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THE “poorest example of a streetscape” in a conservation area was how Bell Street in Henley was described in an official report in 2005.
Shops, including Clarks, opticians Chilton Watson, the Henley Pharmacy, M & Co and the Bagatelle toy shop, were highlighted as “the most negative examples” of “modern buildings of little design merit with poor-quality shop fronts”.
The report was a management plan for Henley’s conservation areas compiled by South Oxfordshire District Council.
Eight years later, it seems little has changed, including the shop fronts, as a debate rages over how the street should look.
It has been sparked by Paperchase, the stationery shop that has opened in the former Clinton Cards store with a sky blue frontage.
Opponents say the colour scheme is not in keeping with Henley’s historic character and fear it will deter shoppers and tourists while supporters say the shop brightens up the town.
Paperchase, part of a national chain, first submitted a planning application which included a frameless glass front with glass double entrance doors and signs in acrylic and stainless steel.
Following criticism by the town council’s planning committee, the plans were revised to include timber pilasters and stallrisers.
The committee then said it approved of the new materials but didn’t like the proposed colour scheme and recommended the application was refused.
However, the store carried out the renovations anyway and opened without planning permission just before Christmas.
Insult was added to the Henley councillors’ injury last month when the district council’s planning committee unanimously approved the changes in retrospect.
Although Bell Street is in a conservation area, the Paperchase building is not listed so neither council can restrict the colours it can be painted. The conservation area, which covers most of the town centre including Hart Street, Duke Street and Market Place, only restricts demolition and major alterations.
Similarly, the town council’s shop front design guide, which businesses are encouraged to follow, is not legally binding.
Now the planning committee wants the rules on unlisted buildings tightened up with the use of an Article 4 direction, which would mean that a lot of the things that landlords and tenants can currently do to their properties without planning permission would be brought into the realms of planning consent. An example would be changing a shop’s paintwork.
Crucially, such changes could be rejected if they were deemed harmful to the area’s character.
Henley’s other conservation areas, which cover St Mark’s Road, St Andrew’s Road and several streets off Reading Road, are subject to an Article 4 direction.
Councillor Dieter Hinke, who chairs the committee, says the Paperchase case proves the need for the district council to tighten up the rules.
He said: “Market towns were never intended to be bright. People can go to other centres very close to us if they want bright and cheerful shops. There are lots of places you can go for ‘bright’. We’re offering visitors a taste of history by showing them what a market town used to be like.
“People appreciate history and if we have a conservation area then we should do our best to protect it.
“People come to shop in Henley for two reasons. Firstly, we have a lot of independent stores, which attract people away from the nationals.
“Secondly, we have a very nice atmosphere and people can shop in a very historic town, surrounded by nice cafés and restaurants. I think that if we lose this atmosphere, we will lose the people coming to visit us and be just like any other town. We want to make sure that we keep the town special so that people will continue coming to shop.”
Councillor Hinke’s fellow committee member Martin Akehurst has described the front of Paperchase as “appalling”.
But other councillors disagree. Joan Bland, who is on the town and district council and owns Asquiths teddy bear shop on the corner of Bell Street and New Street, defended Paperchase’s application at the district council’s planning committee meeting.
She said: “It’s a big improvement on the street scene. The colour is actually very attractive — it brightens up that end of the street.”
Lorraine Hillier, who is on the town council’s planning committee and runs Friday Street coffee house Hot Gossip, said: “I like it. It didn’t sound good on paper but it looks fine when you actually see it.
“Strictly speaking, the colour isn’t in keeping but I don’t think it’s damaging and I don’t think anyone walking past would see it in that light. There’s no permanent harm done to the building — it’s not like the historic fabric has been altered in any permanent way.”
Other business owners agree. Georgina Henderson, who owns Foam Fashion in Hart Street, said: “A lot of shops used to be closed, so I’m pleased that Paperchase has the gall to move into Henley. It’s imperative that good chains want to come here.
“The council needs to move forward — keeping back is what Henley used to be about.”
Laurence Morris, who owns Laurence Menswear in Duke Street, called Paperchase’s look “quite refreshing”.
“It brightens up the street scene and there are far worse shop fronts in town,” he said. “I do have sympathy with some of the smaller retailers who are in competition but at the end of the day it’s better to have a big chain like Paperchase attracting people into town than nothing.”
Town centre manager Peter McConnell, who has proposed a shop front improvement scheme, welcomed Paperchase’s arrival. He said: “My role is to encourage economic development in the town, so I’m very pleased that they’ve come here. Organisations like Paperchase don’t actually go into a lot of high streets, so for us to get them is really good.”
Errol Facy, the chairman of heritage group the Henley Society, said: “I see nothing wrong with Paperchase’s colour — anyone can paint their shop front in whatever colour they like. It looks much better than it did before and there are other places in Bell Street that could definitely do with improvement.”
The district council would have to carry out public consultation before issuing an Article 4 direction, a process which could cost up to £30,000.
Angie Patterson, cabinet member for planning, said: “In the current economic climate, we must balance the extra burden upon local businesses required by an Article 4 direction against the benefits it would bring to the character of the town centre.
“I believe the existing controls, provided by the extensive number of listed buildings and the conservation area, are sufficient to maintain the character of Henley town centre in a way the public would expect.”
In 2011, Monsoon/Accessorize on the corner of Bell Street and Hart Street was at the centre of a planning controversy. The town council opposed the shop’s plans for three fascia signs and two projecting signs made of fret-cut lettering and vinyl but the district council approved them, saying it feared losing an appeal.
There are more than 250 listed addresses in Henley, including the 14th-century Old Bell pub in Bell Street, which is Grade II* listed and the oldest building in town.
Among the Grade II listed premises in Bell Street are Caffè Nero, The Bell Bookshop, estate agents Simmons & Sons and Davis Tate and the former Bull Inn.
Paperchase did not reply to requests for comment.
lWhat do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email firstname.lastname@example.org or vote in our special survey at www.henleystandard.co.uk/survey