Newsletter June 2015

The long anticipated rebuild of the front of The Spires and the associated opening of Carluccio’s have finally happened. The jury remains out on whether this will now trigger the desperately needed revitalisation of our High St, though there are some promising signs. We also report on a major new housing development on the former nurses home site near the hospital.

Our AGM will be held at the Wesley Hall on 30th June when our guest speaker will be Phil Archer, Manager of Waitrose in The Spires. This should be a good opportunity for those of us who shop at Waitrose to quiz Phil on matters such as the product range, pricing, and any planned changes.

A BIG WELCOME FOR SPIRES NEW FRONTAGE ….

Spires frontage rebuilt, BarnetIt appears to be plaudits all round for the new frontage to The Spires, which finally emerged last month from its cocoon of plastic sheeting. The spruced up former church spires look particularly fine set against the clean lines of the new construction. It is now possible to appreciate how unattractive the previous rather fussy and more enclosed frontage really was. The more open frontage and the new paving have also made the centre much brighter and more welcoming.

Opening in tandem with the completion of The Spires frontage, the smart presentation of Carluccio’s has also been well received. The arrival of this popular restaurant chain has been well trailed so is no surprise that the early days have been exceptionally busy.

Pattisserie Joie de Vie, BarnetOther smart new openings on the eat and drink front are Pattisserie Joie de Vie at the junction of the High St and Moxon St, and Angel Coffee in the former Oasis premises in The Spires.

Along with Melange, which opened earlier this year, your editor has sampled all of these outlets and considers that collectively they have significantly uplifted the quality of the town’s catering offerings. Whether all of them can attract sufficient customers to ensure their survival, and indeed encourage others to follow, is of course the acid test. It is however possible to see a glimmer of hope that High Barnet might eventually rival Whetstone as a destination of choice for eating and drinking.

VACANCIES CONTINUE TO FALL

Fruit & Veg shop, BarnetThe number of empty shops in the town centre is now down to 15. This is far from wonderful but an enormous improvement on the 23 that we identified last Autumn. Such good progress in advance of the completion of The Spires refurbishment is a reason for cautious optimism. As well as those mentioned above, recent new openings include Salernos hairdressers opposite the St Albans Rd junction, and the Fruit & Veg shop in the centre of the High St, though the latter is on a temporary lease. Toni & Guys have moved from the centre of the High St to smaller premises at the north end. Both Salernos and Toni & Guys are well presented and contribute to the pleasing appearance of the shops along this stretch.

Salernos hairdressers, BarnetToni & Guys, Barnet

Spice Carriage, BarnetThankfully, recent closures have been few. In The Spires two ‘pop-up’ shops, Billy & Bettys and Tea Station, both closed after being open for no more than three months. This does seem a waste given the effort that went into setting them up. At the south end of the High St Spice Carriage has closed. This has long been by far the weakest of the three Indian restaurants so its demise is no surprise.

Whilst most of the above is probably the most positive summary of the state of the town centre that we have been able to report for several years, there are still a number of dark clouds ……

.…. MORE CHARITY SHOPS DAMPENS OPTIMISM

The opening of two more charity shops, Air Ambulance and The Willow Foundation, both located in the central section of the High St, has yet again dismayed those working for a town centre revival. Though charity shops do have their place, we now have eleven, and it is a fact that multiple charity shops are associated in the minds of the public with run-down town centres. We are particularly blighted with nearly all of ours located in the prime section of the High St, with no fewer than eight on the west side between the Church and The Spires, a stretch that may soon qualify for re-naming as ‘Charity Parade’. We spoke to the landlord of one of the new charity shops who said they had experienced major problems with the two previous tenants going bust, and the shop had been standing empty for eighteen months without a single enquiry. This does raise questions about rental expectations, which we suspect have been unrealistic for a town centre experiencing long-term decline. It also indicates that the 80% rates discount as well as free merchandise and volunteer staff enjoyed by charity shops is creating an imbalance with which commercial traders cannot compete. It might also mean that landlords are able to maintain higher rental expectations than the trading conditions in the area justify. And here we should compliment The Spires management: their vacancy rate has consistently exceeded that of the High St, but they have refused to countenance allowing in any charity shops.

