We recently heard a whisper originating in the property industry that High Barnet was going to feel the full impact of a tide of new investment that was sweeping out from central London, and this was attracting the interest of large property investment companies. Just as we were absorbing the implications of this we realised that this prediction was rapidly becoming a reality. The major changes now in the pipeline embrace not just The Spires and other projects that we have previously reported on, but many other areas around our High Street. Here we explore what may be in store for our town in the very near future.
We also have a feature on another major area of concern – education provision in our area and why we think it might be going in the wrong direction.
TSUNAMI TO HIT HIGH BARNET?
One thing we can be assured of here in High Barnet is that we will not be flooded by a tidal surge that threatens large swathes of the Thames basin. But we are at risk of being engulfed by another kind of tidal wave – an unprecedented growth in the construction of new properties.
The rebuilding of Dollis Valley and the residential properties on the former Park Rd Industrial Estate are examples of sizable developments in our area, but these have been the exception. Most developments have been small scale ‘infill’ schemes or adaptation from commercial to residential use. Examples have been the various blocks of flats around Tapster St, the conversion of the Albion public house, the new flats at the end of Chipping Close and those opposite on St Albans Rd. More recently we have been seeing many adaptations to buildings along the High St, particularly at roof level, to accommodate new flats. The developers have in most cases been the property owners themselves or long established local property companies. With some minor exceptions these developments have either enhanced or at least had a neutral impact on the character of our town. In this respect we do of course have the protective advantage of two conservation areas embracing much of the High St and the surrounding areas (despite the best efforts of many property owners to circumvent or ignore the protected status).
The most significant indication that we were experiencing a step-change was the news that a large area to the east of the High St, embracing Brake Shear House, all the other adjacent commercial properties and no 162 (Cakez) fronting the High St, had been sold to a property company backed by an International venture capital company. The tenants in the commercial properties have been told that the site is to be redeveloped and once planning permission is secured they will be given six months notice to quit. We are shortly to meet with the new owners to try and find out more of what they have in mind. A large – possibly very large - development of flats may be on the cards.
Further south along the High St the council is proposing to develop the largely derelict site it owns which fronts onto Moxon St. We have already commented on the outline scheme, which has many positives, including nine houses, but we have reservations concerning the potential loss of Checkalow Tiles on Moxon St and the very modern and over-sized new frontage. Immediately opposite on Moxon St the car wash and garage have been given notice to quit by the landlord and they may have gone by the time this newsletter reaches members. The former British Legion Hall next door is also in the process of being sold. As yet we are unaware of any development proposals for these two sites but no doubt they will emerge very soon.
To add to the above we have an astonishing number of other developments under construction or proposed, most of which we have previously reported. These include the construction of more than 100 new homes on the former nurse home site on Wood St; the new flats approaching completion on Tapster St; the conversion of the former Magistrates Court and upper floors of the Conservative Club on the High St to flats; the conversion of the former town hall on Union St to flats; the new block of flats on the High St on the site of the former Hobdays estate agents; the proposed conversion of the upper floors of 70 High St (After Office Hours) and 85 High St to flats; the proposal to demolish the former church next to the Sebright Arms in Alston Rd and construct a new block of flats; the sale of the former tyre depot on St Albans Rd for redevelopment; and the Older Women’s Co-Housing scheme under construction on Union St. Also in progress are a number of rooftop additions to buildings along the High St.
Collectively, and with the expanded Dollis Valley redevelopment coming to fruition, the schemes described above will deliver far more new homes than our area has seen over all the recent decades put together. And the indications are that the momentum is growing. The implications for our town could be enormous. One obvious trend here is that replacement residential is far more lucrative for owners than retaining commercial activity. Whilst there may be some commercial re-provision, The Brake Shear House and the Moxon St schemes will result in the loss of many long established and valuable local businesses employing 100 or more people. There is nowhere obvious for them to relocate locally.
