Over the last couple of years, interior designer Phil Cowan has been making something of a name for himself as a passionate local campaigner in Primrose Hill.
From his shop, Primrose Hill Interiors, formerly known as Boom! Interiors, Phil fought a dogged and highly publicised, but ultimately unsuccessful, campaign against the arrival of Space NK on Regent’s Park Road.
Since then, he has closed his shop and dedicated himself to campaigning on issues that affect our little urban village. A member of the Primrose Hill Conservation Area Advisory Committee, Phil is also a leading light of Transition Primrose Hill; has played a key role in helping the Primrose Hill Community Association set up its new magazine “On the Hill’, due out in November; and has been instrumental in setting up the new ‘Town Team’.
Phil also stood as an independent candidate in this year’s council elections, scoring the highest ever returns for an independent candidate in the ward of Camden Town with Primrose Hill with 287 votes. Although some way off being able to claim elected office, Phil found the experience of standing as a councillor to be richly rewarding:
‘I loved it. It was an education. I wanted to do it to show that an ordinary member of the community, who’s not a politician, could have a go, and also I did it to use the campaign to highlight issues that I thought were important, new things such as current planning issues and matters affecting the elderly.’
Phil has high hopes for the work of the Town Team, an exciting new initiative, supported by Mary Portas, ‘Queen of Shops’, who has been instrumental in setting up Town Teams on struggling high streets across the nation. The intention is that a group of business owners and residents will meet to consider ways to bring out Primrose Hill’s unique charm as a destination in order to help the shops and restaurants flourish. So far, Phil told me, guerrilla gardening has taken off, especially in Erskine Road, and hanging baskets have been identified as potentially enhancing for the village. The great thing about guerrilla gardening is that it costs little and individuals can use their own initiative to garden small patches of unused earth, such as the empty ground around trees. However, hanging baskets are proving to be more costly and complex: ‘Camden council charges £50 to assess whether a lamppost can have one, but they don’t do anything to help with the basket. Or you might pay your money and find the lamppost can’t have one. It’s ridiculous. How’s that encouraging people to enhance their area?’
Funds could be secured for the Town Team, however. “I’ve just found out that Boris Johnson has allocated a further £9m for High Streets in London, so we need to get applying for that.’
Another area where Phil hopes that the Town Team can have an effect is in negotiating with landlords, in the hope that rents could be kept at levels manageable for the current shops. Also planned are large map-boards, similar to the ones at the entrances to the Royal Parks, promoting a discernible branded identity and hopefully making the village easy to navigate, particularly in its quieter parts such as Princess Road or at the junction of Fitzroy and Chalcot Roads, where independent and much-loved businesses flourish despite being set slightly apart form the hub of Regent’s Park Road. The Town Team is also looking into setting up a farmers’ market, although Phil has found that finding a site that doesn’t attract objections is proving difficult. The Chalk Farm Bridge has been considered before and seems to offer an excellent location, although Phil explained that misgivings from some living close by have so far thrown a spanner in the works.
Meanwhile, with his work on the Conservation Area Advisory Committee, Phil has been working to help maintain the look and style of Primrose Hill. The committee has been responsible for up-grading the lampposts, replacing the modern motorway-style model with a modern take on the original Victorian style, to widespread delight. Phil has been part of the committee for almost a year, and has found it to be a fulfilling way to work on behalf of the neighbourhood. ‘They do amazing things, they really do. Everything you see around you visually in Primrose Hill is conserved and monitored by the committee. It’s all voluntary and it’s a huge amount of work that they do.’
His work with Transition has been similarly satisfying. ‘They’re an eco-organisation, covering four hundred or more ‘Transition Towns’ across the UK, having started out in Totnes in Devon. It’s about the community at its grass-roots starting to think about the way it uses energy and the way it effects the environment, and they do great things. Here in Primrose Hill, we did the fruit trees last year in the village. There’s eleven of them. Unfortunately we’ve been up against vandalism, and they haven’t been very well looked after, so when we’ve got time someone from the group goes around and waters them. We’re going to take the trees out of the pots on August 31st and move them to the gardens in front of St George’s Terrace to make a community orchard.’ The cost of the fruits trees last year was borne by Sandfords Estate Agents. ‘They’ve been brilliant. Hats off to Sandfords.’
