Welcome to our new look newsletter. Upgrading to colour does come at a cost and if we stick with it we will need to consider an increase in subscription rates at next year’s AGM, probably by £1. Your views on this are invited.
Along with the exciting rebuild at the front of The Spires we have reports on some important planning applications, along with updates on enforcement of planning abuses, parking and blue badge misuse. We are also pleased to announce that on Friday 7 November 2014 we will be hosting an evening Q&A session with our MP Theresa Villiers.
SPIRES REBUILD BEGINS …..
Following the departure of the bazaar in the former WHS Smith outlet the builders quickly moved in. Demolition work has begun, so there is every reason to believe that the intention to have Carluccio’s up and running by June next year will happen. Otherwise The Spires has been enlivened by the arrival of Red Clothing, another ladies fashion outlet, and Bel Gelato, a coffee shop - cum - ice cream parlour, the latter opening just as the weather turned down at the beginning of August. With winter approaching keeping this outlet going with ice cream as its main product might prove challenging. On the downside Cards Direct has closed so The Spires still has five empty outlets.
…. BUT SPIRES PARKING A DISASTER
The council may be moving into an Age of Enlightenment on parking, but Legion Parking, who have the contract to run The Spires car park, continue to regress into the Dark Ages. Charges were increased yet again from 8th October by an average of around 8%, so that over the past three years charges have increased by a whopping 130% for one or two hours. They have also removed free parking for blue badge holders. Legion have a fixed-fee contract with the owners William Pears and claim higher charges are necessary because they are making a loss. This is unsurprising as the contract dates from the time when council parking was expensive and full of commuters. The Spires is bound to have been hit by the changes to council parking, which of course were substantially influenced by ourselves. We thought that market forces would force a reduction in Spires charges but they have gone in the opposite direction. The consequence is that no-one is winning. Legion are losing money, Pears are struggling to get tenants for all their shops, tenants in The Spires are furious with the parking charges, and the High St evidently remains depressed. Though there are people who still huff and puff about council parking provision, it is the Spires that provides some 70% of shopper parking in the town and their charges are way out of kilter with what the council charges. So it is vital that Pears and Legion get together to sort out this impasse. We have approached both parties expressing our concerns.
VICTORY AT LAST!
When BRA was reactivated, after being dormant for several years, the first major issue we took up was the mistreatment of the frontage to the former Crown and Anchor building. Though rather slow – to say the least – the council stuck with it to the point where a prosecution was initiated. The case was adjourned in September to give the defendants time to consider their position. And now, six years after we first complained, the offending signage and shutters have been removed. To say the least, we are delighted with this outcome, though of course we have yet to see what replacement signage the occupants might now wish to put in place.
Anyone who doubts the importance of the appearance of buildings in setting the tone for an area should look at the building now and appreciate how fine it is, even though the ground floor windows have been butchered. Then think how it looked previously, when the vulgar signage and shutters dominated the whole row, projecting a shoddy down market image. Of course, many other shops nearby similarly warrant far more sensitive treatment, but at least the message has been sent that owners or occupiers cannot just do as they please.
NO SIGN OF HIGH ST RECOVERY
In the Spring we noted there were 21 empty shops along the High St and in The Spires – a vacancy rate of 10%, though we did comment that there were signs of recovery. Alas our optimism was unfounded. From our most recent count we were discouraged to find that the number had risen to 23. We have lost Kaffeccinos at the upper end of the High St and the Cheque Centre at the lower end. The parade at the bottom end of town looks particularly grim with four shops currently empty. The closure of the Barnet Press office in St Albans Rd. is a particularly sad loss as the newspaper is more remote from our town now being based in Borehamwood. Most surprising was the closure of Hadleys restaurant, only a short while after a major re-fit, repossessed by the landlord presumably for non-payment of rent. The short-lived Animal Welfare Charity in the centre of the High St disappeared overnight when the management were unable to satisfactorily explain to Trading Standards which animal charity they were supporting. A cheap clothing outlet moved in almost immediately with a temporary lease.
Another charity shop has opened in the former bathroom showroom at the lower end of the High St selling second hand furniture. Emmaus provide housing and support for the homeless. This is the fifth shop to be opened by this St Albans based charity and they have taken the shop on a long-term lease. We wish them well, although the nine charity shops we have in total is hardly indicative of a successful High St. Specs Direct has occupied the renovated the former Mothercare shop. This is another instances of no planning consent being sought for the changes. Fortunately the frontage is quite smart, though we think glass down to ground level is rather stark and a stall riser would have been better (as with Foxtons who promised us one but never did it). Of more concern is what will happen to the former bank in the centre of the High St vacated by Specs Direct.
