Private houses in Poundbury, west of the town. Photo: View Pictures/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
POUNDBURY, England – If you follow the Queen Mother’s gaze, you’ll find it lands on the Duchess of Cornwall pub, where a £17.45 Burgundian venison or a £17.95 roast barramundi awaits. Too expensive? Perhaps you’d prefer the hummus flatbread, at a princely price of £9.50. Or, if none of that sounds appetizing, you’re in luck: there’s a fancy supermarket just across the road.
This is the geography of the center of Poundbury, an experimental planning scheme in the south of England which sits in the Duchy of Cornwall, a huge estate which until last week belonged to King Charles III. A huge statue of Queen Elizabeth II’s mother, after whom the square is named, stands on one corner of what is essentially a huge parking lot flanked by a wine shop and Waitrose, a top supermarket chain range appreciated by the British middle classes.
When West Dorset District Council decided to expand the town in the 1980s, Charles, then Prince of Wales, became its champion. Poundbury would be an example of New Urbanism – ‘it shouldn’t be another soulless housing estate with a business park added’, he said.
On the train to Poundbury I read that New Urbanism basically means urban planning around walkable neighborhoods, but standing in that square between the pub and the statue I couldn’t say it looks particularly walkable, because I ‘ve nearly been run over twice by cars that aren’t guided by traffic lights or road markings, but simply by the set of turns that are supposed to slow vehicles down. It may be a city intended for pedestrians, but many of these pedestrians seem to lead to where they want to walk from.
Elsewhere, the sidewalks are huge and protective; the covered walkways are wide and feel European, a far cry from the urban sprawl the former prince so clearly disapproves of. Poundbury isn’t unpopular if you read the local press, and there’s a sense of an attempt at utopia as you try to foil Charles’ vision. The roads form pentagons around the squares. This walkable city was apparently inspired by the orbit of Venus, flowers and Islamic art.
Around a third of housing in Poundbury is affordable rental or condominium housing, and the idea is that social housing is indistinguishable from private property. But the chiropractor, hearing care center and exercise classes for the over-50s strongly imply that this is not a town for young people. Poundbury magazine, published by the local community, advertises luxury road trips and wealth management advice. Data from the 2011 census indicates that 51.4% of residents are between the ages of 16 and 64 and 32.9% of them are over 65 years old.
I came across two locals from the nearby villages of Poundbury, who did not want to be identified because they thought what they had to say was too controversial. The town is equidistant between them, so they come here to hang out, but they would never live here: “You have to be a certain type,” said one of the women.
They told me about the woman who was scolded for having too many flowers in her front garden, and that they think many of those buying private properties here are retired, wanting to get out of the cities. They think a lot of the workers here don’t live in Poundbury, which could explain many of the cars, and ultimately that wasn’t the point of a town that was supposed to have homes next to businesses on the same street, independently providing work for his people.
There was once a factory here, they said, which provided over 100 jobs, but had moved further into Poole town. One of the women urged me rather ominously to “look at the house prices here and find out what the rules are for life here”.
Prices vary, but I’ve seen a bunch of properties advertised above £700,000. A local estate agent gave me a 52-page booklet on guidelines for living and building in Poundbury, where I learned that chimneys are not allowed to be “too big or chunky”, and that many of the ones I’ve seen are actually not remotely functional but are there for “traditional silhouettes”.
Paving on lawns or artificial turf in front gardens “will generally not be approved”, and things like doors and windows are advised to be repaired rather than replaced. In some cases, very specific materials which are not the cheapest to maintain or renovate are recommended, such as filling, which must not only be costly for private owners but also for the municipality which pays for all social housing. .
You can’t deny Poundbury is pretty, but it’s pretty in the suburban way of Edward Scissorhands suburbia would be if it had been shot in England. It’s twee and makes you feel like you can’t speak too loud. Poundbury has been described as a feudal Disneyland, but the monarchical references are very discreet outside of Queen Mother Square. Most of the road names have known royal references to the family’s racehorses or 19th century Dorset regimental battles, but other than that the only things here that suggest monarchist sentiments are a union flag solitary I found floating at half mast, bouquets of flowers for Queen Elizabeth II at the feet of her mother’s statue and the condolence sign outside Waitrose.
In the 52-page rulebook, I learn that solar panels are not allowed if visible from the street, and that the emergence of environmentally friendly technology “involving modifications of the outward appearance or potential nuisance to other residents will require regulator consent.” That doesn’t sit well with the renegade-royal Charles, who fights climate change, is known to be.
Poundbury is unfinished; construction is still rumbling near the edge of town which is expected to be completed by 2025. New housing is advertised in the local magazine. But this is no longer the concern of King Charles, since his son Prince William has now inherited the Duchy of Cornwall, and Poundbury with him. What Charles in turn inherited from his mother is vast, and on which he will not pay any inheritance tax.
You don’t see Charles’s name anywhere, and curious visitors might be disappointed; some German tourists lingered by the Queen Mother statue to take photos, half to observe the UK’s period of national mourning, but half because there isn’t really anything else to take pictures of here, apart from unmarked roads, fake chimneys and incomplete vision.