Mega-rich Duke accused of fresh plot to ‘bully’ allotment holders off his land

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The Duke of Northumberland wants to make space for build-to-let flats (Picture: Bruce Adams/Getty)

Allotment holders who defeated one of the UK’s richest landowners in a ‘peasants’ revolt’ have accused him of renewed efforts to ‘bully’ them off their plots.

Ralph Percy, the 12th Duke of Northumberland, is battling opposition from the gardeners, councillors and hundreds of residents to build 80 flats on part of his Grade I listed Syon Park estate in west London.

He wants to use the income from renting out the flats to fund £13 million of repairs at Syon House, which has been used to film scenes for blockbuster period dramas including Downton Abbey and Bridgerton.

His planning application was refused in October after Hounslow Council voted it down as a loss of open space.

But the Duke, through his company Northumberland Estates, is now trying to overturn the decision by claiming the allotments are ‘no longer operational’ and so ‘offer no recreational amenity value’.

‘That’s absolute nonsense’, says Stephen Hurton, 48, chair of the Park Road Allotment Association, which has armed itself with photos of local families tending to this summer’s blooming crops.

Several plots are currently abandoned and overrun with weeds, he admitted, but only thanks to a seven-year plot to ‘make the site look unused and going to rack and ruin’.

The site, which backs onto the walls of the Duke’s 200-acre estate, was leased to the council in 1917 by his ancestors to grow food for wounded war veterans.

The Duke’s family wealth has been estimated at around £400 million (Picture: Bruce Adams)

The growers deny the estate’s claims that their allotments are ‘no longer operational’

Families say they’re ‘keen as mustard’ to carry on despite threats to close the site

It was later divided into 37 allotments that were leased out to the community for as little as £1 a year before Northumberland Estates took over again in 2015 with plans to build on them.

The growers say the company then halved the length of their 12-month growing leases and refused to re-let vacated plots to new families.

Mr Hurton continued: ‘A six-month lease is fine if you’re growing radishes, but there’s no point planting something like broccoli – let alone perennial crops like asparagus or fruit bushes which take three years to fruit.

‘Some of the growers left the site because they couldn’t cope with that insecurity, while others have kept their plots but are choosing not to grow because of the stress of the situation.

‘They’re letting it go derelict by design so that when the inspectors go around we’ve got to fill in the picture.

‘And they’re trying to get us on board with their plans by telling us they could close the site at any time and we’d get 100% of nothing. It’s bullying.’

The Syon Park Greenhouse is one of the estate’s many sources of revenue (Picture: Getty)

The estate has been used to film blockbuster period dramas (Picture: Netflix)

Last year saw filming for Netflix hit Bridgerton in the grand conservatory (Picture: Netflix)

In 2018, an attempt by the Duke to shrink the allotments and develop the site failed after councillors ruled against it and a public inquiry by the Planning Inspectorate rejected his appeal.

The amended plan submitted last year said 40% of the new homes would be let at affordable rates, with some reserved for workers at a nearby hospital. It was recommended for approval by planning officers.

After receiving 900 letters of opposition from locals, councillors agreed it would unacceptably downsize the allotments by three-quarters and ‘kill off’ the wildlife that thrives around them.

A letter sent to the growers at the time said that if their interfering ‘leads to the application being refused then the allotments will not reopen’.

The Duke’s appeal, lodged this April, also argues the development will not destroy ‘publicly accessible’ space as the allotments ‘were only accessible to allotment holders and their friends and family’.

The Duke’s main home is Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (Picture: Bruce Adams)

But the site frequently welcomes other visitors, according to Grace Gray, 80, who has grown fruit and vegetables there for more than 30 years.

She said: ‘We have plant swaps when we open the gates and invite locals in to come in and help themselves to the plants we have left over, we have bug hunts, easter egg hunts, open days, educational trips, litter picks. People can walk their dogs here.

‘It’s a beautiful nature reserve. You’re always surrounded by birds, we have ponds filled with newts and frogs. I’ve counted at least five species of bats.’

Park Road’s status as an Asset of Community Value was renewed during the pandemic after the council found ‘evidence of strong local support’ for it as a ‘major’ source of ‘social wellbeing’ and biodiversity.

Ms Gray added: ‘We’re doing an awful lot for the community and we would like to do a lot more. If the allotments were full more people who live in the area would have the opportunity to bring their families.’

Grace Gray says the growers ‘do an awful lot for the community’ and want to keep helping

The site has repeatedly been praised as treasure which benefits the whole community

Councillors say there is ‘absolutely no need’ to build on a wildlife haven with brownfield sites available

Opponents have questioned why the feud is financially worthwhile to the Duke, whose family is richer than the Queen with an estimated fortune of around £400 million.

Labour councillor Salman Shaheen, who is Hounslow’s Cabinet Member for Parks and Leisure, said: ‘The Duke’s representatives admitted to us that they wouldn’t let Syon House fall down and would find the money elsewhere.

‘There are tons of brownfield sites in the area with derelict buildings just waiting to be used.

‘There’s asolutely no need to build housing on green space at all.’

The estate’s request to have its appeal heard privately through ‘written representation’ despite the previous public inquiry is an attempt to ‘minimise public scrutiny’, Mr Shaheen added.

The Syon estate has a range of revenue streams including visitors, food fairs and a garden centre (Picture: Getty)

Colin Barnes of Northumberland Estates said: ‘From the outset we have said it is our intention to preserve allotments on the site as well as providing much needed affordable housing, including homes for workers at the adjacent hospital.

‘Any allotment holder who held a licence previously would have the opportunity to secure a plot on the site that suited their needs. Only around a third of the allotment area was in use prior to our planning application and we genuinely believe our proposals strike the right balance between making good use of part of the site for much-needed homes as well as preserving allotments and green space.

‘We informed the current allotment holders that licences would not be renewed prior to the council’s rejection of our application against their own officials’ guidance. We were, however, happy for them to harvest their plots while the appeal process continued.

‘It is perfectly normal practice to submit an appeal in writing and how the process is heard is a matter for the Planning Inspectorate to determine. We would of course like to reach agreement with allotment holders and our discussions with them have been amicable.’

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