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Primrose Hill stars demand Eric Pickles save Utopia Village after office-to-home row

PUBLISHED: 11:41 29 October 2014 | UPDATED: 17:31 30 October 2014

Retail guru Mary Portas has written to Eric Pickles to protest against offices-to-homes conversions. Picture: Matt Crossick

Retail guru Mary Portas has written to Eric Pickles to protest against offices-to-homes conversions. Picture: Matt Crossick

Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

Mary Portas, Alan Bennett and Baroness Joan Bakewell have joined fashion and digital business leaders in warning relaxed laws making it easier for offices to be converted into housing are "threatening to destroy many vibrant, mixed use communities forever".

Alan Bennett and Dame joan Bakewell have joined the fight to save Utopia Village. Picture: Nigel SuttonAlan Bennett and Dame joan Bakewell have joined the fight to save Utopia Village. Picture: Nigel Sutton

The Primrose Hill residents have urged the department of communities and local government to rethink its recent “watering-down” of planning rules as they battle over what’s being billed as a “test case” right in the heart of their own neighbourhood.

Local government minister Eric Pickles is set to decide by the end of this week on the future of Utopia Village – a business complex in Chalcot Road currently home to 22 businesses which owners want to turn into 53 luxury flats.

The group of opponents – which includes India Knight (journalist and author), Caroline Rush (chief executive of British Fashion Council), Guy Levin (executive director of the Coalition for Digital Economy) and Mayor of Camden Lazzaro Pietragnoli – has written to Mr Pickles asking he uphold Camden Council’s decision to reject the application.

It comes after the government relaxed planning laws last year to allow offices to be converted into residential use without requiring full planning permission.

Utopia Village in Chalcot Road. Picture: SharedeskUtopia Village in Chalcot Road. Picture: Sharedesk

The government is seeking to extend the Permitted Development laws this year by opening up more business districts in London to the rules.

Fearing the policy has led to businesses being replaced by “homogenous housing dormitories for city workers or absentee property investors”, the letter read: “The government’s watering-down of planning rules to allow offices to be converted into multiple flats is now threatening to destroy many vibrant, mixed use communities forever.

“Although intended to turn under-utilised or derelict office space into homes to help alleviate Britain’s housing shortage, in practice the reality is quite the

reverse.

“Up and down the country, and in particular in thriving mixed small-business/residential communities, long-standing and start-up businesses alike are being ejected from their premises by landlords eager to capitalise on more lucrative housing development opportunities coupled with very limited planning restrictions. “The problem is particularly acute in the tech start-up sector, but has also hit the design, artistic and fashion community hard.

“The social and economic impact on the affected areas is immediate, palpable and irreversible.”

If the developer’s appeal on Utopia Village is allowed, the campaigners say, office space supporting in excess of 300 jobs will disappear forever.

Ms Portas said: “The Royal Society of Chartered Surveyors research demonstrates a rapidly declining availability of commercial property.

“We ask Eric Pickles to act now to save Utopia Village and similar cases across the country.”

Camden Council is in the process of seeking protection for some areas of the borough from the relaxed laws after research it had commissioned found more than 33,000 jobs in Camden could be at risk from conversions.

Known as an Article 4 direction, the measure would come into play in October 2015 and would create a number of protected enclaves including in Hampstead, West Hampstead, Camden Town, Primrose Hill, and West Hampstead.

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