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English duke takes 'feudal' action over Spanish road

Britain's richest man accused of threatening villagers' livelihoods and environment

Giles Tremlett, La Garganta, Spain
Saturday September 27, 2003
The Guardian


The Duke of Westminster, Britain's richest man, is campaigning to divert a planned motorway away from his 15,000-hectare Spanish hunting estate to a nearby valley that is rich not just in game and protected species, but in human beings as well.

The fenced-off estate, in the peaceful pine and oak-covered Sierra Madrona hills of Ciudad Real province, central Spain, is at the centre of a growing row over the new motorway.

Campaigners accuse the duke of behaving like a "feudal lord" and using his financial and political clout to get Spanish authorities to divert the motorway to a longer, more expensive route that they say will do lasting damage to the local economy.

The duke's Spanish estate manager and his London office refused to comment yesterday.

"The decision about the route of the motorway is purely a matter for the government of Spain and we do not think it is appropriate to comment publicly," a statement from his office said.

Privately, however, the duke's Spanish managers say they have used only environmental arguments to dissuade authorities from putting the toll road through land that is rich in deer, wild boar and red-legged partridge. The estate is also a nesting and feeding ground for imperial eagles and black vultures.

The duke gained control of La Garganta some two years ago in what was reported to be a 2m agreement with the heirs of the previous owner, the Duke of Baviera, to lease it for 10 years.

Local people hoped his arrival might mark a change in the management style of an estate which, under the previous owner, had enraged them by fencing off the entire 15,000 hectares and blocking what old maps show to be more than a dozen public roads.

"One of them is the old Silver Road which was the route from Madrid to Andalucia in the times of Cervantes," explained Manuel Gil, a local environmental campaigner.

The duke, who combines administering his enormous wealth with work for numerous charities, had been expected to change the estate's reputation for confrontation. It had already seen clashes between its guards, local villagers and environmentalists.

Local conflict

But when the Spanish government decided it needed a new toll motorway linking Madrid with Cordoba, locals once again found themselves in conflict with their powerful neighbour.

Of two possible routes, local campaigners say that the straightest, cheapest and most obvious one went alongside a high-speed rail line that already goes through La Garganta.

"A barrier has already been formed by the railway line, so a motorway won't make such a big difference there," argued Mr Gil.

But the estate hired its own environmental consultants, who claimed La Garganta was of key ecological importance to the protected imperial eagles, among other creatures.

To the surprise and anger of local people, who say the other route going through land belonging to the village of Fuencaliente has a similar number of eagles, the duke won.

More than 1,000 official complaints have since been received from locals, especially those in Fuencaliente and Villanueva de Cordoba, where land and livelihoods from tourism and hunting are under threat.

Officials in Fuencaliente said that when the duke's representatives tried to persuade them to back the route that cuts through their land, they also offered to pay for part of the village fiestas.

Guest

Campaigners also point out the jobs, labourers and hand-outs the estate provides for two other villages, La Conquista and Brazatortas, who are backing the Fuencaliente route.

"It simply is not fair. In one case what is affected is a recreational estate, while in the other case it is a whole community, its way of life and livelihood," said Santiago Canal, a councillor in Fuencaliente.

The transport minister, Francisco Alvarez-Cascos, is a keen hunter and has been a guest at the estate. His ministry has declared it chose the longer, more expensive route purely on environmental grounds after receiving reports showing La Garganta was a more important refuge for protected species than Fuencaliente.

It has also said that a final decision on the route had yet to be made and that it would listen to the arguments of those affected.

Vicente Luchena, of the Ecologists in Action group, accused the duke of behaving like "a feudal lord".

"What he should really be doing is joining us in opposing any attempts to build a toll motorway that, anyway, is completely unnecessary. That is something we can all agree on," he said.

Sir Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster, has an estimated wealth of over 4bn, including properties in London's Belgravia and Mayfair as well as large estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and Scotland.

He is involved with more than 150 charities and recently stood down as president of the Game Conservancy Trust, a wildlife conservation charity.

He made a 500,000 donation to help British farmers after the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

His reputation in Spain, however, is suffering. "His power is as big as his current account, big enough to prevent a motorway going through his land," wrote El Mundo newspaper.

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