Hairdesser to the stars Heinz Schumi is launching a campaign, backed by Stephen Bayley and others, to ensure London’s most sought-after districts retain a social mix
Call it the battle of Britten Street. For 21 years, celebrities have flocked to the Chelsea salon of A-list hairdresser Heinz Schumi to be suitably coiffed. Now the shop floor has become the hub of a star-studded campaign to prevent property developers and investors destroying the diverse character of one of London’s most glamorous districts.
Novelist Jilly Cooper, design guru Stephen Bayley and actress Jenny Agutter are among the famous clients Schumi has enlisted to support him and fellow resident Ian Henderson in a bid to take on Conservative-dominated Kensington and Chelsea council. Henderson, a former actor who lives on a 100-year-old housing estate under threat of redevelopment, has joined forces with Schumi to form an unlikely two-man slate, Chelsea Independent. Both will contest May’s local elections in a crusade against developers, who they believe are forcing poorer residents and businesses from the area, and the council, which they claim is complicit in granting numerous ambitious planning applications.
Schumi felt compelled to take a stand after losing a final appeal against his landlord’s bid to convert his salon, which has been a shop since 1810, into luxury housing. The salon will close its doors for the final time in April, but the stylist hopes to prevent further “sanitisation” of the historic area.
Much of the redevelopment is aimed at wealthy individuals, often from abroad, who push up London housing prices by buying properties as investments without living in them.
Last week, Bank of England governor Mark Carney admitted that cash-rich foreign buyers have driven house prices beyond the control of the central bank. “The top end of London is driven by cash buyers. It’s driven in many cases by foreign buyers. We as the central bank can’t influence that,” he said.
In standing for election as independent councillors, Schumi and Henderson hope to oust Sir Merrick Cockell, the Conservative councillor who leads the Local Government Association, and his Tory colleague Paul Warrick, head of planning in the borough.
The pair’s bid to preserve social housing and protect community assets, such as shops, restaurants and pubs, is the latest example of a popular uprising among middle-class and blue-collar residents in London. Last year, another campaign was launched in Kensington and Chelsea to save the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre, an art deco classic and well-known event venue. It swiftly won support from celebrities including tailor Ozwald Boateng, fashion designer Bella Freud, Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and comedian Tracey Ullman.
Talking over a coffee in The Builder’s Arms, a pub opposite Schumi’s salon, Henderson said: “We want to preserve Chelsea as a community – for both rich and poor – and prevent it turning into a ghost town where wealthy people park their money without living here.”
Schumi said many well-heeled residents, including David Cameron’s aunt Cecilia Dugdale, were among the 3,000 objectors who had signed a petition to try to save his salon.
Schumi and Henderson said they had not wanted to become councillors, nor did they want to get involved in local politics, but had felt that they had no choice as the interests of locals were not represented by the council. Schumi said: “Local authorities have the power to save community assets, and the Local Government Act encourages preservation of employment, but still the council here grants planning permission to landlords and developers and continues to raise rates.”
He pointed to the closure of King’s Road restaurant Choys last November, which had been serving Chinese food since 1952. Owner Chan Wing Man sold his lease back to the landlord, Cadogan Estates, citing rising rates as a factor in his decision to shut. He said at the time: “It’s not easy running a restaurant these days, with rates and rent and everything. It’s hard work.”
Schumi added: “I want to preserve amenities and public services, but of course also social housing. All the council wants is to sell the land.”
Henderson agreed: “They’re more worried about people from outside the area than those that live there at the moment. They’re looking after the interests of foreign buyers and foreign developers.”
A report by rightwing think tank Civitas published earlier this month revealed that 85% of prime London property purchases in 2012 were made by overseas buyers. Civitas pointed out that the problem is not confined to the top end of the market; many foreign buyers are acquiring less expensive newbuild homes too. Two-thirds of the homes bought by people from overseas were not purchased for owner-occupation but as investments.
Henderson’s greatest concern is that the attractive, redbrick housing estate on which he lives, alongside around 1,000 social tenants, is about to be torn down and redeveloped, with a third of the new properties sold off to private buyers. He is campaigning to save the estate, which was built in 1912 with money left by philanthropist William Sutton.
Local activist Justin Dunn said: “The council is keen to encourage developers very intensively. It is destroying the community feel the area used to have. Everybody’s very concerned about that, whatever their political associations. It’s a rich man’s ghetto.”
The sentiments of Schumi and Henderson are echoed by other local political activists.
Emma Dent Coad, Labour deputy leader of the council, said: “Shops are closing because new people that buy houses don’t move into them – they use them as a dormitory periodically. Or they ‘bubblewrap’ them – keep them in immaculate condition to be sold on for greater profits later. It’s demolishing the community.”
She added: “It’s happening all over London, but it’s most extreme in Kensington and Chelsea.”
The Conservative leader of the council, Nicholas Paget-Brown, said that the council protects neighbourhood shops in premises that it owns. He added: “Empty homes bought by overseas investors are a major concern to the council and we have expressed our views to the mayor and the government.”
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