Keep It Local: Villages facing struggle and survival

Sanchez Manning TWO little known Westminster villages, on either side of the Edgware Road, could have been separated at birth with the many similarities they share. Their smart streets are lined with the grand period homes of the wealthy and famous resi

Sanchez Manning

TWO little known Westminster 'villages', on either side of the Edgware Road, could have been separated at birth with the many similarities they share.

Their smart streets are lined with the grand period homes of the wealthy and famous residents who frequent parades of quaint independent boutiques.

But there is one major difference between Portman and Connaught Village - the wildly varying popularity of the powerful landowners controlling the areas.

On one hand are the Church Commissioners - acting for the Church of England's property arm.

They have been called the most unholy names by Connaught Village's traders, who are accusing the ecclesiastical landlords of pushing them to the brink of ruin with threats of rent increases.

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They say the Church Commissioners' hard line approach, despite the deepening recession, has already forced at least a dozen small businesses to fold.

Suresh Sheth, owner of Wallers Newsagents on Connaught Street, said: "We're having a rent review at the moment and we've heard it could be double what we already pay.

"If we have to pay �30,000 rather than �15,000 a year we may as well shut up shop and go home."

Sana Al-Khudhairy, director of the Savana Studio furniture shop in Connaught Village, said: "The problem is they're upping the rent but what they should be doing is trying to increase business in the area so we can afford to pay more rent."

The Hyde Park Estate residents association, representing people living in the Connaught Village, have also weighed into the row and asked for a meeting with the Church Commissioners.

One of the association's members, Jennifer Nadel, said: "We've already lost a lot of valuable properties and we're concerned that rather than a village, this place is going to become a ghost town."

Meanwhile, across the road in Portman Village the situation could not be more different. Landowners, the Portman Estate, have kept on good terms with their tenants during a recent rent review by promising to keep payments down.

Comparing his predicament to that of his Connaught Village neighbours, Paul O'Donoghue, manager of Johanna Hehir wedding shop on Chiltern Street, said: "The Portman Estate seem to have a more commercial head on their shoulders and understand that in the current economic climate the last thing they want is 20 empty shops.

"I would almost guarantee there will be rent reductions because people won't be signing their leases if there aren't."

Bruce Davis, director of shoe shop Magnus on Chiltern Street, added: "They said the lease will remain at the same level as it was during the five year term I've just come out of and will only be affected by inflation rates."

Carolyn Moore, asset manager at Portman Estate, confirmed that a more sympathetic attitude was being applied to negotiations over rent rises.

But a spokesman for the Church Commissioners insisted there was no choice but to hike rents in Connaught Village.

He said exceptions may be made for special cases, and added: "The rental uplift that the commissioners are now seeking under the rent review provisions reflects the increase in value over the whole of the last five years.

"That said, the commissioners are sensitive to the fact that the current economic climate is hitting Connaught Village's independent retailers particularly hard.

"Any instances of particular hardship are considered on an individual basis.

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