…..SPIRES PARKING MUST BE SORTED

Empty car park, Spires, BarnetWe have previously written at length about the disastrous decision by the previous owners of The Spires to contract out the running of the car park. Since the last price rise we have found an occupancy rate usually well below 50%, and only reaching just over 50% at the peak time on a Saturday morning. Vehicles in the associated market car park barely reach double figures. So on weekdays some 250 or more parking spaces in the centre of our town regularly remain unoccupied. To think that cars once had to be turned away because The Spires was full. Whilst we are encouraged by the council parking being consistently close to capacity, this brings its own problems if visitors are frustrated at not being able to find a space in the location of their choice. As well as more overall usage, we do need occupancy to be spread more evenly around the town. This will not happen until the disproportionately expensive charges at The Spires are reduced. We cannot see how contractors Legion can possibly justify the same level of charges that apply in the centre of nearby St Albans, a popular major shopping centre. No wonder usage is so low. We have again written to Legion parking urging a rethink. Our MP Theresa Villiers has written in support.

.…. PEDESTRIANS NEED BETTER TREATMENT

High Street, BarnetNo one could claim that the High St is a pleasant environment in which to shop. Noisy traffic and fumes are ever-present and crossing the road is not that easy. The Town Centre Strategy, adopted in 2012, included in the Action Plan a commitment to explore the feasibility of building out the pavements in the central section of the High St. The Town Team made this a priority. It took a long time to get any movement at all from the council, but last winter some initial planning was done by council officers and discussed with the Town Team. Alas, this unravelled earlier this year when the project was sidelined.

We were so disappointed that we wrote to the Leader of the Council urging that the project be revived. We said that “a lot is riding on the revamp of The Spires frontage and the arrival of Carluccio’s. If this should fail to stimulate the fortunes of The Spires the future of our town centre will be bleak indeed. We feel a major opportunity to work in partnership with The Spires revamp has been missed.” We pointed out that whilst we continue to have shop vacancies running into double figures, on a recent visit to nearby North Finchley we found only four vacant shops, and in East Finchley just one. This suggests that High Barnet has a particular problem compared to other centres and more needs to be done. We drew attention to many public realm initiatives undertaken around London’s suburban town centres using money provided by the Mayor, with pavement build-outs and improved street crossings being central to such schemes. Whilst other Boroughs have enthusiastically pursued the funds on offer for such initiatives, Barnet is notable in having shown no interest whatsoever.

….. AND TRADERS NEED TO ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE

We still need some retailers to up their game to improve the presentation of their shops and, although few in number, we are disappointed that the poster saying ’stop our town dying’, is on view in a small number of outlets. It was produced in support of the campaign to press the council to introduce one hour free parking which, for reasons we have previously stated, we have not supported. Prospective tenants for the empty shops are bound to look around the town and this poster can only serve to discourage them. We do wish our shopkeepers would be more positive; they could for example legitimately display a poster saying ‘Free parking in 100 spaces’ along with photos of Moxon St car park and Hadley Green.

THE CHANGING FACE OF OUR TOWN CENTRE

Former Hobdays site, BarnetExtra floor added above carpet shop, Barnet

As well as the major changes to the retail offering the buildings are changing too. We have of course had many changes down the years, but the continuing demand for new homes has led to a substantial drive to adapt building around the town centre to accommodate more flats. We have recorded a number of such schemes in the recent past but currently there is more activity than ever. The former Magistrates Court, the upper floors to the Conservative Club, the site that was Hobdays estate agents, and an extra floor to the building at the junction with St Albans Rd containing the carpet shop are all work in progress to deliver new flats. In general we welcome initiatives to make better use of floors above shops. The town centre still has a number of properties where the upper floors are badly neglected, but no doubt in due course many of these will be brought into residential use.

Older Women’s Co-Housing scheme, BarnetA particularly welcome new development now under way is the Older Women’s Co-Housing scheme in Union St. It has taken the group many years to get to this stage and, as one of the first schemes of its type in the country, we do hope all goes well with this project. Our photograph shows our MP Theresa Villiers with members of the group and construction company representatives at the launch of the building works.

We are awaiting a further planning application for flats to the upper floors of the former After Office Hours building. In the meantime we are pleased that following pressure from the council the owners have smartened up the decaying frontage. In Tapster St a small new block of flats is close to completion. Away from the centre the construction of Brook Valley Gardens off Mays Lane continues apace. Construction is so advanced on phase 1 that it is now possible to appreciate the appearance of the new streets. Further new developments are expected at Whitings Hill on land adjoining the school and on the former nurses home site as reported in the next item.

