WHALEBONES PARK REDEVELOPMENT PROPOSAL 2023 – PLANNING APPLICATION 23/4117/FUL
Whalebones is the area lying to the south of Wood Street just west of the left turn into Wellhouse Lane which leads to Barnet Hospital. Entry to the estate is through an archway formed from the jaws of a blue whale. Since the death of Gwyneth Cowing, a local artist and philanthropist in 1987, the estate of woods and farmland has been administered by Trustees named in her will.
The area is not open to the public and incorporates the listed Whalebones House (privately owned and not included in the planning application), woods and green space, a farm which has largely fallen into disuse, and buildings providing accommodation for the Guild of Artists and the Barnet Beekeepers Association.
This is the second planning application. The first, submitted in 2019, was for 152 homes, a mixture of houses and apartments, a large public park, and continuation of accommodation for the artists and beekeepers. It also planned for continuing operation of a smallholding for the farmer and his wife. This previous application was the subject of a major campaign of opposition and was narrowly rejected by the Council, a decision upheld on appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.
In deciding to support the previous scheme we were mindful that the Whalebones Estate was an open space and in the Wood Street conservation area, so there were and remain significant sensitivities surrounding any proposals for redevelopment. There is no bar in principle to development in a conservation area, but in considering whether to approve a scheme of this kind the Council must take into account planning law which requires that any development must ‘protect and enhance’ the area and there must be ‘less than significant harm’. We are keenly conscious of the fact that the site currently offers no public access and is largely hidden behind boundary hedges, meaning that the current benefit to the community is very limited.
This latest application is the same in general terms as the original, with the number of homes reduced to 114 and the buildings moved back from boundaries so that they are less visible from outside the estate. The publicly accessible green space will be increased to over 2 hectares, some 50% of the site. Arrangements for the other parties named in the original application are much the same. We consider the scheme is architecturally of a high standard, well laid out, and demonstrates considerable sensitivity to environmental issues. The proposal for a public park is in stark contrast to current absence of public access to this large green area. The inclusion of 40% of the homes being affordable should be of value to staff working at Barnet Hospital. A lengthy report included in the planning application advises that a resumption of commercial farming or a city farm would not be viable.
There is an obvious danger that if there is now a further failure to secure planning approval the result may be the sale of the estate on the open market to someone not possessed of local sensitivities and without a willingness to show loyalty to the late Gwyneth Cowing’s valuable legacy. This could very possibly lead to a much denser development of the entire site, limited access to green space and no assurances for the artists or beekeepers.
A further consideration is that in commenting on the emerging new Barnet Local Plan the Planning Inspectorate has said that the site is suitable for development with an indicative capacity of 100 or so homes. The Council has also identified the site as suitable for a mix of housing and green space. We are therefore firmly of the view that change is inevitable, including the provision of housing. Though the introduction of housing is controversial, we are not aware of any viable alternative scheme being put forward over the years since the Trustees made their intentions known. It is a matter of deciding whether the current application is as good as might be achieved against the uncertainty of what might emerge from a future development proposal.
We consider that the Trustees have acted responsibly in seeking to reflect the wishes of the late Gwyneth Cowing. Although the farmer would still have lifetime security of tenure of the cottage, any new owner of the rest of the site would have no such obligations. Without the restraining influence of the Trustees, the artists and beekeepers could become ‘homeless’ and the idea of a public park abandoned.
Against this background, especially the threat of sale to a new owner who would most likely be a developer, we have decided to support the revised scheme. We judge the following aspects of the scheme to be beneficial to the community:
1. The opening up of a large proportion of the site. There is currently no public access to the site, so it does not directly benefit the community - other than the sense of having a green ‘lung’ within a built-up area and the existence of an area supporting wildlife.
2. The housing development would occupy some 50% of the site but this would be spaciously laid out with a lot of greenery included.
3. Nearly 50% of the site would become public open space including landscaping, a wooded walk and children’s play area. The privately owned Whalebones House and the woodland surrounding it is not part of the scheme. With the House included, over 60% of the overall site would remain undeveloped, providing extensive wooded and parkland areas, much of it with public access.
4. Greening across the site would include extensive planting of 200 additional trees.
5. Views to the south from Wood Street towards Totteridge would be retained.
6. The Guild of Artists, which occupies a rapidly decaying building on the site along with the beekeepers would be re-housed in a purpose-built replacement building which should provide a basis for their long-term future.
7. The architecture is of a high standard, with pitched roofs and a maximum height of four storeys.
8. Two-thirds of the frontage facing Wood Street would be parkland and extra tree planting along the Wood Street boundary would make the site invisible from Wood Street except at the entrance, thereby maintaining the site’s role in providing a visible green separation between High Barnet and Arkley.
9. Tenure would include 40% affordable housing, a positive element of the scheme given the site’s proximity to Barnet Hospital.
We conclude that overall, the scheme meets the ‘protect and enhance’ criteria, especially the extensive open space which should be a substantial public benefit. We believe that any harm to the listed Whalebones House or the Wood Street conservation area would be less than substantial.
There does remain one important matter of concern. The developer has not yet identified an organisation to take over the running and maintenance of the parkland area. We do consider the parkland to be a vital element of the scheme and the uncertainty over its future management is troubling. We have however been assured by the Council that permission to commence the development would be conditional on a legal agreement confirming that a management regime was in place.
Barnet Residents Association