This feeding frenzy of development –and it is no exaggeration to say that - does risk a degradation of the built environment that could for ever change our area from ‘suburban’ to ‘urban’. As well as the change to the built environment, the schemes mentioned here could expand the population in this immediate area by fifteen hundred or more. This could bring extra trade to the High St, and if the developments are sensitive to the area the outcome could be largely positive. But many of these new residents are unlikely to work locally, adding to road and tube congestion and putting additional pressure on local services such as health and education. We will address these issues as changes unfold, but our primary focus will be on what we do best – the scrutiny of planning applications and assessing their impact both on the character and overall well-being of our town. One obvious concern is that if development proposals continue at the current pace it is only a matter of time before our Green Belt comes under threat. Demand may be stimulated by a recent article in Property Week which identified Barnet as the number one Borough in London when housing affordability is compared to quality of life indicators,
As an example of what we do not want, your editor recently visited West Watford, an area characterised by closely packed streets of two-storey Victorian terraces, in many ways resembling the area of Victorian housing behind The Spires. But one difference in Watford was the presence of a number of modern infill blocks of flats, typically four storeys and lacking any evident architectural merit. These new properties both dominate and clash with their Victorian neighbours. It is this kind of mess than can blight a town and make it a far less desirable place to live.
WHAT NEXT FOR THE SPIRES?
The sale of The Spires by William Pears came as something of a surprise to many members. We had no specific information that they planned to pull out, though we had suspicions. They had become far less communicative in recent months, and we did learn that they had sold their interests in a shopping centre in Marylebone. We suspected that having dipped their toe into retail they have decided to revert to their mainstream activity of residential property.
Over their short period of ownership Pears did work closely with the community and were very successful in improving both The Spires frontage and the market site, and establishing the new gym on the first floor (which, we are told, has attracted 600 members). Although there was some disappointment with the continuing numbers of empty shops, this summer the floral displays and innovations in the courtyards such as the deck chairs and play area did much to lift the spirits of visitors. We are sorry to see Pears go.
The new Canadian owners, The Alberta Investment Management Corporation, have employed Hunter Asset Management (retail specialists and no relation to the local estate agent) to manage their interests including redevelopment. Savills, who undertook day-to-day management of the site on behalf of earlier owners UBS Bank, have been reappointed. Most intriguing was the press release announcing the change of ownership which stated an intention to invest £7 million in the centre. At an initial meeting with the Town Team in September Hunter declined to offer any further information on their plans, but said they will be consulting the community in due course.
JUNCTION CHANGES IN SIGHT
The proposed reconfiguration of the Wood St/High St junction has been on/off for some years, but at the most recent Town Team meeting we were assured that the issue is back on the agenda and design work is in progress. There was some confusion whether the proposal to close the turning from Wood St into High St North would proceed without first being tested with a trial period, something we were originally promised. We made the point that a number of members have expressed concern about the possible loss of this turning and it was agreed that there would indeed first be a trial closure to assess the impact.
The council now has the funding to install a pedestrian crossing on Wellhouse Lane and expects it to be in place by Christmas. They have now decided to provide a mini-roundabout at the junction of Wellhouse Lane and Wood St, but there is no date for this as funding has yet to be secured.
One issue keenly pursued by the Town Team, and featured in our previous newsletter, is the idea to build out the pavements along the central section of the High Street. It was disappointing to learn that there is no prospect of the council securing funding for the coming financial year and the best we can hope for is a revival of the project to be undertaken in 2017/18 – and of course still subject to funds being available.
HOSPITAL TRAVEL IMPROVEMENTS
The revised parking arrangements at Barnet Hospital, with staff excluded from the public parking areas (unless they pay) have been largely successful. The use of remote cameras to monitor arrivals and departures has resulted in some visitors unexpectedly receiving penalty charges through the post, and there has been some confusion over the arrangements for visitors with disabled badges. We do understand that the Hospital is amenable to cancelling the penalty charge if there is a reasonable excuse. Unfortunately there can still be problems with the public parking areas being completely full at peak periods.
As a help to people dropping off or collecting patients a welcome innovation is the extension of the 20 minute free waiting period on the approach to the main entrance. Marked bays are clearly identified as being available for this purpose. A further improvement recently introduced is a free bus connecting Barnet and the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead. It runs three times a day leaving the east entrance of the hospital at 09.00/13.00/17.00 and the Royal Free at 08.00/12.00/16.00. The journey time is about one hour. Also a bus runs every 30 minutes between Barnet and Chase Farm running from 07.30 to 20.30.
Enabling works are well advanced at Chase Farm prior to the main rebuilding which should run from 2016 into 2018. There was an enormous fuss that ran for some years over the proposed reconfiguration of services between Barnet and Chase Farm. Now the changes are largely complete there has been remarkably little negative reaction from the public.
BEEFING UP HIGH BARNET
There were a few raised eyebrows when the Barnet Times newspaper declared ‘Guns and Smoke’ as their Restaurant of the Year. In fairness, the quality of the live music (of which we have had good reports) featured as a significant element in justifying the award. But it is difficult to envisage that a restaurant whose signature dish is burger and chips will establish High Barnet as the new gourmet capital of North London. But we can categorically scotch the rumours the Kentucky Fried Chicken came second and McDonalds third.
