Newsletter October 2016

The work now starting on the H&M store in the East Courtyard of The Spires has generated a buzz of excitement around town. For the first time that we can remember there is now a sense of optimism that at long last the town centre may have turned a corner. So a lot is riding on the success of this new store. We have a mixed bag of good and bad things to report on planning matters, but our major current concern is the Ark school in Underhill where the promoters are ploughing ahead in the face of considerable opposition.

ARK PROPOSALS SET FOR A BATTLE

artists impression of modern three storey building

A crowded public meeting organised by councillors in Underhill, attended by over 100 residents, was unanimously hostile to the proposal to build the Ark Pioneer school on the Underhill stadium site. Concerns ranged over traffic, parking, the safety of children travelling to school and the impact on nearby residential properties. There may also be issues over air quality given the traffic congestion close to the site. Information given to the meeting took us no nearer to being convinced that this school is needed. One concession was announced – that the junior school will now be two forms of entry (FE) and not three as originally intended. But we are sure that these junior places could be provided by other means, either by expanding other local schools or creating a new free school, ideally in the High Barnet area where the excess demand in our area is to be found. Underhill school is known to have the capacity to expand by one FE.

At secondary level we have got no further than the previously stated Council position that a minimum of 20FE are required across the Borough. Given that the number of new homes planned for our two wards is relatively few, we have continued to ask just precisely where this demand will arise, but without success. Whether we need any more secondary places locally is very questionable given that in the current year the 1000 capacity Totteridge Academy has only 500 pupils. It was also revealed at the meeting that Barnet’s assessment includes a wide extra margin of places to allow for variable demand due to parental preferences.

We can only foresee a future where the majority of secondary children being educated in our area will travel in from some distance away. Barnet prides itself on the quality of education in our Borough but this is a conceit that pulls the wool over the eyes of residents as to what really goes on. Some 30% of the secondary places in Barnet, and just to emphasise that - nearly one-third of the secondary places in our Borough - go to children who travel in from other Boroughs. It is the selective schools, trumpeted by the Borough to boost its image, that are the major problem. QE Boys is a prime example having entry criteria that mean few local boys attend. The number of Barnet children educated outside the Borough is not known, but we suspect it will only be a fraction of the 30% who come here, and many of those who do travel out only do so because their parents cannot access suitable places within the Borough.

Just before we went to press the planning application for the Ark school was submitted. The illustration above indicates that we are going to get a somewhat utilitarian building that is unlikely to grace the area. The planning application number is 16/5948/FUL and comments can now be submitted on line. We anticipate sending in an objection and will email members with more information on this.

SPIRES REDEVELOPMENT ON TRACK

white hoardingAt the time the planning application went in we were sceptical whether the H&M store really could be completed by April next year. But the existing occupants were quickly moved around to free up the units on the redevelopment site in the East Courtyard. The contractors have arrived, with demolition now well under way. So far it has been well managed with an absence of dust or noise. There is an evident determination to get on with the job, so we do now feel there is cause for cautious optimism that the new store could indeed be with us by next Spring.

Other tasks include the relaying of the courtyard surfaces, with the proposed restaurants in the West Courtyard to follow. Two shop units are already empty to facilitate this. There are still issues to settle with regard to the restaurants. We understand there may now be just two rather than three, with the possibility that Savers will remain. Further planning consent will be needed for the restaurants to address the concerns of nearby residents over possible noise and ventilation issues. We are also aware that many residents feel the proposed changes to the West Courtyard are less appealing than the popular existing central landscaped seating area, a concern we will pursue further with the owners. The shortcomings of the parking arrangements, which we have highlighted on numerous occasions, are the subject of continuing discussions between the owner’s representatives Hunters and Legion Parking.

BULL NOW AN ASSET OF COMMUNITY VALUE

blue painted buildingThe designation as Assets of Community Value (ACVs) of buildings that have a community use, particularly pubs, has gained increasing attention since being introduced as part of the Localism Act in 2012. The protection offered is relatively limited, but does require any disposal to be delayed by six months to enable a community organisation to put in a bid to acquire the property. The Bull Theatre is owned by Barnet Council and about twelve years ago there was an attempt to sell it off to the highest bidder. A local campaign forced a change of mind and we thought that ACV status would give the community a chance to acquire this important venue should the Council again decide to try and dispose of it. In September our ACV application was agreed. It is pleasing to note that over the summer the front doors were renewed and the foyer has been altered to improve the circulation space. New seats for the theatre will be the next improvement when funds allow.

