Newsletter February 2011

Now is the winter of our discontent………….

Barnet snow scene

As the December snow and ice sapped our spirits, even more depressing news began to filter through about planned changes to council services and charges. To describe the proposals as ‘slash and burn’ is an understatement. There are going to be substantial cuts to areas such as adult and children’s social services, including the closure of Surestart centres and withdrawal of wardens from Sheltered Accommodation, the latter a source of controversy last year when withdrawal was first proposed. We will shortly know the bad news on policing, with numbers expected to be cut.

Your Committee has taken the view that we cannot campaign on every service reduction, and it would be pointless to do so given the financial reality of the council’s budgetary position. We are restricting our attention to proposals that impact on the environment and the economic well-being of High Barnet town. But even in these more limited areas we have a lot of bad news to report.

Barnet Museum

Barnet Museum in the snow

Bad news part 1. We were shocked by the proposal to end all funding for the two museums in the Borough. Barnet Museum was established in 1938 by the Local History Society which runs it with volunteers. The museum building in Wood St is owned by the council, who additionally provide a grant to cover running costs. The council values the running cost support at £23000 p.a., though the Museum reckons the true figure is much less. It is deeply disappointing that an institution that has been around and supported for so long by volunteers should be threatened for less than the cost of a single council employee. We expressed our concerns with a letter from the Chairman published in the local newspapers.

Though not openly stated in the consultation document, we believe the council may have designs on disposing of the Wood St. building, which will have a substantial value. But to do this they will have to evict the Museum, a move that could provoke a long and bitter dispute. The council has undertaken a consultation process and we hope the public response to this will ensure that reason prevails. Our response has reflected what we said in the newspaper letter. The Museum has also been running a petition and we circulated details of this to members on email. The response from our members has been very supportive, encouraging us to continue to work closely with the Museum to ensure its survival.

Time to get rid of the car?

Bad news part 2. It should have been good news for High Barnet that the Government has changed policy and told councils not to impose high parking charges in town centres to force the use of other forms of transport, and councils were warned not to impose excessive charges as a substitute for council tax. So in Barnet ……….

If you live in a Controlled Parking Zone you have probably already shared with your neighbours the sense of outrage at the plans to hike charges up to £100 for the first car and £125/£150 for second and third cars. And you will pay £4 for the privilege of giving any visitor a day permit. The council has moved a long way from the early days of CPZs when a charge was stated to be necessary to cover the cost of administration. In recent years the council has shifted its position justifying the charges on the basis that the privilege of parking on the road has a value. This follows the lead of central London councils who have hiked up CPZ charges by substantial amounts. However in central London it probably is the case that if residents did not use the space then visitors would, paying substantial ‘pay and display’ charges. This is not the case in High Barnet, where the majority of existing on-street pay and display spaces remain empty. If residents gave up parking in the CPZs the lost income would not be recouped from charging visitors.

Barnet parking charges
 
Parking charges in the Spires shopping centre

And when it comes to working or shopping in High Barnet we move on to more bad news for parking. Anyone travelling into High Barnet to work will see their annual business permit increase from £310 to £500. For shoppers and occasional visitors a local car park should soon cost £5 a day, and an on-street bay £7. On many previous occasions we have drawn attention to the disparity between our local parking charges and neighbouring towns, but all our efforts have fallen on deaf ears. So yet again the enormous handicap of local parking charges will continue to damage our economy. This is what we do not need just as Morrisons are opening their new store at Stirling Corner complete with free parking. The one remaining bright spot is The Spires car park which, despite substantial price rises in recent years, remains considerably cheaper for short-term parking, and surprisingly continues to have a substantial amount of empty space even at peak times. We hope the management will reflect on this and look for ways of attracting visitors to use the empty space and not just follow suit with another price rise.

The areas on the periphery of the CPZs are already suffering from daytime parking congestion, and in some streets in the evenings as well. If residents living in the CPZs, commuters or visitors prove more resistant to the parking charges, life in these streets could become intolerable. However, now that CPZs are viewed by the council as a captive cash cow, who will vote to join a CPZ?

Junction improvements squashed

Church junction clutter

Bad news part 3. A condition of the planning permission for the new College was a requirement to provide funds for improving the local environment. Amongst others, English Heritage had commented how the view of the Church from the south was ruined by the jumble of traffic lights and signs at the junction. And equally importantly, the junction doesn’t actually work very well. So these funds were designated for improving the functionality and appearance of the junction outside the College. A member of the Town Centre Strategy Board and local architect Judith Clouston devised a scheme for a re-modelling of the junction. This was developed by Highways to the general approval of those who saw the plans. Work was to begin this last month with a week of temporary changes to the traffic arrangements to test how the scheme would work….when the council pulled the plug.