Meantime the battle over the frontage to the building goes on, with the restaurant having now lodged an appeal over the decision of the council that the signage is inappropriate and should be removed.
TWO WHEELS UP-ROAR
Cars parked two wheels up on the pavement do arouse the ire of many pavement users. But it is the case that car owners do not do this for fun – invariably it is because of safety concerns or to ensure refuse and emergency vehicles can secure access. In the absence of a coherent approach the council’s parking regime was taking ad hoc decisions including suddenly turning up and fining car owners who had routinely parked two wheels up undisturbed for years. Last November the council adopted what we thought was a sensible policy whereby they would identify all the roads in the Borough which had cars habitually parked two wheels up (71 as it turned out) and review each one. The outcome (for most roads) would be to formally approve two wheels up and mark out the pavements accordingly, or advise owners that the practice has to stop with the threat of fines for non-compliance. In the meantime, until the reviews were completed, no fines would be issued except in very limited clearly defined circumstances.
Alas, as we have seen in the past, the council is excellent at producing learned policy papers but less good in communicating the implications to their own officers. So it came to pass, without a review having been undertaken, that cars in Wentworth Rd were ticketed with £0 parking fines as a warning that two wheels up should cease and if not penalty fines would be issued. Amidst the consequential uproar residents did comply and sure enough large vehicles then found they could not pass. Councillors, who knew nothing of all this, were outraged and took issue with the parking manager. We joined in the fray by reminding all concerned of the policy and that it had not been followed. The result has been a climb-down with residents informed by letter with an undertaking that nothing further will happen until the formal review is completed.
HIGH ST REVIVAL – SLOW BUT STEADY
We use the number of empty shops as a yardstick for how well the town centre is doing. A year ago we identified 23 empty shops, down to 15 this Spring, and now there are 14 – a vacancy rate of about 7% still higher than the Borough average of just over 5%. So progress is short of what we would wish but at least we are not going backwards. Perhaps most disappointing is that The Spires continues with a vacancy rate double that of the High St.
A particularly sad loss was PC Place where we have been told the owner died suddenly. Also gone is Premier Ship Models in St Albans Rd and JBS Hair Design in Hadley Parade appears to have ceased functioning. In The Spires the sudden closure of Angel Coffee came after no more than two months of trading, but it was evident they were failing to establish a client base in our crowded coffee shop market. They were perhaps unfortunate that Carluccio’s and Patisserie Joie de Vie opened at about the same time
Recent openings include Vape HQ at the top end of the High St – an initiative to wean tobacco smokers onto e-cigarettes. Otherwise personal services have been very much to the fore, with beauty shops Voguish opening in the former Ship shop on St Albans Rd and Odette in the former Hadley Hounds at top end of the High St. D&S Beauty and Thai Spa has appeared at the junction with St Albans Rd, further adding to this crowded market. We are intrigued how Thai massage and Oriental massage (in Union St) might differ from a routine native massage. Perhaps they are just hotter? With an abundance of hairdressers, nail bars, massage and tanning parlours, beauty parlours, day spas and a new gym our area should now be vying to be London’s top area for bodily perfection. The only snag is that those of us who shop locally are obliged to buy most of our clothes from charity shops and this does rather take the edge off one’s appearance.
New signage at Food and Wine at the top end of the High St is if anything worse than what it replaced and stands in stark contrast to the largely reserved shop frontages in this part of the conservation area. The Little Coffee House which has opened nearby similarly has a rather brash frontage for this area.
Further down the High St Crazy Connections has a spruced up frontage. Though better than the previous effort it still falls short of what might be appropriate for a conservation area. Opposite, Winkworth has made a most creditable job of their spruced up frontage and signage. 89 has re-opened in Union St, having had only a short lease on the High St property they previously occupied. The smart frontage is an example of how a shop front in a conservation area ought to be presented. The location is somewhat out of the way and we do hope they can find a sustainable customer base. We have asked the owners of the building occupied by Snappy Snaps to do something about the dreadful state of the upstairs windows before they fall out.
DO WE NEED AN ARK?
This heading is not a further reference to the flooding of the area with new housing, but reflects our concern whether the plan for a giant new school in Underhill is the right decision.