The local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) secured ACV status for the White Lion and for The Sebright Arms, but the latter was overturned on appeal by owners McMullens. The Council also rejected CAMRA’s ACV applications for the Lord Nelson and the Builders Arms in New Barnet. CAMRA are consulting with local groups on how fresh ACV applications for these pubs might be framed.

SHOP VACANCIES LOWEST FOR MANY YEARS

Closures in recent weeks have been Store 21, the plumbers at the top end of the High St and Chudys at the lower end. Store 21 has been occupied by a short-lease furniture outlet, though with offerings that seem unlikely to accord with how most locals might choose to furnish their homes. The reorganisation of The Spires to take on the rebuilding project has meant that no outlets are available to let – helpfully eliminating the high level of empty shops that have blighted the centre for several years. Around the High St ten shops are empty, though half of these are not being advertised as available to let for one reason or another. The overall picture reflects the continuing reorientation of the town centre offerings from retail to leisure, particularly food and drink. The recent Rates revaluation is likely to bring some significant reductions for our local commercial outlets and this should provide a welcome boost to our High St.

shop with vegetables outsidehalf-timbered building and bus shelter

The arrival of the Village Food Centre in the middle of the High St has caused a frisson of excitement. Our fear that it might be just another convenience store was misplaced - on offer is a wide range of exotic foodstuffs mainly from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Your editor was especially pleased to find okra and nine varieties of dates on sale. Whether the offerings will find favour with the more conservative tastes of many of our residents remains to be seen, but it is a bold venture and we wish them well. The former Reks pub has reopened as Hadley House restaurant and early reports have been positive. At the lower end of the High Street the Co-op funeral parlour is now open, the very smart frontage replacing what was previously something of an eyesore, though it does look rather less attractive since posters were put in the window. The Suruchi Indian restaurant has reinvented itself as ‘Mehek’.

white building with red signageA bold new venture with a less guaranteed source of clientele is Pizza Piccante occupying the same premises as the previously failed Pizza Borsalino. We hope they do not share a similar fate but patronage does appear to be somewhat thin.

A ‘smoothie’ outlet at the bottom end of the High St closed down a couple of years ago, so it was a surprise to see a similar venture ‘Shaketastic’ opening in the long-closed former Thomas Cook outlet. We would have preferred the signage to show more restraint. Something simpler – and probably cheaper – could have looked so much better. As often the case where signage can be less than attractive, there was no application to the council for advertising consent. Not only is there the large brash main signboard, we also have a matching protruding sign and a large banner, which to say the least is overkill – imagine if every shop did the same. The building has considerable architectural merit and it is not being treated very kindly. We have asked Council Enforcement to regulate the situation.

SMARTEN UP!

This is a theme we have featured on previous occasions. Residents do frequently tell us how shoddy the town centre looks, with a lot of the buildings – how do we put this politely – looking less than pristine, where even occasional cleaning of the ground floor frontage eludes many shopkeepers. So it is pleasing that we have some positive changes to report and well as highlighting some continuing blots on the street scene.

clock overhanging the pavementscruffy shop front with a small tree growing out of it

At our AGM a number of members expressed disappointment that the old Barnet Times clock above TSB had been stopped for some months. It was suggested that members might go in and complain, and indeed we later learned that this is indeed what happened. TSB have promised to repair the clock, though as yet nothing has happened. One member, on feeling suitably empowered after leaving TSB, then went into Foxtons and complained about the tree growing out of their wall. This time the response was almost immediate and the tree promptly disappeared (though alas Foxton’s have yet to do anything about the frontage of the empty shop next door - the subject of a complaint by our MP to the council enforcement team). These are examples where members can make a difference just by pointing out to property owners areas of neglect or scruffiness. We know that members of the public have commented to Pizza Express that the unsightly graffiti on their building has been there for months. It is time they cleaned it off (as Prezzo next door have done) and any members using this eatery might care to make the point.

