BOWOOD'S debt-ridden owner has been given the go-ahead for a strongly opposed housing development in open countryside which he says will save his estate from growing debts.

Lord Lansdowne said he felt "huge relief" after his plans to build 50 homes on a greenfield site in Derry Hill, near Calne, were approved on Wednesday.

The hard-up lord, a close friend of Prince Charles, revealed he fell into £200,000 of debt last year alone, has total debts of £1.4m, and claims the housing development is crucial to fund a hotel on the Bowood Estate, which will boost the heritage site's profits and keep it open to the public.

He went to North Wiltshire District Council's crowded council chambers in person on Wednesday, where he was given just three minutes to argue his case.

The controversial plan attracted more than 50 letters and a 4,340-name petition in opposition but was approved almost unanimously by councillors, despite officers recommending refusal on the grounds of it being in open countryside and against local guidelines.

Councillors argued the plans were a special case and vital for preserving the future of one of the county's premier heritage sites.

Jane Scott (Cons), leader of Wiltshire County Council, made a special appearance to support Lord Lansdowne's application and said: "Bowood House and its estate is one of the jewels in the crown of this county."

Lord Lansdowne waited for almost two hours at the planning meeting for his application to be heard and was given three minutes to argue his case, in line with council rules.

He was greeted with a round of applause as he described his "vision" for Derry Hill, which would bring in affordable houses, and pump £800,000 into the community on school, village hall and road improvement projects.

Cllr Scott said it would help prevent Derry Hill becoming one of Wiltshire's "dying villages", with affordable housing helping to keep young families in the area.

But not everyone supported the plans.

Derry Hill parish councillor Jerry Field said: "If you believe that planning in north Wiltshire should conform to national guidelines you cannot possibly approve this application.

"Green fields and villages are part of our national heritage too and need protecting."

After the meeting, Lord Lansdowne said: "I'm feeling a huge amount of relief. It has been a very long period of anxiety."

He said he has been forced to think of resourceful ways to make money for the estate, which is visited by about 120,000 people each year.

"Opening a house to the public doesn't make money, it loses money," he said.

"We have to be ingenious in trying to find alternative ways of trying to fill the hole. Luckily, I'm an optimist and an enthusiast or I think I would have given up by now."

He said he had been hit hard by the need to start selling off his family's heritage, including paintings, to cope with his debts.

"It has been breaking one's heart to do this," he said.

Cllr Helen Dixon blamed punitive heritage tax for the problems facing the Bowood Estate.

"I think it is very sad that Lord Lansdowne and other significant land owners in this country effectively have to go through hoops and various ways of making money to maintain our heritage," she said.

The plans will now be referred to the Secretary of State as the homes will be on greenfield land. He has the power to call them in for inspection.

What Lord Lansdowne has done at the Bowood helm:

1975: Opened the estate to the public

1976: Built an adventure play area

1989: Restored a derelict part of the house and provided a restaurant and shop

1992: Opened the Golf and Country Club