Newsletter January 2010

After many years of retail decline and indifference on the part of the council, we enter 2010 with some optimism. The planners have taken on board our concerns regarding the poor state of the shops in the conservation areas, the market survives even though the future remains uncertain, and the council has agreed to develop a strategy for our town centre. This last initiative is good news indeed, so we make no apology for dealing with this at great length in this issue.

Alas the New Year brought the worst weather of the century so far, but it did provide some rather attractive scenes.......

St John the Baptist's Church, Barnet, in the snow
326 bus in the snow, Barnet

At last! ....
.... the council takes a hard look at High Barnet

It is some two years since the council embarked on the creation of its Local Development Framework, which should provide a blueprint for changes and improvements to the Borough over the next fifteen years. We deal with progress on this document in the next item. But it was evident early on that the council only intended to address town centres in a broad brush way by establishing policies and principles that would apply to all twenty-odd of the town centres in our Borough.

Our friends from New Barnet Residents Association protested at length about this, pointing out that the absence of a specific strategy for New Barnet left their town centre at the mercy of proposals from developers. They were of course then battling with the emerging Tesco/Asda schemes, and it had become evident that the absence of a council-generated long-term plan for New Barnet was indeed allowing the developers to make all the running.

High Street, Barnet, in the snow

We readily saw that High Barnet faced similar risks, and over many months voiced our support to get the council to change their minds. The campaign was successful and earlier last year the council agreed that six of the larger town centres, including High Barnet, would indeed have their own local strategic documents. These would complement the broader principles of the Local Development Framework.

So far so good.....but things did go awry back in the summer when the first of these strategies emerged for North Finchley. With the help of consultants the council produced their proposed strategy, but with insufficient consultation. The proposals were presented at a public exhibition, and the response from the local populace was a loud raspberry. We understand the North Finchley strategy is now back to the drawing board.

Perhaps chastened by the experience, but also aware that our area has some rather bullish (but we should add sensible and constructive) traders and residents’ groups, the council has developed a very different approach for High Barnet. They have established a 'Town Centre Strategy Board' with a permanent membership of traders, three residents groups, and representatives from key council departments. We are very pleased that we have a place as one of the representative groups. Other more specific interest groups or individuals will be invited to participate as and when appropriate.

Such has been the absence of strategic planning in our town over many years we felt rather daunted with the issues that needed to be addressed, but the first meeting on 6 January proved to be very constructive. Our major concerns about parking, traffic congestion and the tarnished 'heritage' appeal of High Barnet were discussed, along with more specific issues such as the future of The Bull and the Market.

There will be much further work and discussion but the expectation is that an agreed document will be produced by the end of this year, so there is plenty of time to study the problem areas in some depth and if needed we can raise further issues. We would of course welcome any suggestions from members for us to feed into the discussions.

Local Development Framework

Earlier last year the council embarked on an initial round of consultation on its blueprint for the future development of the Borough as a whole. Remarkably, they had comments from over 2,000 organisations and individuals. This was followed with the first draft of the proposed Framework document itself, which was put out for another round of consultation, with a deadline of 11 January.

It has to be said that a lot of the document is very broad brush, such that in many areas it can be difficult to perceive just what might happen in practice. The council has promised that more detailed work will follow in each major area covered (the town centre strategies discussed above are one such example). In attempting to judge the potential impact on High Barnet we found a lot to like, but some areas still cause us concern. On housing in particular there are indications of council support for redevelopment in town centres that could allow substantial numbers of high rise flats above shops (as with the outline Tesco plan in New Barnet), and we remain concerned at the apparent favouring of new small flats over family homes.

The draft Framework document can be seen in local libraries or on the council website. You can see our full response on this website.

'Free after three' - did you notice?

Free parking after 3pm

For Christmas 2008 and New Year the council allowed free parking during the holiday period for a limited number of days. Unfortunately it was very poorly publicised and had almost no impact. This year saw a variation on the same idea, allowing free parking after 3pm for a much longer period running from 7 December 2009 to 3 January 2010. Using the catchy slogan 'Free after Three' the scheme was well publicised in the local press with signs on meters and in car parks.