white painted empty shopfreshly painted black litter bin

Tidying up on a substantial scale has happened in Union Street where two of the rather derelict looking shops have been given a most welcome makeover and a third is now being progressed. We do hope the messy side wall to Clarks (another one where members could make the point) and the nail bar, which has sported a broken window for some months, follow suit. Along with the Older Women’s Co-operative Housing development (OWCH), now nearing completion, we are experiencing a major transformation in the presentation of the High St end of Union St. And still on the subject of scruffiness, our campaign with the Council over the state of the litter bins has borne fruit with those in the centre of the High Street now repainted. It has taken a year, but when it comes to the council taking action we have learned to be patient.

POLICE TEAMS IN PLACE

Many members will remember when we had a Safer Neighbourhood Team of nine officers, mostly PCSOs, dedicated to each of our wards, although in practice the full teams were rarely available. We were however guaranteed a visible presence around the town centre throughout the day and most evenings. Budget cuts have put an end to all that, but after a rather difficult period of restructuring we now have dedicated ward teams back in place. Alas numbers are much reduced. We have one Sergeant (Jon Sparks) who has responsibility for three wards, with two PCs and a PCSO allocated to each ward. We do hope this new arrangement will usher in a period of stability so that the teams can build up a detailed knowledge of what is happening locally.

Barnet Police StationDespite the manpower cuts overall crime levels have continued to show little change, with around 80 reported crimes per month in High Barnet and rather fewer in Underhill. Many of these crimes are relatively minor. In recent months burglaries have shown a significant reduction, which is a matter of considerable relief to residents, though it remains a priority area for the local team. Anti-social behaviour has been a recurring problem in parts of New Barnet but is likely to subside as the weather deteriorates. In September an organised gang operating over a wide area twice broke the front windows of Sainsburys to steal alcohol and cigarettes, but we understand arrests have since been made. A more exotic crime was the discovery of a cannabis factory in Arkley. The police station frontage was vandalised (see photo with notice boards still boarded up) by someone who apparently had a grudge but he too was arrested.

We have asked the police to look at graffiti in the area. A number of properties along the High St have been affected as we highlighted in the June newsletter. The newly installed green BT cabinets providing fast broadband have been especially targeted for reasons best known to the culprits. Lots of us have a grudge against BT but we would not take it to such extremes.

We thought the police had lost interest in speeding cars, so it came as a surprise to learn that following complaints from residents Traffic Officers were called in to run speed checks along Galley Lane. Forty-two cars were stopped with those a little above the limit given a caution. Nine people were given penalty fines. Another very welcome one-day exercise was a joint operation with the council checking the validity of blue badges in our High St. For several years this is something we have consistently grumbled about and it is pleasing that at last something has been done. Five badges were seized and two fixed penalty notices were issued. We do hope it won’t take years before a repeat operation is undertaken.

MORE AND MORE PLANNING APPLICATIONS

Applications for extensions, loft conversions or alterations of some kind to domestic properties in our area have recently been running at well over 300 a year. We find this an astonishing figure for an area of around 25000 homes, especially as many more will have made changes under ‘permitted development’ rules (which are explained on our website). For the most part we avoid getting involved in domestic applications leaving it to neighbours to challenge proposals if they consider they might be adversely affected. We may take an interest if there is a point of principle to pursue, for example attempts in residential streets to convert family houses to flats, which we strongly oppose.

It is as well we do keep domestic applications at arm’s length as we are more than fully occupied examining commercial applications where we often find reasons to put in an objection. At sites on or around the High St some 140 new homes are currently proposed or under construction, of which all but a dozen are flats. The largest of these schemes are the OWH project in Union St (25 homes), which should be completed by the end of the year, and the redevelopment of the Brake Shear House site (41 homes) which now has planning permission with work expected to start shortly.

We strongly objected to one recent application in Park Rd for an extension to add more flats and build houses to the rear. We argued this was over-development and were pleased that the Council rejected the application. In Bosworth Road approval has been given for a bungalow to be replaced with a block of flats. This is an example where flats have previously got a foothold in the road and developers seize on the precedent to secure planning consent for yet more. Better news was the rejection of applications to convert houses into flats in Grasvenor Avenue and King Edward Rd. An application to demolish a detached house in Barnet Rd and replace it with two small houses was also rejected.

