Murphy says it is an attempt to deal with Cornwall’s well-documented shortage of affordable housing. 

“We’re very much bolstering the town of Newquay and making sure that we remain part of the solution when it comes to the housing crisis,” he adds. 

For Ha, it’s clear what other places could learn: “For me, it’s building beautifully. I think there are too many places that aren’t built with beauty in mind. They’re built with profit in mind. 

“I think Poundbury has a lot of thought that has gone into the architecture, how it looks and how it feels for people. If people are happy in a place, they’re going to want to do more to support their community.” 

In this sense, King Charles’s vision for Britain has already had a big impact on housing policy. Housing Secretary Michael Gove said last year that “people do not want ugliness imposed on them” and vowed to step in to block ugly housing developments. Last month he did just that, blocking a plan for 164 homes in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the Crane Valley, near Tunbridge Wells, citing the “generic” look of the designs. 

Perhaps the dream of building beautiful homes is the clearest sign of all that King Charles’s vision for Britain and strong views on housing are alive and well outside Poundbury.  

It might not solve the housing crisis, but it will make a street party more pleasant at least.

What land do the Royals own?

The royal family are significant landowners across the United Kingdom with a mix of properties that come with the privilege of monarchy as well as private investments. 

Map of royal-owned property in the Uk

Perhaps the two most well-known royal estates, Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace, are not technically owned by the royals, they are owned by the sovereign in right of the crown. 

The Crown Estate manages the bulk of land and property for the reigning monarch and pays revenue to the Treasury each year. That payment was £312.7 million in 2021/22 with revenue coming from the likes of business parks, logistics, warehousing, mixed-use developments as well as 17 retail and leisure destinations in city centres and out-of-town locations in England.  

The Crown Estate owns most of Regent Street and St James’s in Central London, plus Windsor Castle and 191,000 acres of rural land with a total overall property value of £15.6 billion. 

There is potential for nearly 20,000 homes to be built on urban fringe and rural locations operated by the Crown Estate over the next 20 years, according to the organisation’s accounts.   

Balmoral castle
Balmoral Castle. Image: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy Stock Photo

King Charles also owns property to the value of £330m, according to a recent Guardian investigation. He owns Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands and 53,684 acres of land on the estate, valued at £80m by an expert working with The Guardian. He also owns Sandringham Castle in Norfolk and its 19,768-acre estate, with rental properties and farmland valued at £250m. There are 300 rental properties, worth about £75m, The Guardian claims.  

The Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall both manage privately owned land and property for the royals with the former set up to create an income for the monarch and the latter for the heir to the throne, now Prince William. 

The Duchy of Lancaster owns 45,667 acres of rural land across England and Wales with commercial, agricultural and residential properties – the majority located in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire. 

Meanwhile, the Duchy of Cornwall has 129,606 acres of land in England and Wales, much of it farmland and commercial lets with 260 farms, 2,640 tenancies and £58m in development land. 

Together the land owned by the two Duchies makes up 0.2 per cent of total land in the UK and Northern Ireland. While the royals couldn’t single-handedly end the housing crisis, ramping up house-building efforts could certainly make a difference.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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