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'I defend people against property developers'

Prince's private secretary claims he opposed modernist design out of duty to make ordinary people's views heard

It is an unlikely claim for a prince who enjoys a £17m private annual income and employs 16 gardeners but Clarence House today said that Prince Charles believes it is his duty to defend "ordinary people" against profiteering property developers.

The claim was made as part of a fightback following a high court ruling that appeared to check the prince's ability to intervene in major planning decisions.

A judge ruled last week that the prince's campaign against the design of a redevelopment of the Chelsea barracks in London was "unwelcome". The judgment sparked criticism that Charles had overstepped his constitutional role by secretly lobbying at the highest levels against planning applications he disliked.

Today Sir Michael Peat, the prince's private secretary, claimed Charles opposed Lord Rogers' £3bn modernist designs because "it is part of the Prince of Wales' role and duty to make sure the views of ordinary people that might not otherwise be heard receive some exposure".

The prince wrote privately to Qatar's prime minister voicing his opposition to the plans for apartments on the Qatari-owned land. But far from acting in his own interests against designs, "he was only writing to the Qataris because he was asked to do so [by local residents]", Peat claimed. The emirate's state-owned developer scrapped the scheme after Charles had proposed an alternative design by Quinlan Terry, a classical architect he admires.

"For many developers, hearing the views of local residents is very unexpected and unwelcome," said Peat. "They are there just wanting to make money."

The claim that Charles is duty-bound to stand up for ordinary people's interests in disputes with major property developers came as it was announced that the prince earned a record £17.2m last year from the Duchy of Cornwall, a professionally managed £664m property empire run solely to fund his lifestyle which has been criticised for failing to listen to the views of its tenants on new developments.

"It is frustrating to hear he thinks he is on the side of ordinary people against developers, because villagers and the parish council here have sent him dozens of letters over the last few years," said Jane Giddins, parish council chairwoman at Newton St Loe, a duchy-owned village near Bath, where the duchy has been planning 2,000 new homes on neighbouring fields.

"We have only ever received replies from the Duchy of Cornwall, fobbing us off. People in this village are at best bemused and at worst feel let down by His Royal Highness. No one can understand why he has not been listening."

Opponents of his interventions believe the prince cannot claim to represent ordinary people because he cannot be held accountable by them.

"Any individual who feels strongly about representing the people should stand for election," Lord Rogers said last night. "There is a carefully organised democratic system of electing councillors who appoint planning officers and there is a process which allows the public to hold open meetings where they can air their feelings. All of that happened over the four years' planning process for Chelsea barracks."

Peat said Charles only intervened on Chelsea barracks after local residents approached him about their concerns.

"They had commissioned Quinlan Terry to propose an alternative design which they sent to the Prince of Wales," said Peat. "They asked him to do what he could to ensure their views received exposure. Their views represented the views of the majority. They asked whether he might be able to raise the issue with the Qataris and so he did."

But Charles' letter to the Qatari prime minister on 1 March 2009 contains no reference to any local opposition to the scheme or anyone asking him to write on their behalf. Charles told Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani he was writing because "quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans". He indicated he was motivated by personal concerns, saying: "For the entire duration of my life we have had to witness the destruction of so many parts of London, with one more 'brutalist' development after another."

Even though the existence of the prince's letter decrying the scheme only emerged in full in a high court dispute between the developers after the designs were scrapped, Peat denied the prince was trying to secretly undermine the project.

"He wasn't writing and expressing views that were private and weren't in the public domain," he said. "He was representing what the local residents were saying all along, so it was well-aired."

Campaigners for a democratically elected head of state said the royal household's claim that the prince has a duty to get involved in planning breaches constitutional principles.

"The role he is making for himself contradicts a well-established constitutional principle that the monarch and the heir to the throne keep out of politics, and that includes planning, for the very good reason that they are not accountable," said Graham Smith, campaigns director of Republic.

"It also appears he is only the people's representative when it coincides with his own views. Someone genuinely representing ordinary people would do so regardless of his personal views." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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