Apparently our councillors considered that the new arrangement to stop traffic turning left from Wood St into the High St would increase traffic using the diversion involving a right turn out of Moxon St onto High St, and this was considered to be potentially dangerous. About 400 cars a day are believed to use the route that would be affected. However the experience in other towns where life is made more difficult in this way usually results in the traffic disappearing altogether. A week’s experimentation would have tested all this. And if it was such a concern, why was the issue not discussed at the Strategy Board when Highways officers presented the plans in detail? It appears that our councillors are greater experts on the technicalities of traffic management than the officials who advise them.

If this kind of thinking pervaded everywhere there wouldn’t be a single traffic reduction scheme or pedestrianised town centre street anywhere in the country. Nearby Harrow and Enfield have made many town centre changes over recent years. Who can think of anything similar in Barnet? Where is the vision in our Borough?

Town Centre Strategy

Bad news part 4. Over the past year we have written some optimistic reports on the work of the Strategy Board but we have to confess to now feeling a sense of unease as to whether it will deliver anything like what we hoped, indeed it might not deliver anything at all. We are assured that planning briefs for the key town centre sites are going ahead, but of all the issues discussed over twelve months of endeavour that is about it. We never even got as far as securing a dialogue with Highways on parking and traffic issues, apart from the now aborted scheme discussed above. In the meantime of course the Council has ploughed ahead with the massive increases in parking charges. It all rather makes the role of the Strategy Board look irrelevant.

The work of the Board has been suspended to allow the council to absorb the implications of the Localism Bill now before Parliament. Work will shortly recommence, though it will inevitably be handicapped by the devastating cuts to council services and the inevitable redundancies.

The Localism Bill includes a lot of encouragement for community organisations to bid for taking over council services. We know, for example, that the council are encouraging users to introduce self-management for bowling greens and allotments (the current form of encouragement seemingly a massive hike in charges). We are looking forward to a dialogue with the council about what potential there really is for local organisations to contribute to change.

A linked area, and also a source of some gloom, is the emerging Local Development Framework. We have also reported on this at length over the past year. There is a lull at the moment as the latest draft and comments have gone to the Planning Inspectorate. Alas our comments were rather extensive as we felt that few of the community concerns previously raised had been taken on board.

Not a new conservation area

Bad news part 5. We reported on this in the last newsletter. We put in a lot of work arguing the benefits to High Barnet of a new conservation area behind The Spires. It did not get very far with the council. The squeeze on resources, and the reality that Barnet struggles with the conservation areas that it already has, meant they did not appear even willing to address the merits of the proposal. We are considering how best to get the issue back on the agenda at some time in the future. Anyone interested can see the full submission on our website.

One feature of the submission was a proposal that vehicle crossovers for residential properties should be curtailed. Because of the small gardens, the area behind the Spires has largely avoided the blight of ‘garden parking’ that has wrecked vast tracts of the Victorian and Edwardian streetscape around the Borough. Many London councils have recognised that crossovers actually make parking worse, not better, and have largely stopped them. Not so in Barnet, where up to 400 a year have been allowed over the past decade alone.

Residents in one street behind The Spires have challenged a crossover application and the wrangling has gone on for over a year, forcing the council to review its legal position. The outcome is still awaited. Meantime we have approached our MP Theresa Villiers asking that the Dept of Transport should provide some guidance to councils on the legal aspects and the merits or otherwise of crossovers.

Winter gritting

Good news…. sort of. In the atrocious spell of weather before Christmas the council did much better keeping the roads clear than in similar circumstances last winter. We have been told that the main roads (category 1) were gritted 49 times, and indeed observation confirmed that the main arteries were relatively free of problems. Category 2 roads (those with special difficulties such as hills) were gritted four times – not brilliant but enough to keep things moving o.k. most of the time. Other roads (category 3), which does mean most residential roads, were at best gritted once, usually to assist the rubbish collection wagons.

The reality is that in the circumstances encountered in December category 3 roads and pavements cannot expect to be cleared by the council – it is down to self help - or nothing. We have suggested that the council publicises this reality so that the public may then more readily respond. It is highly unlikely that you would be sued for any injury that someone might blame on you clearing the snow and ice from the pavement fronting your property.

There are 380 grit bins in the Borough but there are major problems with individuals helping themselves to clear private paths and driveways. The council is developing a new scheme of volunteer community keepers who will control the salt and distribute it as appropriate. This seems like a good idea. We just hope they publicise the scheme well enough to get the volunteers.

Markets – one surviving, one down, one new

The Barnet Market stallholders have to be congratulated on surviving the awful weather and keeping the show on the road. Over 200 objections were lodged opposing the extension of the planning permission for redevelopment of the market site, including ourselves and many individual members. We await the decision.