Another closure is Truckforce, the commercial tyre fitter on St Albans Rd, and being a sizable site we anticipate that a redevelopment proposal will follow. It is perhaps as well that the John Trotter trust secured the former Red Cross building next door for their Open Door project before a developer capitalised on the potential from merging the two sites. An innovative venture is the opening of 89, a ‘pop-up’ shop in the former Greggs outlet. The property is owned by the Eleanor Palmer Trust and they have teamed up with Love Barnet, a High St support group, to create an outlet that will showcase new businesses. The lease runs until March.
PARKING – HAVE YOUR SAY
The council has launched a public consultation on parking policy – you can see the document by going to engage.barnet.gov.uk and clicking on the consultation hub. The consultation remains open until 28 October. At 72 pages it is a lengthy and somewhat difficult document to digest, though much of the material in the extensive appendices merely sets out the statutory rules in relation to matters such as parking infringements. We have commented at length and a copy of what we have said is available on this web site: Consultation on Barnet's Draft Parking Policy (October 2014)
The key issue in the policy is the formal adoption of an occupancy target of 85% for town centre parking spaces and the use of variable charges to achieve this. This approach has in practice been the major shift in council policy over the last couple of years and the review largely seeks to formalise what has already happened. Over a number of years we lobbied the council over the absurdity of standardised charges across the Borough, which particularly disadvantaged High Barnet, and the lack of distinction between long and short- term parking which resulted in almost all the council spaces around our town centre being occupied by commuters. We are particularly pleased that we have had a major influence on council thinking, and in doing so brought some logic to parking provision in our town.
The review does discuss wider concerns regarding the high level of car ownership and usage in the Borough and the resulting problems with pollution and congestion. Though these issues go much wider than just parking, we do feel that the council has yet to develop more progressive policies to reduce car usage. One proposal discussed in the paper is to base CPZ permit charges on vehicle emission levels. We have however expressed our opposition to this, and if you read our submission on the website you will see why.
Meantime those living in a CPZ should be aware that visitor permits are now restricted to three years validity and not open-ended as was previously the case. So care now needs to be taken not to over-order.
HOSPITAL EXTENSION AND AFTER OFFICE HOURS REFUSED
We had no difficulty with the proposal to convert the former Richmond Fellowship building in Moxon St into the private Hadley Wood Hospital, which should bring additional good quality jobs to the town. But as conversion work was just beginning we were surprised when a planning application was submitted proposing to almost double the size of the hospital by adding two additional floors. We considered this would be over-development, especially as residential neighbours both to the front and the rear would be overlooked. The photograph shows the close proximity to the flats at the rear. Understandably a number of residents lodged objections and we decided to support them. We were additionally concerned that the lack of parking in the immediate area would result in hospital patients and visitors filling up Moxon St car park. We previously persuaded the council to convert this car park to short term only including one hour free. The intention was to help the traders at the lower end of the High St where parking is a particular problem, and several have commented that the change has made a significant difference. So in addition to supporting the neighbours our objection also argued that the absence of adequate parking for the hospital would have an adverse effect on the retail environment. The planners shared our concerns and the application was refused. We now wait to see if there is an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate.
The other major planning application to which we objected was the proposal to demolish 70 High St (After Office Hours) and replace it with a new façade and no fewer than ten studio flats behind, along with a bar/retail outlet on the ground floor. We circulated members on email encouraging objections, and thanks to everyone who responded. We were pleased but not surprised when the application was refused. Again we wait to see if there is an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. If not, we hope a suitably chastened developer will come forward with a more sensible proposal and in the meantime comply with the council Notice to stop the building deteriorating.
More encouraging news is the sale of the Conservative Club to a local developer who does have a good track record for sensitive conversions. The Club will continue in business occupying the existing main public areas whilst the uppers floors are being converted to flats. This is a particularly fine building and we anticipate that the frontage will be treated appropriately. Romily House on St Albans Rd, comprising five flats and an office, was finally completed after being a building site for what seemed an eternity. The building, though not thrilling, does look much better than the one it replaced. As with similar developments around the town centre residents will not be eligible for permits to park their cars in the Controlled Parking Zone
A planning application was submitted to redevelop the run down frontage to Victoria Bakery in Union St. We found no reason to object and were surprised when the planners turned down the proposal, we believe because the flats were judged to be too small. We hope that a revised scheme will soon follow that satisfies the planners. Another long-derelict site, the former British Legion Club in Moxon St is the subject of a planning application for conversion to two work/live units. We did consider applying to have the building listed, but despite its age we concluded that it lacked sufficient architectural merit. Similarly, we did not comment on an application to construct 15 flats in Brent Place, which is opposite Underhill Stadium. In the High St the former Hobdays estate agents has been sold at auction with planning consent for 6 flats and retail on the ground floor.
