THE village of Battlesbridge, best known for its antiques and its old mill, is set to become a conservation area to protect its heritage for the future.

Important landmarks, such as Timber Wharf Cottages, Mill House and Telfords Farm, with its associated outbuildings, will now be protected and improved following a deal between Rochford District Council and Chelmsford Council.

Together, they have put forward a new plan for the village which could turn it into a major tourist attraction for the area.

Forty years ago, flour mills dominated Battlesbridge and were a landmark in the valley from as far away as Rayleigh High Street.

Now, it is famous for antiques after East Londoner Jim Gallie and his family took over a former grocer and drapers shop and turned it into Cromwell House Antiques.

The village is divided by the boundary between the two authorities. Rochford District Council's head of planning, Shaun Scrutton, has taken a keen interest in preserving the popular village.

Mr Scrutton said the area included important buildings which were not listed, though they had previously been on a local list designed to encourage owners to avoid demolition or unsympathetic renovation.

He said various opportunities now exist to enhance the character of the conservation area, including giving property owners improvement grants.

Untidy sites in the village which could be improved include the approach to the bridge over the River Crouch, from the Chelmsford side, which has a clutter of road signs.

Also of concern are the lock gates which are in such poor condition they appear on the county council's buildings at risk register.

The gates are historically important and a vital element in the attractive views across the river to the old mill. The landowner may be encouraged to carry out repairs to the gates.

However, local people are questioning whether it is too late to save the essential character of the village.

Farmer Alistair Matthews works Telfords Farm and is the chairman of Rawreth Parish Council, as well as a member of the family which once owned the mills in the town.

He said: "I feel the problem is this idea is only about 30 years too late.

"The whole character of the village has changed since then.

"The suggestions for improvement are certainly welcome in a well put together document and it is good to see the two councils working together. However, I think there will be a feeling the improvements should not all be financed by the residents and businesses who have worked to build up the village."

Jim Gallie, who took a gamble 40 years ago when he took over Cromwell House for his antiques business after moving from Hornchurch, said: "People thought we were mad going to the back of beyond, but I think we have put Battlesbridge on the map.

"Personally, I think the ideas put forward for improving the village are great, but I hope everyone realises it.

"I hope this report will make them remember Battlesbridge. There are times I think we are in no man's land between the two councils.

Former Lib Dem Rochford District Council chairman, Paul Beckers, lives in Goose Cottages, Battlesbridge, and is also a member of Rawreth Parish Council. He said: "It is a well presented and well thought out document, but I wonder whether most of it is practical.

"When you are seeking improvements in an area like this, there has to be a contribution from the councils concerned, rather than just expecting those who live and work here to come up with it."