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The right person in the wrong place at the wrong time

Michael Winner weighs into a planning row down his street, reports John Elliott

Published 23 April 2006

There are, reckons Michael Winner, far too many people in his beloved Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea already, and drastic action for this overcrowding is now required. "Hit them on the head and carry them away that's what I'd do if I was in charge," explains the waspish Sunday Times restaurant critic and veteran film director.

What's got him in a lather are proposals for a couple of snazzy new high-tech flats to be built very close to the sumptuous Winner residence, which could see the population of the glitzy borough upped by half a dozen or so. The flats are unusual because, if given the go-ahead at a council planning committee meeting this week, they will squat on the roof of an existing five-storey 1928 block called Melbury Court on Kensington High Street.

Winner and a determined group of residents from Melbury Court and surrounding buildings are objecting to the flats, because, they say, plonking them on top of Melbury Court will damage the still relatively elegant aesthetics of Kensington High Street, and overshadow and overlook the surrounding buildings. Kensington and Chelsea council has received 41 objections to the flats.

"It's some sort of glass monstrosity that completely alters the shape of the building," says an exasperated Winner, 70. "I live just round the corner from the block. I've got a whole house, which is probably one of the best houses in London. I can see Melbury Court from my upper floors."

Michael Baldwin, a 64-year-old insurance executive who is honorary chairman of the Melbury Court Residents' Association, has seen the plans and says the new flats "don't fit in. It will be an incongruous building on top of a handsome block. It looks rather like a glass-walled Portakabin that has been dropped on the roof."

Added to such short-term aggravations as teams of builders yelling and banging away and possible closure of Melbury Court's lifts, Baldwin fears the flats, if built, could set a precedent. "It will be a snap of the fingers before there will be a rash of these going on top of every building," Baldwin says. "It would change the architectural nature of the street permanently."

So have Winner and his chums got a point? Or are they just kneejerk Nimbys? Landmark Architecture drew up the plans. It is the agent for Shellpoint Trustees, which applied for the planning permission and holds a headlease for the building from property firm Ilchester Estates. Graham Dobson of Ilchester, which would profit from the two flats - likely to go on sale at £1.5m each - claims: "You would have to be a bird flying above it to see it."

Landmark declined to be interviewed, but a look at its proposals reveals a design that it insists will leave the area's looks "essentially unaltered". Each of the two flats is shaped like the number eight, as covering up the Melbury Court lightwells would result in a refusal of planning permission.

And the flats, with glass and aluminium walls, will only be one storey high so they poke above the building's parapet by about 3ft - and set back from the edge of the roof.

The building has a false-pitched roof behind which the flats can, to an extent, be hidden. This roof means, says the council, that a planning go-ahead would not set a general precedent for the whole street.

But it's the precise extent to which the Melbury Court flats can be concealed that matters to locals. While the council is rightly predisposed to increase housing stock where possible, it is also under obligation to preserve the area's character - and Melbury Court is in the Holland Park conservation area.

Landmark's publicity in support of its plans repeatedly insists that the flats won't affect the look of the building and argues they will be largely invisible from Holland Park, though they may just be visible from some ground-level points along Kensington High Street.

But there is scant mention of whether the smart new flats will be visible from above ground level - where most people in the immediate surrounding area live, in expensive blocks such as Leonard Court, directly opposite Melbury Court.

"It will overshadow and overlook our building," complains Anthony Speed, 67, a retired company director and head of the Leonard Court Residents' Association, which has joined forces with the Melbury Court residents.

For his part, Baldwin says he only found out about the plans in February. With many of the building's tenants spending much of the year abroad, his attempts to drum up opposition have been hampered. He will fight his corner at a meeting of the council's planning committee this Thursday.

Winner won't be there, but perhaps the council will be guided by his radical town-planning principles for the borough, which he kindly relays to me over the phone from the south of France.

"We don't need any more flats," he snorted. "We've got too many already. There's hundreds of blocks going up all over. It's ridiculous. We don't need any more. We need a few less."