The decision followed five years of campaigning by local business and six months of debate by the Commission on Retail Preservation, brought in by the council, whose panel of experts included Sir Terence Conran and Andrew Ashenden, then chief executive of the Howard De Walden Estates.
The brief was to consider whether Portobello should become a Business Conservation Area in order to prevent it being taken over by coffee shop chains and so-called ‘clone’ stores, and “to preserve the character of our neighbourhood shopping areas and reduce the cloning effect apparent on major high streets”.
This showed commendable acknowledgement by the council that it had a duty of care to protect the area’s character.
Key to the victory for local business was that small shops should be treated as a separate class in planning law, requiring retail chains to obtain planning permission to change the use of premises previously occupied by an independent trader.
As chairman of the Portobello Antique Dealers’ Association, Mr Kleanthous had always argued – and still argues – that in this case, change of use should not simply mean from retail to other forms of activity such as a cafe, but change in use from antiques retail to any other form of retail activity. He does not advocate no change at all, merely a safeguard so that the council can control the rate and level of change.
Less than three years on, something seems to have gone seriously wrong with the council’s vision. Where before its members appeared as champions of the antiques market, now the message is “there’s nothing we can do”. Planning law means that, in the words of Councillor Dez O’Neill – one of the few council members who seems prepared to speak out in defence of the residents and businesses he represents – the developers “can frankly build what they want”.
During last week’s meeting (see front page), we were told firmly on a number of occasions that neither the change of use from an antiques arcade to another retail activity, nor the alteration of units from six to one at the All Saints store, required planning permission.
Councillor Keith Cunningham posed some robust questions and, with Councillor O’Neill, gave a reassuring performance to suggest that all is not yet lost when it comes to getting things done in the council chamber.
However, what we were not told was the views of council members on whether they felt that what has been built on the corner of Westbourne Grove and Portobello Road as a whole is a fair and accurate representation of the plans they passed on April 16, 2009.
The proposed ground-floor plan that accompanied that application showed the development retaining the six separate retail units – going so far as to include the words ‘market stalls’ on each – drawing where the market stalls would be located and showing separate front doors onto Westbourne Grove for each unit. In fact, just what the local residents, businesses and antiques trade had hoped for. To learn, then, that the 16,000 sq ft megastore that was actually built – almost completely ignoring these detailed plans – is absolutely fine under planning law is shocking and shameful.
If businessmen such as Mr Kleanthous, who are experienced in dealing with the planning process, can be “hoodwinked” by such a move, as he told the meeting, then what hope have ordinary members of the public of negotiating the consultation process – assuming they haven’t been left out of it as the residents of Portobello Court appear to have been – without resorting to expensive expert advice?
Is this really the parlous state of the local government democratic process? If so, the members of Kensington and Chelsea Council should not be waiting for the people they represent to start a campaign to change the law, they should be on the doorsteps of Whitehall themselves now, demanding action.
There are some who consider the campaigners, and the antiques trade among them in particular, as stick-in-the-mud malcontents whose only object is to block progress. But before they dismiss them as such, they should think hard on Mr Kleanthous’s reminder to the committee last week that antiques bring around £500m worth of business to Portobello each year.
I understand that there is a significant push at the council to persuade Crossrail to build a station in the north of the borough. This would necessarily be close to the top of Portobello Road and one could sympathise with the view that this would be more likely to happen if the borough could offer those alighting at the station seven days a week of prime retail shopping between there and Notting Hill Gate.
However, Portobello’s various markets are clearly a special case and should not be cast aside lightly, especially as other markets in the capital are coming under special protection – both for their commercial AND cultural contribution.
And what of the residents who have paid large sums to live in desirable property that brings them the enviable blend of five or six days a week relative peace and a day or two of bohemian bustle? Would property prices survive the colonisation by clone stores? It should not be assumed that changing the character of the area by shipping in big commercial names will necessarily bring more prosperity or increase rateable values to boost council coffers.
I look forward to Kensington and Chelsea Council taking as much care with the future of Portobello as they took with the design and planning of the impressive Great Hall where last week’s planning meeting took place.