The owners of 60/62 High St did show contrition for removing the Georgian windows above the shops (Paddy Power/Dudleys) and replacing them with modern plastic ones. They submitted a planning application to put back wooden replicas of the originals at the front and it was approved. But they also applied to retain the replacement UPVC windows to the rear, and that was rejected. We fear there may now be an impasse that might prejudice implementation of the approval to install the replacement front windows.

three shopsred brick building

Along the High St there are planning applications to add extra floors above Café Nero and above Rice/Co-op Funerals. The former Specs Direct at 85 High St has approval to alter the frontage as part of a conversion scheme, but the developer has now applied to make a further change. We objected to the original planning application as we considered the proposed alterations to this locally listed building were inappropriate, and we have now objected to this second application as we think the outcome will be even worse. Proposed developments to the rear of properties include behind the Conservative Club, Sainsburys, and behind the carpet shop at St Albans Rd junction. Other schemes involve converting upper floors from storerooms or offices to flats such as above Londis. The two somewhat controversial applications to redevelop both sides of the upper end of Moxon St, discussed in the June Newsletter, have still to be decided. The approved plan to demolish After Office Hours and replace it with a bar and flats above has yet to get started.

row of shopsartists impression of white square building

A proposal earlier this year to rebuild the frontage and add an extra floor above the Toy Galaxy/Village Food Centre building, and which we opposed, was withdrawn. A revised scheme was submitted in the summer but to our mind the frontage was even less appealing so we objected again. The council agreed and refused the application.. We are very keen to see this ugly and run-down row rebuilt, but we do want a design that does justice to this large important site in the middle of our High St. On St Albans Rd there is a proposal to replace the former tyre depot alongside the White Lion with a mix of offices and homes. We have objected as we think the design is decidedly grim (artist’s impression above) and detracts from the important attractive buildings to each side. On Union St we considered the Council was right to reject the retrospective planning application for unauthorised alterations to the former Town Hall at no 29, but this does leave something of a mess to be sorted out. There has been no work on the property for many weeks.

The other ever present threat is possible incursions into the Green Belt, which gives our area much of its distinctive character. The London Green Belt Council recently issued a report on threats, which was a little misleading insofar as this Green Belt embraces counties surrounding the Metropolitan area. Proposals for 123,000 homes on Green Belt land were identified, although only 2100 of these were in London itself. Just one site, in the south west corner, was indicated for our Borough. Surprisingly, some 22% of the land area of London was said to be Green Belt, and we know that much of this is in Barnet. In neighbouring Hertfordshire 41,000 homes were said to be under consideration for building on the Green Belt, though it does cover some 52% of the County. There is no further news on the threat to the Whalebones site.

BEACH HUT RUNS INTO THE SAND

wide angle view of shopsWe have previously reported that the roof addition of two flats to 141 High St (above the carpet shop at the High St/St. Albans Rd junction) was nothing like what was approved by the Council. It was so ugly that we dubbed it ‘The Beach Hut’. Little did we then know that indeed that is more or less what it is. We have since learned that the developer was advised by a structural engineer that the existing roof was not strong enough to take the weight of what was approved. So, as his agent has put it, the developer decided he had no choice but to build something less substantial. He appears not to have considered the possibility that maybe the answer was to do nothing …. We and others objected to a subsequent planning application to try and improve the appearance by adding false windows, and were gratified that the application was soundly rejected. The two flats are standing empty and we await the next move by the council enforcement team, which we do hope will be suitably robust. Meantime, the developer has put in a planning application to build flats on the car park to the rear of the property. A previous application was rejected and owners of the existing flats at no 141 have strongly objected to this new application.

CHASING THE PLANNING CHEATS

The Beach Hut saga has brought into focus the work of the planning enforcement team. The Borough has just six officers for a unit which received some 1700 complaints in the past year. In reality most of these complaints have no basis in planning law and so are not pursued – a lot of people don’t like their neighbours extensions etc., but the continuing relaxation of planning law has resulted in a lot of unpopular and often unsightly building works about which nothing can be done.