So what is it that has ignited this passion for civic action in Phil?
‘I’ve never lived anywhere I felt so strongly about before. It’s almost like living as part of a very large family, and I never experienced that before I moved to Primrose Hill. I lived in Hampstead for three or four years, Belsize Park about the same, but they just didn’t have the same feeling as this place. I think that the challenges that the community has faced, such as the library closing and the threat of HS2, have really brought out that sense of family and I just feel really lucky to be part of it, and I feel very protective of it.
‘The reason I got involved with all this is that I had the shop in the village. I made my living out of that for eleven years, and after I closed it, I didn’t have very much money, but what I did have I decided to live on, and use my time to do community work. It has been brilliant. I’ve met so many amazing people and I think we are so lucky to live in a place where people care about it so much.’
A particular concern of Phil’s is the current planning application for a house to be built in the garden of the Albert Pub on Princess Road. ‘I think the lifeblood of the community is the businesses, because they are more than a place where you shop or you sit or whatever it is. People need to meet and connect with each other. If they don’t want to they don’t need to but the option is there. Once you start taking it away it’s an awful thought. I don’t want to live in a dormitory town, that’s not why I moved here. Pubs are probably, more than anywhere else, the place where people congregate socially, even more than the shops and the cafes, and I think it’s vital that that stays.’
Phil was brought up in Edinburgh by an American father and an English mother, then came down to London aged just sixteen. Starting out as an actor on TV staples such as EastEnders and Casualty, he found work on a vintage stall in Camden Market which sparked his interest in interiors. His own stall in the Stables Market was a natural progression, and his shops came next, along with interior design commissions, notably including a beautiful local trophy house that took two years to fully refurbish, and Mary Portas’s gorgeous new home in the village.
Does he plan to start up his business again?
‘I’m still doing interior design work, but I’m really into community work now, and I’d like to professionalise that eventually in some way. I’m working on setting up a BID, a Business Improvement District. There’s one in Camden, Camden Town Unlimited. Funding comes from the Mayor’s Office and businesses have to chip in as well. It’s a long process, but this area I think could be a model for one. If we could get the money from the Mayors Office for the BID, then I would be applying for the job of running it. I’d rather do that than have my shop back.’
Spearheading neighbourhood campaigns has not been plain sailing, however. Taking a public stance on local matters invites debate and of course not everyone will agree. The campaign to prevent the arrival of SpaceNK became heated and acrimonious; and occasionally responses to recommendations by the Conservation Area Advisory Committee can be hostile. Phil admits that criticisms have stung and left him feeling hurt. Being a ‘go-to’ voice for local newspapers can also mean that his words, when quoted, pack a punch that even he doesn’t anticipate. His comments to the Camden New Journal regarding the long-awaited opening of a butcher’s shop led to fears that he was about to orchestrate a boycott; however Phil is adamant: ‘I’m not going to start an anti-foie gras campaign.’ In fact, Phil welcomes Jack O’Shea’s new shop, planned to open in the village in August. ‘It’s a staple shop, and if the staples are there, the other shops will thrive because people will use Regent’s Park Road as a shopping mall or a destination. I think that compared to a year and a half ago, it’s going in the right direction.’
What else are we missing?
‘I know what we can’t lose: the hardware store on Chalcot Road. But as for what we are missing…I think pop-ups. It would draw people looking for something a bit different if the area was known for variety of rotating pop-ups. Possibly they would attract a different demographic. Really they are just as essential as regular shops.’ Phil backs up his statement with an anecdote. Walking in the park, he overheard a girl say “Isn’t it a shame they’ve got all these empty shops. They should have pop ups.” Phil points out that ‘people are conscious of the empty shops, they stand out. I think the Town Team, being an organisation, might be able to help.’
With his encyclopaedic knowledge of Primrose Hill and his passion for his neighbourhood, is there a nugget of information Phil can share that no one else knows?
Of course he can: the top of the hill has its own postcode: NW3 3AX.
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