Finance

Our village is a fake ‘toy town’ after millionaire who promised to make it a ‘high-class hotspot’ left it to rot


DISGRUNTLED locals have blasted a multi-millionaire tycoon for buying their entire village and turning their home into a “fake” community.

Tech tycoon Michael Birch, 53, vowed to transform the heart of the crumbling village he loved as a child into a chic, upmarket tourist hotspot.

A Devon village has undergone a transformation after Bebo social media tycoon Michael Birch invested in the area

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A Devon village has undergone a transformation after Bebo social media tycoon Michael Birch invested in the areaCredit: Neil Hope
Local resident Desmond Willetts has concerns over the way the Parish Council have conducted themselves in their dealings with Birch

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Local resident Desmond Willetts has concerns over the way the Parish Council have conducted themselves in their dealings with BirchCredit: Neil Hope
Anti-Birch graffiti in the village

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Anti-Birch graffiti in the villageCredit: Neil Hope
Millionaire Michael Birch has funnelled millions into the village he grew up in

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Millionaire Michael Birch has funnelled millions into the village he grew up inCredit: SWNS

But after nine years his expanding property empire in Woolsery, North Devon, is at the centre of bitter divisions and accusations from some residents.

Locals claim the multi-millionaire former Bebo boss and his wife Xochi are creating a “film-set” façade which bears no resemblance to the reality of life in hard-graft farming country.

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.

Others 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.

But others have nothing but praise for his vision, pointing out that he has turned the decrepit Farmers Arms pub into a high-class hostelry.

He soon bought up the grocery store, fish and chip shop, a portfolio of historic cottages and a 90-acre farm.

They claim he has since ploughed millions into a boutique property portfolio he calls The Collective.

With all this, say the Birch supporters, has come 65 desperately needed jobs with a further 150 promised in future years.

But not everyone loves the new-look Woolsery.

“Because it’s one big fake,” an elderly pensioner exclusively told The Sun Online.

“The centre feels like a film set under construction.

“Woolsery used to be a traditional farming village which belonged to ordinary, working, country folk. Nothing fancy about it.

“Since the Birchs took over it has become a different place. New money, different people, different attitudes.

“As for the shop, the prices are way beyond me.  I won’t go in there anymore.

“The village is horrible now and I’m moving elsewhere. In fact, I can’t wait to get out.”

Other critics are less antagonistic, though still bitterly opposed at what they see as an idealistic view of village life imposed with little consultation.

Long-time opponent Desmond Willetts, 88, said: “This guy has come in and claims to be doing the right thing by the village.

“He’s bought a lot of land, a lot of property and he’s had so-called public consultations.

“But those consultations were really him telling us what was going to happen. He should be in the business of asking the village what it wants, not telling us.”

He continued: “We’ve had nine years of construction work and disruption but at the moment it’s all in limbo. It certainly isn’t finished and the full impact on residents hasn’t yet materialised.

“I don’t doubt that he has done a lot of good for Woolsery. But he’s also taken advantage of us and that is not alright.

“Everyone knows there will be problems down the line – more visitors, more cars – and people need to face up and discuss these things.”

Another Birch ‘anti’, John Heath, 75, still has a stark message for The Collective’s owners – one he spray-painted himself on his garage door years ago reading “Birch Out Of Our Lives”.

He says Woolsery may still be a strong community but it no longer speaks with one voice.

“What Michael Birch has done here has divided friends and neighbours, said John.

“That may not have been his intention but it’s the truth.

“The feel of the village, its culture, has all changed.  It’s not a village shop in the traditional sense and neither is it a village pub.  Most locals can’t afford to go in either of them.

“To me, it’s like a big corporation has taken over our lives.”

British-born Michael, 53, sold Facebook rival Bebo to US internet giants AOL for £650 million in 2008.

The California-based entrepreneur and his wife, both computer programmers, bought the business back in 2013 at massive discount, reportedly paying just £600,000.

They chose Woolsery for a new project because of Michael’s historic family links to the village. 

His great-grandparents built the original village shop, his grandmother was born above it and he visited regularly as a child.

In a recent interview, he said: “The original motivation was the Farmers Arms pub.

“It had been vacant for a number of years and there was a plan to turn it into flats. For me, the pub is the heart of the village and it was unthinkable for Woolsery not to have the pub I’d known all my life.

“Xochi and I were in a position to help, so it all started there.  There was no plan for The Collective from the outset, it just snowballed as other buildings in the village were offered to us in various states of disrepair.”

For the Birchs’ supporters, attacks on their plans make no sense.

One woman – who wished to be identified as Margaret – said their arrival had brought only positives.

She said: “The Farmers had gone to rack and ruin. They’ve kept the pub for the village and regenerated lots of old properties. They are good people.

“They’ve put in serious money and Michael has done that because he actually loves the place.

“I know some of the older people don’t like what has happened but you won’t find many younger people complaining.”

Woolsery councillor Stephen Harding agrees, he said: “People in other parishes I visit would give their right arms to to have the investment we have here.

“Yes, it has taken time but he and Xochi have stuck with it and the work done is of a fantastic standard.

“You’ll get the snipers. You can’t please everyone. People will mourn this and mourn that and say it is not the same.

“We have always had a strong community here. People understandably don’t like to hear that Michael has saved us.

“But he hasn’t saved us. He has invested in us.”

The Sun has contacted The Collective for comment.

Opponents of Michael Birch's ‘Woolsery Project’ claim years of construction work has shattered the peace in the West Devon villlage

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Opponents of Michael Birch’s ‘Woolsery Project’ claim years of construction work has shattered the peace in the West Devon villlage
All Hallows Church in the centre of the village

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All Hallows Church in the centre of the villageCredit: Neil Hope





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