114 NEW HOMES ON HOSPITAL SITE

Former nurses home, BarnetIt will come as a relief to the neighbours that the long derelict nurses home site located between Wellhouse Lane, Elmbank Rd and Barnet Rd is to be redeveloped. The site has had problems with vandalism, arson and other undesirable activities on the part of intruders. The NHS has sold the site to Linden Homes, who are based in Harefield, and are currently constructing new homes on two sites in Mill Hill. Residents in Elmbank Rd and those opposite the site in Barnet Rd have been invited to comment on the plans.

We were invited to a meeting with Linden Homes. Our initial reaction is that the development should be very positive for our area. They are proposing a mix of 93 one, two and three bedroom flats along with 21 three, four or five bedroom houses, all to a very traditional design. Although many people would prefer houses to flats, the reality of soaring demand for homes is that we have to accept a greater degree of intensification than in the past. The height of the flats should not offend, with the maximum being four storeys, and the properties facing Barnet Rd and backing onto Elmbank Rd will be just two storeys plus dormer roof. Many trees on the site, some of which have protection orders, will be retained. We have made some observations, notably with regard to parking and bin storage, and we will also pursue with the council wider concerns regarding school provision and bus services. This may be an opportunity to press yet again our long held desire to extend the 34 bus to Arkley. As yet there is no information on the proportion of low cost homes that will be included in the scheme.

CLASSIC CAR SHOW A BOOST FOR THE MARKET

Classic Cars, BarnetMore Classic Cars, Barnet

Following on from the successful event held last year on the bandstand and market sites a repeat show, again sponsored by Friends of Barnet Market, was held on Saturday 16th May featuring more cars. Prior to the show the vehicles assembled in Barnet Lane and drove up the High St, providing an entertaining diversion for pedestrians. Attendance was up on last year, which suggests that this event could be established as a popular annual attraction. Most of the cars were local, and one spin-off has been the formation of a Barnet Classic Cars Association.

The underlying objective of the show was to raise public awareness of the market, which, it has to be said, continues to struggle. There are a number of loyal traders there who have stuck it out through some very difficult times and it would be especially sad for them if the market were to close. The stalls we do have continue to provide an excellent range of fresh food including fruit & veg, bread & cakes, meat and fish. We previously reported that the Wednesday market had moved to the bandstand, but it has now moved back to the Market site. The number of stalls and patronage on Wednesdays in particular remain disappointingly low. It remains a matter of ‘use it or lose it’.

KEEPING ROGUE LANDLORDS AT BAY

The rising population in London has seen an increase in the number of Homes in Multiple Occupation. These properties are often associated with poor maintenance and inadequate facilities. To try and keep problems under control any property with more than six unrelated occupants who share basic amenities is classified as an HMO. Planning consent is required and the property has to be registered with the Local Authority. In some areas this has proved inadequate and councils have introduced tighter controls requiring planning consent as a HMO for any property containing three or more unrelated adults. Barnet has not suffered to anything like the extent of other areas, but there are problems and the tighter controls are to be adopted here. For legal reasons the new rules will not come into force until mid-2016.

0DEON CINEMA TO CHANGE HANDS

Odeon cinema, BarnetCinema goers may be pleased by the news that our local Odeon cinema is being sold to the Everyman cinema chain. Many people are familiar with the Everyman in Hampstead, but from a single cinema the group has embarked on an ambitious expansion programme in recent times. They currently operate twelve cinemas including six in London. The latest acquisition is for four Odeon cinemas in North London for a stated £7.1million, bringing their estate up to sixteen. Most pleasing is that a further £6.1million is earmarked for refurbishment of the four new acquisitions. Though having an attractive Listed Art Deco frontage and foyer, our Odeon does fall short of the standards now offered by more modern outlets in matters such as screen size, seating and sound quality. So a major revamp is to be warmly welcomed. Film buffs will also be eagerly looking forward to the prospect of a more varied programme that should include more Independent and ‘Art House’ films. A possible down side is that admission prices could well be higher.

LAST ROAR OF THE LION?