We are under no illusions that limited temporary schemes like this are no substitute for the desperately needed restructuring of parking provision in our area. And indeed we concluded that despite the improvement over last year the concession was unlikely to have a significant impact. We voiced our reservations in a letter that was printed in the Barnet Times.

We are also keenly awaiting the outcome of the High Barnet CPZ review which we had expected to be available by the end of 2009, but nothing yet.

Barnet Market

Barnet market

In the Autumn the planned move back to the old site did indeed take place, but the evidently unsatisfactory surface had not been improved. Not surprisingly this has given rise to considerable disquiet, with elderly and disabled people in particular finding the surface too difficult to cope with. The large amount of empty space also creates a rather forlorn feeling. This is indeed a great shame. The owners have so far not sought to expand the number of traders on the return to the old site, although Friends of Barnet Market have found many more traders who are interested in having a stall. Nonetheless, an excellent range of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and bread continue to be available.

The council is still very active in trying to sort out the long-term future of the market, and Friends of Barnet Market are continuing with their sterling support work. To keep in touch with events you can become a Friend (at no cost).

Keeping up Appearances

One of our routine activities is to keep an eye on the appearance of our High St. The re-laying of the pavement a couple of years ago vastly improved the ambience of the High St and we consider it most important that it remains in good condition. Back in June we reported on the unsightly tarmac surface left outside QS following some work undertaken by contractors on behalf of EDF electricity. The council acknowledged that without us raising the matter it is possible that the mess would probably have become permanent, but they did take up the issue and pestered EDF. It took a long time, but the paved surface was finally restored early in December.....though alas using the wrong kind of paving slabs! The council are pressing EDF to replace them with the correct variety, but we are not holding our breath. It is rather sad that even major organisations can have so little respect for the appearance of the public environment.

Another example of such disrespect is the practice of HGVs, usually belonging to household names, believing it acceptable to park two wheels up on the pavement whilst delivering to their shops. The result is that we now have a large number of cracked paving slabs up and down the High St. We will be taking this up with the council.

There is however some good news. The council has acquired a machine with a high-pressure water jet that should remove chewing gum and other pavement stains. Chewing gum is a particular problem in our High St, which can only get worse when the College re-opens. So we look forward to seeing the results. In the meantime we should acknowledge that the council has been doing rather well in tackling litter.

Conservation? Who cares?....

....well, apparently not the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol.

203 High Street, Barnet, in the snow

We previously reported that following an initial complaint from Hadley Residents Association the council demanded a retrospective planning application for the changes to the windows at 203 High Street. We lodged our own objection, and were pleased that the council rejected the application, instructing the shop to re-instate the Georgian windows. The owners appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and won. The Inspector based his decision on the fact that the alteration was of high quality and much better than the appearance of many poorly presented shops nearby.

Now, we do not wish to be cast as reactionary curmudgeons: we do recognise that the alteration is indeed tasteful, but it is also very modern and sits uncomfortably with the adjacent excellently preserved Georgian houses. The property does have a significant impact as it occupies a sensitive spot on the corner of the Green. And what should we make of the Inspector's view that as other shops nearby are tatty, why fuss about this one? The Inspector seems to be arguing that we might as well give up on the conservation area and let the lot go down the pan.

This incident demonstrates yet again, as we have found with the Crown and Anchor at the other end of the High St, how difficult it is to recover a conservation area from years of neglect. More recently, the council have made a lot of effort, but it is very depressing that even when they try enforcement it is very difficult in the face of determined property owners and an unsympathetic distant Planning Inspectorate.

In our next Newsletter we will have more comments to make on conservation matters and other changes to shops in the High St.

The Bull

In the past we have commented on the near-loss of The Bull when the council sought to sell the site. Without any access to public funding it was a major gamble on Susi Earnshaw's part to take on The Bull. It is most heartening that despite all the difficulties she is not only surviving, but is now hosting an extensive programme of music and drama productions.

In February the theatre is closing to have replacement seating installed, which should add to the attraction of this key High Street venue. Alas the council still does not seem to quite share Susi's commitment to the future, steadfastly refusing to grant her anything other than a short-term lease. This does inhibit her ability to secure funding elsewhere for further improvements. The role of The Bull and securing its future was raised at the Town Centre Strategy meeting on 6 January.