Portobello Road

Developers' Rape of Portobello


Article by Simon Jenkins in London Evening Standard, Tuesday 9 March, 2010:

Once again property tycoons are being allowed to ruin one of our city's charming and characteristic corners: Portobello Road: Europe's most celebrated stall holder market is in danger of becoming Oxford Street.

It was like old times. The street was filled with locals protesting against a dread development.  Dogs barked. Celebrities signed petitions.  Councillors protested their impotence.  There was general fury.  Last weekend's protest was over a site at the junction of Portobello Road and Westbourne Grove in the heart of Europe's most celebrated stallholder market.

A developer, Warren Todd, had applied for planning permission, apparently to convert a warren of properties containing some 150 mostly antiques stall-holders into much the same.  Permission was duly granted.
Lo and behold, when the scaffolding came down the old facades were suddenly plate-glass windows filled,bizarrely, with sewing machines.  Within lay devastation.  The 150 stalls had vanished and in their place was a single open-plan retail store, for clothing chain AllSaints.  Portobello Road had become Oxford Street.
In other words, welcome to another day in the life of ordinary London developer folk.  Or as the architects say, you can't stand in the way of progress.  Presumably Kensington and Chelsea council will donate the next block of houses to Marks & Spencer.

Whenever you stroll through Covent Garden or Camden Lock, Borough Market or Columbia Road, spare a thought for how these charming and characteristic corners of London came to be.  They did not spring fully formed from some Victorian entrepreneur.  No architect or developer cried Eureka.  Such places exist for one reason alone.  Some nerdish conservationist managed, just occasionally, to defeat the massed ranks of land-owners, developers and architects to save a corner of London he, and later everyone, considered worth saving.
The nerds lost some, such as Spitalfields, London Docks and, most spectacularly, Canary Wharf.

But a few they won.  Covent Garden in the early 1970s saw the then Greater London Council take powers to turn the Strand and High Holborn into dual carriageways (“appropriate for the 20th century”).  The streets from Maiden Lane north to Long Acre, Seven Dials and across to Drury Lane were to be flattened.  In their place would arise WC2's answer to London Wall in the City.

Profit was dressed as planning dressed as progress.  There was no substantive opposition to the Covent Garden plan from within the GLC, from Westminster City Council or from the architectural profession.  Opposition came only from a handful of local residents and conseryationists led by Sir John Betjeman and, to its credit, the Evening Standard.

Months of demonstrations and protests followed until finally the Tory government stepped in and listed so many of the threatened streets and buildings that the plan was scuppered.  Covent Garden is now presented - by the same authorities as wanted it gone - as a major tourist attraction.

Much the same saga unfolded shortly afterwards on the Regent's Canal at Camden Lock.  Here developers in league with Camden council proposed to sweep away acres of old canal warehouses, stables, cobbled alleys and dark corners,a warren of Dickensian London.   In their place would rise glass and steel office blocks, like those which Westminster City Council has permitted in Paddington Basin.  It took another ferocious battle to force the council to back down.

Camden Lock duly became one of the most popular and, I am told, lucrative retail markets in Europe.  It is of course one thing to save the physical fabric of London, quite another to ordain the use to which that fabric is put.  Taste and the retail and leisure markets change over time.

In Covent Garden, the informal shops and workshops that moved in after the fruit and vegetable traders left have been replaced by boutiques and gift shops.  The very qualities that attract visitors to these informal urban enclaves can be driven away by what it is that tourists actually buy.

Covent Garden is not what it was, any more than is Petticoat Lane. Gourmet food is replacing the traditional produce of Borough market.  Yet authority is not powerless.  Its first job is to preserve the physical nature of such quarters, the diversity of their streets, lanes and alleys, their variegated shop fronts and the absence of overwhelming development.

But planning can do more.   These areas have developed distinctive personalities which it is worth actively seeking to preserve.  Just as Borough is food, Covent Garden clothes and Camden arts and crafts, so Portobello is antiques.
There is no sign of that market collapsing.  Profits are not plummeting, customers vanishing or stalls emptying.
What happened on the Westbourne Grove site is that a developer thought he could hoodwink the authorities into letting him remove the old stalls and make a faster buck with a multiple retail outlet: I am sure someone could demolish Borough market and erect a Sainsbury's on that argument.  Although planners cannot stipulate the precise retail purpose of a shop, they can use planning permission to negotiate respect for the retail character of an area.

In Portobello, Kensington and Chelsea council was clearly asleep on the job.  I have seen the planning permission for the site, which is for “market stalls” , clearly marked and with dividing walls.  The developer's reported explanation for switching to a retail multiple was that stalls were “no longer commercially viable”.  But this is no justification for breaking the terms of a planning permission.

Besides, the idea that antique stalls in Portobello Road are not viable is patently absurd.   If the council fails to serve enforcement notices, no retail market in London is safe from developer rape.

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