The news that Underhill stadium was being sold was of course a bitter blow to the ‘Back to Barnet’ movement who wanted to see the football club return from their new home at The Hive. We did share their views, seeing the loss of Barnet FC as a major blow to the cultural diversity and identity of our town. But we are also concerned whether the proposed new occupant of the site, a free school for over 1800 pupils, to be run by the Ark Foundation, is what the area needs. As the stadium is in the Green Belt there would be major difficulties securing planning consent for an alternative use, but building for educational purposes is permitted. So on the face of it a school makes sense, until the implications begin to emerge……
The school will take pupils aged 4 to 18 with three forms of entry at junior level and six at secondary. Ark is a long established and very successful provider of free schools, claiming that their GCSE results exceed the national average. They now have 34 schools with 20,200 pupils, an average of just under 600 each. So the Underhill school will be something of a step-change in size.
A first question is ‘Why so large?’ There are four other schools in Underhill ward, three junior and one secondary, and we understand not all places are currently filled. With population growth we acknowledge that some additional school provision is needed for the immediate area, but the demand cannot be anything like the additional provision on offer unless pupils are brought in from a very wide area. This is where the concerns start to arise.
The ethos of Ark is stated as ‘educate children from poor communities with a history of educational underachievement’. So the second question is ‘Where do we have such children here in leafy Barnet?’ There are indeed some pockets of deprivation in Underhill but they are well catered for by the existing schools. So it looks like Ark will be in direct competition with its immediate neighbouring schools. Anyone looking across the whole of Underhill and neighbouring High Barnet, New Barnet, Oakleigh and Totteridge wards will struggle to find many areas that fit the description ‘poor communities’. So are aspiring parents in these areas going to be persuaded to send their children to the Ark academy if it has an ethos that does not fit their expectations? There must be enormous doubts.
The third question is ‘What about the traffic?’ We have already had approaches from concerned residents in the immediate area. If, as we anticipate, children will arrive from a very wide area then we cannot imagine anything other than a very large number of cars turning up every day on the school run. Mays Lane is already a bottleneck at peak times and the added congestion could be intolerable.
What will also disappoint many parents is the rejection of the application to establish a junior C of E free school in High Barnet, turned down precisely because the Ark proposal has been approved. The problem for parents in High Barnet securing what they regard as suitable school places for their children, particularly boys at secondary level, look like remaining as intractable as ever. Parents can be presented with a bewildering range of schools including selective and non-selective academies, church schools, free schools and local authority run junior and secondary comprehensives. No doubt in some areas having such a range of options works fine, but alas in our area the results are a failing way short of the ambitions of many parents..
We quizzed the council on the safety of the Stapylton Rd/Salisbury Rd junction, prompted by the collision late last year which resulted in the partial demolition of the wall surrounding the tree on one corner (still not repaired but promised soon). We were astonished to learn that there have been five recorded injury incidents at this junction in the past five years. This is a remarkably high figure and clearly indicates that safety needs to be improved. We have asked the council to look particularly at the sight lines to the right for motorists pulling out of Salisbury Rd onto Stapylton Rd.
The hanging baskets in the High St this summer were funded jointly by The Barnet Society, Hadley Residents Association and ourselves, at a cost of just under £500 each. Alas our funds could not sustain this indefinitely and an alternative needs to be found if the baskets are to continue.
Stapylton Rd again. We have had comments going back a year about the poor lighting to the pedestrian crossing on Stapylton Rd. The street lamps along Stapylton Rd have recently been changed from the yellow sodium bulbs to white LEDs. One result has been an enormous improvement to the lighting at the crossing.
The number of stalls on the market has failed to increase and the site has looked distinctly lacklustre, especially on Wednesdays. With the agreement of the traders the market on both Wednesdays and Saturdays is to move to the bandstand site outside Waitrose, where it was previously located, with some success, when the market site was being renovated. This should happen in the next couple of weeks.
Reks, the pub just beyond the junction of the High St and St Albans Rd has been closed for some weeks. We are trying to establish if this is temporary or permanent. Meanwhile the future of The White Lion on St Albans Rd remains uncertain, especially now the former tyre depot next door has been sold for redevelopment. The building is locally listed, which offers limited protection, and CAMRA has made an application to the council to have the pub registered as an Asset of Community Value.
At our AGM in June we had a stimulating talk from Phil Archer, Manager of our local Waitrose. A summary is on our website. As has happened in most recent years, the AGM coincided with a very hot day and the temperature/ventilation at the Wesley Hall was again inadequate. Our apologies to those members who found the heat unbearable and had to leave before the end. We are exploring alternative venues for next year.