Former Old Red Lion, BarnetPubs do remain an important part of our social fabric and many people have been saddened by the many closures over recent years. In the High Barnet area we have lost five over the past 15 years or so and a further casualty is The Old Red Lion at the foot of Barnet Hill. With the departure of the football club this large pub lost its main source of revenue so closure was always on the cards. There was very little warning of the closure and we understand it occurred immediately after owners McMullens concluded a deal to sell the pub to a developer. It is a large site so there is a real prospect of demolition and replacement with a block of flats. An attempt to get it listed as an Asset of Community Value was rejected by the council on the questionable grounds that as the pub was already closed when the application was made it could not be considered.

White Lion, BarnetRed Lion, Barnet

Also threatened is the White Lion on St Albans Rd. A succession of tenants has failed to run the pub as a viable proposition and the current landlord is there only on a temporary basis until July. Owners Fullers do have a better record than most pub companies for trying to keep outlets open, but we understand that so far there have been no takers for the lease after July. The site would be a development opportunity as it could be linked with the former tyre garage next door that is lying empty. If we do lose the White Lion then the Red Lion Carvery in the High St, with its iconic sculptured lion, would be the last ‘Lion’ in the area. Fortunately this does appear to be trading well.

HOPE FOR THE PHYSIC WELL

Physic Well, BarnetTucked away amongst a housing development of roads named after it, the Physic Well has long cut a decidedly sad appearance. Given the lack of care it could be in far worse condition, though signs of deterioration are evident. As part of its review of its asset portfolio the council has been seeking views on how the future of this important historic building might be secured. We were asked for thoughts on this. Along with everyone else the only idea we had was to suggest that Barnet Museum might be asked to take it on, but they should not be expected to assume any responsibility for funding maintenance.

GOLF CLUB PLANS UNVEILED

At the invitation of the management we went along to Old Fold Manor Golf Club to view their plans for major changes to the course. Their prime intention is to create new practice ranges to the north of the site and additionally create a new embankment between the course and St Albans Rd.

Old Fold Manor Golf Club, BarnetCanopy of trees, Barnet

As part of the scheme they plan to remove the long row of diseased poplar trees that flank the road. We did view the trees, now more than 100 years old, and recognised that they are indeed life expired. A number have been cut down already. Fortunately many other trees and shrubs also run alongside the road, and with sensitive additional planting the visual impact should be minimal. The pleasant green canopy that covers some of the road in summer should not be disturbed. The work will entail the delivery of large quantities of spoil. We will need to be satisfied that the intention for these deliveries to enter the site from the M25 direction will be observed. The Club are still in consultation with the council and we will scrutinise the planning application in detail when it is submitted.

AND BRIEFLY …

It is nine months since we learned that our campaign for a machine to clean up chewing gum deposited on pavements had finally come to fruition. Alas there has yet to be a sighting of this machine in action anywhere in the Borough. We are also aware that the pavement scrubbing machine has become equally conspicuous by its absence. We do wonder if service cuts and the expected move to put the street cleaning service out to contract might be influencing the lack of activity. We continue to pursue.

The damaged wall at the junction of Stapylton Rd and Salisbury Rd following a collision is a symptom of drivers being unsighted by parked cars when pulling out from the north side of Salisbury Rd. This is not the first accident here and we are asking for the parking arrangements on Stapylton to be reviewed.

But not all on street maintenance is bad news. It took us over a year of persistence, but the problem of flooding in Stapylton Rd car park has finally been solved with the cleaning out of the gullies.


INVITATION TO ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING

Tuesday 30th June 2014, 7.15pm, The Wesley Hall, Stapylton Rd, EN5 4JJ

The formal business will commence at 7.15pm (note the earlier start time) with reports from the Chairman and presentation of the annual accounts, followed by election of Officers. We need to elect Chairman, Secretary, Treasurer and Committee Members (up to seven places). Our Treasurer Sylvia Grant is standing down after nine years of service but has offered to remain on the Committee. Sue Russell has volunteered to be Treasurer and Mervyn Jones has offered to take her place as Auditor. All other officers and current committee members are offering themselves for re-election. The position of Secretary remains vacant and we would be delighted to hear from anyone interested in filling this post – for more information contact the Chairman via our website. We also have one committee space that remains unfilled.

On completion of the formal business (usually around 30 minutes) our guest speaker will be Phil Archer, Manager of Waitrose High Barnet branch in The Spires. Waitrose is THE anchor store in High Barnet and its fortunes are vital to the revival of our town centre. This is an opportunity to learn more about how Waitrose sees its place in the community and to ask questions about matters such as store layout and the products on offer.