No 90 High St – Barnet Superstore convenience shop – has applied for permission to run a taxi service from the rear of the shop, saying he wants do this because the shop is struggling. With seven other convenience stores on the High St, five at the south end alone, it comes as no surprise that the shop is failing. And the owner may find that in considering his application the council may question the absence of planning consent for the changed frontage when he first opened… ..
On a more cheerful note, saving the façade of the former Magistrates Court was another planning success with the involvement of objections from a substantial number of our members. The planners refused a proposal to demolish and replace it with a bland block of flats, a decision confirmed by the Planning Inspectorate who dismissed the appeal. Work has now begun to convert the building to a mix of flats and retail. We have every expectation that the finished product should be an attractive High St landmark.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS?
Following the removal of the cladding to the upper floor of 1A Church Passage, there is still no planning consent for the changes made to the frontage although the council does still expect a planning application for whatever the owner wishes to retain. We particularly wish to see the upper window reveals brought forward and proper window frames installed to correct the odd look resulting from the frontage being moved forward to accommodate external insulation. Meanwhile, a banner has appeared proclaiming the imminent arrival of a burger restaurant called ‘Guns and Smoke’. We understand that American style burger restaurants are in fashion at the moment, though why anyone would pay a tenner for a burger when McDonalds only charge a couple of pounds rather defeats us (though we understand there will be discounts for students). However, we digress. The council is expecting a further planning application for the proposed frontage to the lower half of the property, which should include removal of the remaining wooden cladding. So far nothing, though we know that extensive work is going on behind the hoarding and we believe the aim is to open this month. We fear another major battle is looming.
DISUNION IN UNION ST
Whilst many people are strongly in favour of UPVC windows they are generally not allowed in conservation areas as their evident modernity clashes with the historic appeal. Union St is in the Wood St Conservation Area and, whilst having some modern intrusions, is generally well preserved. The conversion of the Albion pub to housing and the new flats behind Boots opticians are developments that have been sensitive to the conservation area by including features such as wooden sash windows. Alas other developers have not shown such sensitivity. No 24 Union St was completely renovated earlier this year and UPVC windows of a particularly modern design were installed. Unfortunately other properties in the same row have had similarly unsuitable windows fitted so it is now going to be difficult to recover the lost ground. Even worse, the former print works (latterly offices) at 31 Union St got planning consent for conversion to flats included retention of the windows to the front. We scrutinised the planning application and concluded there was no reason to object. But the planning consent has not been followed, with the original windows now removed and inappropriate UPVC windows installed. We wrote to the developer pointing this out but no reply. We have asked council enforcement to pursue both of these infringements.
THE PLANNERS DO USUALLY GET IT RIGHT
We often grumble in these pages about planning issues, especially problems with enforcement where changes are made without planning approval. But where planning applications are submitted we have rarely found ourselves in disagreement with the council’s decisions. Indeed they are often tougher with applications than we expect, with many being refused or changes demanded. We have already mentioned Victoria Bakery, and another recent example of an unexpected rejection was when Tesco applied to erect new signage on their convenience store in the lower part of the High St as part of a refurbishment of the frontage (we have been nagging them for months about the state of disrepair). We thought the new signage was acceptable but the council turned the application down on the grounds that it featured too much advertising material, so the old signage has remained. We would not dispute the decision but such zeal does sometimes feel like Nero giving a virtuoso recital on the fiddle while Barnet burns. The problem of course, as we have said many times, has been the absence of effective enforcement over abuses of planning law.
The more responsible and civic minded property owners and businesses usually respect the rules, but many do not and the historical failure to chase the transgressors has been a major weakness in our Borough. Back in 2008 we put a submission to the council on the lack of enforcement in support of the conservation areas. We highlighted unsympathetic alterations to shop fronts and inappropriate signage. Matters were so bad that when we conducted a public survey that same year we found that 71% of respondents did not know that much of the High St was in a conservation area, and only 12% thought that it looked like one.
