One particular coastal village in Cornwall is currently a microcosm of everything that is troubling and of concern in Cornwall.

The issues of over-development, the need for affordable housing for locals and where to put it, the impact of tourism and even the stink over sewage are all being felt in Portreath.

The seaside village hit the headlines recently due to a number of controversial planning proposals, which saw a record attendance at Portreath Parish Council’s planning committee last month.

Gwel an Mor, a holiday resort overlooking the village offering rental and sale of luxury lodges, has registered two applications with Cornwall Council – one to knock down ten lodges around a fishing lake and replace them with nine bigger and better dwellings, and another to build ten more lodges. It’s safe to say the move by the American-owned company didn’t go down well.

Residents cheered as Portreath councillors objected to both and there was much talk of piecemeal applications leading to expansion by stealth, with a view to accommodating over 1,700 residents at Gwel an Mor, the same amount as the rest of the parish. Councillors made it clear that they felt it would dwarf Portreath and any attempts to negotiate with Cove UK, a subsidiary of Cove Communities, had got nowhere. 

Falmouth Packet: A plan showing where ten new lodges are proposed at 1, in relation to 2. Portreath town centre, 3. Portreath beach, 4. Nance Woods, 5. RAF Portreath, 6. Bassetts Cove and 7. IlloganA plan showing where ten new lodges are proposed at 1, in relation to 2. Portreath town centre, 3. Portreath beach, 4. Nance Woods, 5. RAF Portreath, 6. Bassetts Cove and 7. Illogan (Image: Gwel an Mor/Cornwall Council)

There were protests in the village last year when the company applied to build 25 lodges abutting an ancient woodland. The strength of feeling proved so powerful that Cove UK withdrew the planning application.

There are a range of concerns – over-development, pressure on an infrastructure which already struggles especially when the tourists visit, run-off and sewage in a village, which has seen a number of incidents with poo bubbling up on to the streets (the sewage treatment works also takes waste from nearby Redruth) and possible loss of green space and the effect of that on wildlife.

Prior to last month's meeting a spokesperson for Gwel an Mor said: “We have brought forward careful and considered proposals that seek to balance Gwel an Mor’s long-term future as a leading hospitality destination with our place as part of the Portreath community and our desire to deliver for wildlife and the environment.

"The woodlands scheme has evolved following community feedback on a previous scheme to be a much more compact development and we want to hear how we have addressed concerns that were raised.

“The fishing lodges proposal amounts to a reduction in overall numbers within that part of the site and it will help Gwel an Mor become more attractive to families. Both schemes sit alongside our proposals for enhanced leisure and food offerings on site through the Karenza Spa scheme that received unanimous support from the community, which we are grateful for.

“As a business, we are always happy to engage in constructive dialogue with key stakeholders and hear feedback and we look forward to the opportunity to meet at the parish council meeting and provide greater detail to those in attendance.”

However, some locals aren’t happy. Elizabeth Gerrish says on Cornwall Council’s planning portal: “Our village cannot cope with anymore strains on its infrastructure, the traffic situation now is dreadful with parking at its limit and so many more near misses and minor accidents. This is greed, we have many empty letting properties in this village to add to this is ridiculous.”

“Gwel an Mor does bring money into Portreath, but does nothing to help the village. Portreath is a World Heritage Site, which should be recognised and protected,” added Jane McDonald.

If that wasn’t enough to get Portreath folk chatting in Costcutter, the meeting also discussed a bid by Coastline Housing and Classic Builders to build 22 100% affordable homes on parish council-owned land on an overgrown former WAAF barracks at nearby Cambrose. It’s proved controversial too with protests outside the site and at the meeting.

Falmouth Packet: Opponents of the affordable housing scheme at Cambrose, near Portreath, protest outside a parish council meetingOpponents of the affordable housing scheme at Cambrose, near Portreath, protest outside a parish council meeting (Image: LDRS)

No one is arguing that Portreath isn’t in dire need of affordable housing, like everywhere else in Cornwall, but those opposing the scheme argue it’s in the wrong place – a haven that was once earmarked as a wildlife education centre, where badger setts sit next to historic bunkers.

There’s such strong feeling about it that a councillor warned people to stop being divisive particularly on social media, claiming that many people living in the village who are in support of the scheme felt too intimidated to attend the meeting. It’s enough to make you choke on your sausage and chips in the Waterfront Inn.

So are Portreath people at war with each other outside the Basset Arms? Hardly, but visit the village and it soon becomes clear that everyone has a view on Gwel an Mor and the WAAF plans.

The effects of a wet day in August were evident when I visited – you’d normally expect to see Portreath rammed at this time of year, but the beach was pretty much empty save for the odd hardy soul and a lone metal detectorist.

Dave Heard runs HQ Surf Shop near the beach but is seriously considering shutting for good due to a downturn in trade since the pandemic. He pondered why Gwel an Mor was seeking to build more lodges when holiday trade had noticeably taken a downturn in the area. “Another year of this weather and people aren’t going to come back. People I know have stopped doing Airbnb now as it’s dropped right off.”

He added: “It feels like Gwel an Mor is taking over the village. They want to build more homes but the trouble is they’ll just sit there empty. Will they sell them off as houses? It’s big enough, they don’t need to do anymore – it’s like they’re creating a new town. There was definitely more interaction with the local community when Gwel an Mor’s original owner Bill Haslam had it. It’s now run to an Americal model which doesn’t really work down here.”

Falmouth Packet: How the new lodges would look at Gwel An Mor, PortreathHow the new lodges would look at Gwel An Mor, Portreath

Head across the beach car park for an ice cream and it’s a very different story. Tanya Goldsworthy, who runs the kiosk, said: “I’ve got nothing against them. A lot of people who stay there use the village and it brings in trade for local businesses. Staff bring kids down to explore rock pools and the beach.”

Self-styled ‘El Prezidente of Cornwall’ Scott Treloar is a well known face in Portreath having lived in his van on the opposite hillside from Gwel an Mor for over 30 years. Relaxing with a mate opposite the shops, he disagreed: “People up there don’t spend their money in the village. We haven’t got the infrastructure here for more building and second homes – the sewage treatment plant gets overloaded. There’s been a number of times when poo has been running down the street.”

It was also one of 25 beaches in Cornwall hit by a sewage alert issued by Surfers Against Sewage recently after storm sewage was discharged from a sewer overflow.

“Portreath can’t cope with it – we’re not Carbis Bay or St Ives. It’s endangering the local community down here because it will flood,” added Scott. “The houses in Portreath should be for local people, not rich holidaymakers.”

Ann-Marie Davies runs Sea & Salt Unisex Hair & Beauty Salon. She thinks there are bigger issues in Portreath. “For businesses, the closure of the post office is a massive concern, more so than people moving into Gwel an Mor.”

The village’s post office closed in June with only a few days’ notice. Mark O’Neill called the closure “sudden and frankly daft”. He said: “As the treasurer of the Harbour Association the village post office offers a vital banking service the loss of which will be deeply felt. As an equality issue, the access to and availability of services in a village badly served by public transport is crucial to the independence of many Portreath residents.”

It hasn’t got much better for residents with the news that nearby Redruth post office had closed too.

It’s not all doom and gloom – despite being overcast on the day I visited all of the cafés and businesses appeared to be faring well, and it’s obviously a caring community that lives in Portreath judging from their passion over the recent planning proposals. All they want is the best for their village and the wider parish.