US tech millionaire promised to give our little village a £1M makeover… but instead he’s left us with a living NIGHTMARE | The Sun
MILLIONAIRE internet tycoon Michael Birch was hailed a saviour after revealing plans to restore the village of his ancestors to its former glory.
True to his word the 52-year-old former Bebo boss bought up the crumbling pub and manor house and soon added the grocery store, fish and chip shop, a portfolio of historic cottages and a 90-acre farm.
But now, almost eight years on, there are rebellious mutterings among locals that far from saving picturesque Woolsery, West Devon, his vision has divided residents and – as one put it – "made our lives a living hell".
Opponents of his ‘Woolsery Project’ claim years of construction work has shattered their peace and quiet and created a parking free-for-all among contractors.
They say the shop and pub have ramped up prices beyond the reach of many while Michael’s property purchases have driven young families out of the housing market.
According to one resident, the standing joke locally is that Woolsery – population 1123 – has become known as ‘Birchery’ or ‘Bebotown’.
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But not all share this view.
The Sun spoke to several locals who insist that, with money tight everywhere, the multi-million pound investment by Michael wife Xochi, has ensured the village’s future prosperity.
They point out that the California-based entrepreneur, who sold Facebook rival Bebo to AOL for £650 million in 2008, has held public consultations in the Farmers Arms pub to explain his plans.
He has since appointed fellow San Franciscan Emily Harmon as on-site project manager.
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Retired vicar Shirley Henderson, who leads services in Woolsery’s medieval All Hallows Church, dating from the 12th century reign of Richard The Lionheart, fears the project has split the village.
The 73-year-old said: "We have the “Birch community”, everyone who works for him, and the “Village Community” which is mostly older residents who have been here years.
"Emily talks about the importance of community but you never see her at any of the main village events.
"There’s this whole thing about how Michael has been our saviour but who’s it all for? We’re living in his vision of the community, not ours.
"Our village was not dead before he came. Some buildings needed sorting but that’s not the same thing.
"As for the pub, that’s a gentrified vison of a pub which most people can’t afford to use regularly.
"People are fed up with the building work which seems to have gone on forever. I sometimes wonder if the builders are having a laugh."
In Back Street, which runs alongside the rear of the shop, grandfather John Heath, 75, is certainly not laughing.
He has made his views clear by spraying graffiti in foot-high letters across his own shed. The stark message reads: ‘Birch Out Of Our Lives’.
"Ever since Michael Birch started buying up this village he’s made our lives a living hell", said John.
The resident added: "He’s created one big building site. It’s gone on for almost a decade and has disrupted everything and everyone. Which is why my graffiti is staying put.
"When Birch first arrived he was just going to buy and refurbish the Farmers Arms pub, which had been closed for two years, and the manor house.
"He said he wanted to ensure there was somewhere locals could go for a drink.
"That was fine as far as it went. But then he started buying loads of other properties – the grocery store, the fish and chip shop, a 90-acre farm and a bunch of cottages in the centre of the old village.
"There’s apparently also going to be a wood-smoked pizza place behind the shop.
"In our street alone Birch has bought several cottages for staff. They’ll probably become holiday lets in future.
"In the past, those properties have been used by youngsters to get on the housing ladder. But he has scuppered any chance of them buying in the village where they were born and brought up.
"As for the Farmers, it feels more like the lounge of a smart hotel rather than a traditional village pub. Locals go to the social club.
The shop is way too expensive for local people. I don’t use it on principle but friends say chickens cost up to £12 each
He added: "People joke about Woolsery becoming Birchery or Bebotown. But the joke will be on us if he decides to move on."
John’s wife Christine said: "The pub did need a new owner and the manor needed saving. But his plans have expanded way beyond that. It has split the village.
"Construction traffic has been horrendous and parking is a nightmare with people arriving to work on his sites. Often the bus can’t get through.
"The commercial fridges placed a few feet from our door are so noisy we have to keep our windows shut – even on hot summer nights.
"The shop is way too expensive for local people. I don’t use it on principle but friends say chickens cost up to £12 each."
Enquiries by Sun suggest that while the shop is more expensive than the nearest supermarket 10 miles away, prices are comparable to other typical Devon village shops.
For instance, a two-litre bottle of milk costs £2.10 – around 80p dearer than Morrison’s.
At the chippie a portion of fish n’ chips will set you back £12.50 while over at the Farmers Arms, a Grade II listed former coaching inn which has some of David Bowie’s original artwork on show, a three-course dinner costs anywhere between £29.50 and £55 per head.
Not all residents share the critics views. Karen Goodman, 73, who moved down from Hampshire five years ago, told us: "Yes, the shop is a little more expensive.
"But that’s true of all local convenience stores.
"I do most of my shopping at Aldi but it’s good to have this one close by if you need something last minute.
"The staff are always lovely. They’ll shop for elderly people and deliver too. People forget that.
"To see the Woolsery Facebook page and some of the negative comments on there – it’s unreal.
"I haven’t experienced all the disruption that has gone on. But, overall, Michael Birch has been very positive for Woolsery."
Another resident, who declined to be named, told us: "What’s not to like.
"At a time when money is tight, Michael has poured a fortune into this place, created jobs, safeguarded businesses and given Woolsery a new lease of life."
Michael can trace his family roots in the village back to the 17th century. His great-great-grandfather Job built the village shop.
It is thought he employs around 65 staff, not counting construction workers, over half of whom live in the village.
David Kitchingham, 68, and wife Alexandra, 69, moved to Woolsery 12 years ago – just before the Birch transformation began.
"Woolsery now feels less like a village and more like an enterprise," said David.
He added: "The building work has gone on forever but the full impact is still to come. He clearly wants to attract visitors and holidaymakers.
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"We’re going to end up as a country theme park and I don’t want to be stared at by passing tourists."
Alexandra said: "Yes, he held public meetings but these were over very quickly and people soon realised he was doing much more than we all thought.
"If he’s got so much money why does he need to make more on the backs of others?"
A long-standing woman resident, who asked not to be named, said Woolsery had become "horribly split".
"There are all his people working on his Woolsery Project,’ she said.
They added: "But then there are the rest of us who have lived here for years and don’t want to be his “project”.
"What he originally told us changed into something far bigger. He’s now bought up lots of property. No one knows exactly how much or quite why he needs it all.
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"There’s definitely a lot of resentment in the village."
The Woolsery Project, which also calls itself ‘The Collective At Woolsery’, has been approached for comment by The Sun.
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