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Bitter planning row over modern house that threatens iconic Highgate Village view

An artist's impression of the proposed modern building at the entrance to Highgate Village. Picture: Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects An artist's impression of the proposed modern building at the entrance to Highgate Village. Picture: Birds Portchmouth Russum Architects

Thursday, February 21, 2013
8:00 AM

One of Highgate’s most iconic views is at the centre of a fierce planning battle between conservationists and a father who wants to build a modern building which has been likened to a “giant toilet” at the heart of the village.

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Florist Janet Burgess has run Village Flowers from the site for 17 years. Picture: Polly HancockFlorist Janet Burgess has run Village Flowers from the site for 17 years. Picture: Polly Hancock

For years the quaint sight of blossoming flowers on a street florist’s stall opposite the Gatehouse pub has greeted visitors to Highgate, who can cast their eyes back through the trees to the pretty vista of Pond Square.

But a father-of-two, who has lived in the village for 12 years, has encountered fierce opposition to his plans to erect a modern three-storey building on the corner of Highgate High Street and South Grove.

Iain Brewster, 44, who owns a creative agency, says he has invested his life savings in trying to find a “beautiful” modern building to occupy the site, which is currently home to two neglected outbuildings and the popular florists stall Village Flowers.

But his dream of a new home for his family, as well as new shops at ground level, have hit a brick wall for a second time as Camden planners made the surprise decision to refuse the plans without holding a public hearing on Monday (February 18).

The Highgate Society, which has fiercely opposed the bulk and modern design of the proposed new building, welcomed the decision.

Michael Hammerson, of the society’s environment committee, said: “In our view it would have been an extremely damaging development for the village in terms of its character. That whole corner really defines the character of Highgate Village.”

Kirsten de Keyser, chairwoman of the society, said: “If it hadn’t been for people like us, the awkward squad, this building would probably have been passed. It looks like a grand version of a metal toilet. That’s the nearest I could think.”

But Mr Brewster, who has two young daughters and whose family have owned the land for 38 years, accused the society of waging a smear campaign.

He says it has unfairly described him a developer, published a “crude” image of his proposed modern building on its website, and a caricature in society magazine Buzz.

“They’ve been absolutely abhorrent,” said the father-of-two, who lives next door to the proposed new building. “You’re not dealing with a developer here, you’re dealing with someone who lives in Highgate, loves Highgate, and wants to make something beautiful there and I’ve paid through the nose in time, effort and money to do that.”

Ms de Keyser said: “We never have a personal agenda.”

The proposed new building would have included space for Village Flowers, which has sold bouquets from the site for the last 17 years and counts some of Highgate’s most famous residents among its customers.

Owner Janet Burgess, 47, said: “We don’t mind moving with the times but it has to be in keeping with Highgate Village’s unique atmosphere.”

Award-winning architects Birds Portchmouth Russum, who drew up the designs, confirmed the planning refusal would be appealed.

Mr Brewster says he has been approached by two developers interested in buying the land and may be forced to sell if a building design cannot be agreed.

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