The Farmers Market people seem to have been less hardy, with both the December and January markets cancelled because of the weather. Thankfully The Spires management have found a new operator and starting Friday 18th Feb markets are planned fortnightly thereafter- March 4/18, April 1/15. The Continental Market appears from time to time, the most recent on 27 January. We understand there could be an Italian themed market sometime this year, which would be a pleasant change from the more regular French style. Maybe wait for confirmation though before throwing out the French recipes and buying an Italian cookery book.

Around the town centre

Not a lot to report this time around. The fish and chip take-away in the High St is now fully functioning and appears to be doing good business. The adjoining restaurant has yet to open. An empty shop in The Spires is about to open as a sweet shop – a little worrying as it seems unlikely that this and the rather delightful Hopscotch opposite the Church can generate sufficient demand for both to survive.

Otherwise it is rather pleasing that all but a couple of shops are currently occupied.

Lloyds Bank, Barnet

We have previously said little about the Maintenance of shop properties, but we do get comments that a lot of High St shops look somewhat down at heel. The passing traffic does throw up a lot of grime and in many cases more frequent – or even occasional - washing down of the frontage would work wonders. Good news is that a couple of prime buildings have had a much-needed facelift. The former Woolwich/Barclays has been extensively renovated. Although the ground floor has retained the same ugly frontage, the building looks a whole lot better. The listed Lloyds Bank in the middle of the High St has had a thorough facelift and now looks rather splendid. The restrained Lloyds signage set in a frieze is particularly sympathetic to the building as a whole. Alas the building is split into two shops and the facelift really shows up the other half.

Crumbling building, Barnet
 
Broken downpipe, Barnet
 
More broken downpipe

Of particular concern is that some landlords are neglecting maintenance to the point that structural damage is evident. Alongside Store Twenty One there is evident damage from a long broken downpipe. Even worse, the pilasters around the doorway adjacent to Andrews have all but crumbled away and the wooden frontage to Andrews, one of the most attractive in the High St, is rotting away. We are continuing to pursue the matter.

Conservation and planning

Our application to English Heritage to have the former Magistrates Court Building listed has been rejected. We were conscious that the merits were marginal and there had been alterations to the rear. Our hope is that the building is acquired for re-use and not demolished to make way for a block of flats. Further up the road on the same side the new development at no.17, ‘Crompton House’ has been completed. The frontage is presentable if unexciting, but what looks like a portacabin on the roof clashes badly with the attractive rooflines of the adjacent buildings on both sides

We have been successful in badgering the council to get the easyjet orange canopy on 74 High St (Abasi) changed to a muted blue, and we continue to press for the orange signage to be changed. The shop at no 90, opposite the Church, which previously incurred our displeasure by ripping out the frontage and installing two doors and metal shutters, all without planning permission, has now applied to convert to a kebab takeaway. We are opposing that.

Also an alteration without planning permission is Tokyo Joe’s restaurant. We understand the occupiers told the council enforcement people that they had only made minor changes and they were for the better. If ripping out the entire historic frontage was minor we should be grateful they did not do anything major. We are continuing to pursue the matter with the council.

Green Home Zone

In our June Newsletter we reported on this initiative to raise residents’ awareness of how they can cut their carbon emissions and be more environmentally friendly. The scheme is run by volunteer residents trained by The Energy Savings Trust. The aim is to reduce the carbon footprint by 10% by 2011 in the 2500 target homes around The Spires and Meadway.

Progress has been made with an ecofair last March, green initiatives in local schools and press coverage. Residents will shortly receive a leaflet asking them to complete a simple Home Energy Check form. The volunteer team will offer a full check with free advice on how to cut emissions and save money. To order a free Home Energy Check or a free cloth bag, or become an active supporter, contact Sarah Challice on 079807 32727 or email at info@greenhomezone.org

Christmas Fair

The 2010 event was extremely well attended and we heard a lot of compliments about the organisation and entertainment value. It was particularly pleasing to see the service area behind Waitrose opened up to provide a lot of additional attractions. The event was indeed a world better than 2009, and we hope that for 2011 the organisers can live up to their achievements.

A Summer event as well

A new venture for BRA is to initiate a Summer Festival Week for High Barnet. Your chairman has observed similar events elsewhere and your committee believes that it can be done here. The event should relieve some of the gloom around our other activities and help to raise the profile of the town. We are seeking to showcase local venues and entertainers, with events ranging from the day–long Solstice Music event, the Ravenscroft Park Family Day, extensive attractions in The Bull and The Spires, and music in Barnet Church, pubs and other venues. Additional attractions should include walks, talks, art exhibitions and open gardens. The dates are 17th June to 26th June.

A warning

Throughout 2010 the level of reported crime in our area remained low by London standards and showed little variation month on month. However we have been advised of a recent upsurge in burglary especially around Arkley and Hadley. It is advisable to always give the impression that someone is in residence even when you are away. Internal security lights are strongly recommended .