A SUGGESTION that the Duke of Northumberland is planning to turn the county into an enormous housing estate has been dismissed by Northumberland Estates.

Fears regarding the Duke's plans were raised by Felton residents last week at a meeting called to establish the Estates' intentions for a development at Mouldshaugh, where a planning application has been submitted to convert a farmstead into four houses and agricultural buildings into light industrial units.

Villagers' suspicions have been raised by the Duke's current plan to build a major new road across an open field to provide access to the relatively minor development, leading some to believe that the farm conversion is merely the tip of the iceberg.

At a special meeting called by Felton Parish Council to discuss the matter, attended by district council principal planning officer Peter Biggers and some 50-odd residents, tempers were frayed and there were strong feelings of mistrust toward Northumberland Estates and a lack of confidence in the council's ability to halt what was perceived as inappropriate development.

It was explained that a representative of Northumberland Estates had been invited to the meeting and had declined to attend but would liaise with the parish council.

One Felton resident summed up the general feeling of the meeting and said: "Most of the people here may share my suspicion that, whatever the planning department may have in mind,Northumberland Estates have long-term ulterior motives in this and the idea that they are putting in this very expensive new road for such a small development, which is highly speculative surely."

He continued: "I think there'sa residual feeling of suspicion that the motives for putting this road in are not as stated in relation to the small development."

Mr Biggers said that at present' any further development would not be able to take place but, as the local plan is under review, he was unable to say when or if the situation would be likely to change.

Speaking to the Gazette this week, Northumberland Estates estate manager Rory Wilson said it was entirely possible that there would be future development on the land at Felton, but only in the long term.

He said: "What's going to be the future in Felton, will it expand or will it stay the same, it's a question for the local plan. We think modest growth in Felton would be good but whether it's in ten or 50 years, it doesn't matter to us."

He continued: "If we are looking to the future, if the local plan says Felton should have 20 or 30 houses, we will use this road to service them, so in a sense we are preparing for the future."

Mr Wilson also confirmed that the Estates had wanted a roundabout at the access for the recently approved McDonald's and sports centre site at Willowburn Avenue in Alnwick in order to provide future access to housing, and said he thought it was short-sighted to think otherwise as this was the logical place for development in Alnwick.

He pointed out that this, among other things, was part of the Estates' plans for a sustainable rural economy and attacked the prevailing negative view of change.

He said: "What's going to replace agriculture, who's going to employ people and provide the property, who are these people, that's what interests us. We can't possibly do all that but we will try and do our best."

Mr Wilson cited Lee Moor Business Park at Rennington as an example of the Estates' commitment to investing in the local economy and assisting in agricultural diversification and said they were encouraging such schemes at Felton and Lesbury.

He also pointed to the Castle Gardens and Aln Valley Railway projects as examples of how Alnwick was developing and said there was a need for the town to grow, which would inevitably mean building houses.

However, he said any building would be sensitively carried out and sympathetic to the local environment and revealed that there would soon be an application submitted to open a sandstone quarry and therefore promote the use of local materials.

Although there was some support for the Mouldshaugh development at last week's meeting, one resident sounded a final note of caution. He said: "I have had previous dealings with Northumberland Estates, I've had to move three times because of what they've been doing around Northumberland. I would advise anyone living here to think very, very carefully where they buy their house."