The reality is that more alterations do not seek planning consent than ones that do. We have turned a blind eye to many of them, having concluded that we would not have objected or only sought minor changes if planning consent had been sought. But against this gloomy background we do feel that in recent times the council has made significant efforts to improve matters, especially of course with the recent victory over the former Crown and Anchor. Here is the current situation with a number of planning abuses:
Shoku: Following pressure from ourselves the council demanded but then rejected a retrospective planning application, and then won the subsequent appeal by the owner to the Planning Inspectorate. The council is awaiting revised drawing for a new planning application that should include restoration of historic features.
1A Church Passage: Pursued by the council following a widespread outcry and the owner lost his appeal to the Planning Inspectorate. Current situation reported above.
Dudleys Pancake House: No planning consent for decking. Retrospective planning application requested (not one pursued by us).
158 High St: Planning permission granted in 2010 for two flats but more added. Notice may be served if resolution not agreed with the council (again not one that we initiated).
This is not to say that everything is now rosy. For example we were disappointed that the council did not pursue the inappropriate signage at Crazy Connections, and there remain other abuses where we would have wished for more rigorous action. In the meantime the council’s problems with miscreants have got far worse, not with shops, but with residential properties where the growing population and housing shortage is giving rise to all sorts of scams. Unscrupulous landlords are putting people in overcrowded and sub-standard premises, including housing people in what are purported to be garden sheds. These are serious issues and understandably they are the council’s priority.
So, whilst matters are much better we are of the view that with all this additional work enforcement remains understaffed. We understand there are just six posts for the whole Borough, with one of currently vacant.
E …. BYE GUM
One of our long running low key campaigns has been to persuade the council to do something about the vast amount of discarded (to be polite about it) chewing gum stuck to the pavements around our town centre, especially near the College. We are well aware of the valiant efforts of artist Ben Wilson to brighten up the deposits by painting intricate painted patterns on them, but this was something of a drop in the ocean. Two years ago we were promised that a chewing gum removal machine would be purchased and we have now been told that at long last it has arrived. Hopefully our pavements will soon be looking much cleaner.
HOSPITAL PARKING SHOCK
Visiting a hospital as a patient or a relative can be a stressful experience, so we do think that the management at Barnet Hospital have been particularly insensitive with the new arrangements put in place for parking. And in this respect we don’t mean just the charges, which in themselves are eye-watering enough. The new system requires pre-payment for one to six hours with the facility to top up on return if the time is exceeded. That seems ok, but motorists who overrun by a few minutes may be tempted not to pay extra, unaware that the numberplate recognition system on entry and departure will result in a fine dropping on the doormat a week or so later. Blue badge holders are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding the system as they may fail to appreciate that they have to log their vehicle number with reception to secure exemption from the charges and a possible fine.
How simple it would be just to have barriers with payment on exit – then no stress from getting a penalty notice or having to challenge the fine. Even better would be to further reduce stress on patients with a less exploitative charging regime. This really is milking a captive clientele who are unlikely to be disposed to find more distant parking. And a further problem is that having rightly stopped staff parking in the public parking areas there has been an upsurge in all-day parking in surrounding streets. The Hospital Trust has said that they are undertaking a survey to identify problems. We will take a keen interest in the results.
UNCERTAINTY IN UNDERHILL
The announcement by the owner that Underhill Stadium was up for sale came as no surprise. Though in the Green Belt, re-use for recreational purposes would be permissible. This does seem unlikely though and an application for alternative use, with housing the obvious choice, would be a test of the council’s resolve regarding the sanctity of the Green Belt. We remain somewhat equivocal on the issue and so far have not taken a view. Tied up with the fate of the stadium is what will happen to the now disused former cricket pitch immediately to the south. A ‘Back to Barnet’ campaign launched by Club supporters would like to revive the South Underhill proposal for a new stadium. But that was resoundingly rejected by the council several years ago, not least because of strong opposition from residents in the immediate area. Reviving the scheme would be an uphill battle.
BLUE BADGE BREAKTHROUGH – WE HOPE
We have previously written at length about the absence of enforcement activity for dealing with misuse of blue badges. Following our lobbying the council has reviewed its policies and told us the following:
- New instructions will be prepared to set out the respective roles and responsibilities of council officers, including the Corporate Anti-Fraud Team, and the parking enforcement contractor NSL.
- The Anti-Fraud Team will co-ordinate an annual enforcement operation.
New instructions are fine ….. but do we want to see evidence of real progress on the ground.