Many of the valid complaints are resolved by negotiation with property owners, which may include retrospective planning applications. Of the remainder some evident violations are not pursued because the Council judges that proceeding would not be in the public interest. The decision is entirely at the discretion of officers. This is the most contentious area and can leave complainants feeling very dissatisfied. But the limitation on resources and the cost of pursuing a transgression are realities that have to be recognised. Despite these difficulties Barnet has issued some 100 formal contravention notices in the past year, making it the eighth busiest council in England in terms of enforcement notices issued.

Major transgressions which are pursued, sometimes to the point of prosecution, or direct action to remove offending works, include unlawful conversion of houses to flats, use of outbuildings for residential purposes, and unregistered homes in multiple occupation. For one recent unlawful HMO case the owner has been prosecuted under the Proceeds of Crime Act and ordered to pay £600,000.

We are constantly exercised over the absence of planning consent for alterations to shop fronts and signage. The Crown and Anchor and Guns ’N Smoke are examples where the Council has taken action, but we have to recognise the reality that the majority of such transgressions will not be pursued. The best we can usually do is point out to owners and occupiers the inadequacy of their frontages and hope to persuade them to make changes. It is an uphill task. We recently wrote to three High St owners about the neglected state of their upper floors and not one graced us with a response.

A FINE MESS

Good news on parking fines in Barnet – over 5000 fewer PCNs issued in 2015/16 than in the previous year. The bad news is that the number issued was still enormous – over 148,000, and there were fewer appeals to the adjudicator. The figures mirrored the trend across London which the authorities put down to motorists having learned the hard way that they need to observe parking controls. However the introduction of CCTV cameras at box junctions across the Borough is likely to push up the figures. At the High St/Wood St junction we now have warning signs but the camera has still to be installed. And, as one member who parked two wheels up recently learned to her cost, enforcement officers can be on the prowl in quiet residential streets even after midnight!

NOAH’S ARK ON THE HORIZON

artists impression of cross-shaped buildingThis is one Ark heading our way that we can support. It does seem to have been a long time coming, but we do now have a planning application for this children’s hospice in Byng Rd. This follows on from the completion of the new Environment Centre building on the same site, a project that was beset with difficulties as a result of a contractor going bust. The design of the hospice does seem very attractive and we look forward to work starting on this fine venture. Another community facility getting closer to opening is the project to provide an activity centre for older people in the former Red Cross building in St Albans Rd. The John Trotter Trust charity has been very successful with its fund raising and there are expectations that the first phase of the scheme should be ready by early next year.

AGM VENUE A SUCCESS

For the AGM on 5 July we did have some qualms whether moving to the Bull would work. In the event we had a full house with 52 members present. The Chairman’s report commented on the significant increase in membership and anticipates that we should reach 600 by the turn of the year. Our guest speaker, Peter Ridley from The Royal Free NHS Trust, gave an engaging talk on future plans involving the rebuilding of Chase Farm, making better use of Finchley Memorial Hospital, and restructuring A&E at Barnet where the demand now far exceeds planned capacity.

AND BRIEFLY …….

The BP garage near the Everyman cinema is being rebuilt and will include a M&S Simply Food outlet, something that should be welcomed by those of our members who currently travel to Whetstone to get their M&S food fix.

The consultation on the possibility of a Controlled Parking Zone around the Hospital met with a response of just 21% of households consulted, with just over half of those voting being in favour. The Council considered that support was insufficient to proceed with a scheme, but they are examining whether a more limited scheme might be justified for one or two of the roads where those in favour were in a majority.

The Council has approved a proposal to build out the pavements along a section of the west side of the High St from The Spires to the Post Office. Whether it proceeds is dependent on getting funding from Transport for London. We hope to have a lot more on this in due course.

A proposal to establish a pedestrian crossing at the junction of Alston Rd and The Avenue has been approved in principle but the extent of an associated 20mph zone has yet to be settled. We believe the Council still intends to construct a pedestrian crossing on Wellhouse Lane but it is taking an awfully long time to arrive. All is silent on the more controversial proposed alterations to the Wood St/High St junction.