Newsletter October 2011

A lot has happened over the summer and we have much to report. There is one piece of very good news, but this is overshadowed by the bad news on other fronts, especially the impact of parking charges.

We are pleased to note that Barnet Traders Association has become increasingly effective of late. They promoted a raffle to raise finds for improvements to the town centre, secured sponsorship for hanging baskets, and took the lead on the successful bid for funds from the Mayor’s Outer London Fund. We do however have some rather robust comments to make on the poor presentation of many of the shops on the High St., which we hope will be heeded by our traders.

£416,000 to improve our town centre

St John The Baptist church gardens

The good news first. We did get the High St pavements re-laid some five years ago but the council has otherwise done little by way of direct investment for many a year, with support withdrawn for items such as Christmas lights and the cost of the High Street closure for the Christmas Fair. So when Boris Johnson announced his Outer London Fund to support economic regeneration in areas that would not benefit from the Olympics or Crossrail, this was a rare chance to secure some money to support our struggling town centre. The Traders Association took up the challenge, and with ourselves, Barnet Society and Hadley Residents Association formed a “bid team” to develop the proposals. These ideas were put to the council and comprised the bulk of the bid.

The funds were to be made available in two rounds. The money for Round One was £10 million, with the proviso that all the money had to be spent by March 2012. Some 20 councils put in 70 bids. Barnet bid for us and for Edgware. The High Barnet bid was successful, securing the full amount that was asked for, and the second-largest award of the 30 approved. We are in no doubt that without the local knowledge, skill and commitment of our volunteer team the council would not have had the capacity to develop or support this well researched bid. A further £40 million is up for grabs in Round Two but the Council has indicated that it will not support a bid for any further funds for High Barnet. They will instead try to get funds for town centres not successful first time around.

What next? The bid team has now morphed into the “Town Team” and are in discussion with the Council on how precisely to best spend the money.

The visible changes which should be achieved are:

  • the opening up of St John The Baptist church gardens by removing the fence and hedging, changing the layout, improving the seating and planting, and the paving of a small area to facilitate an outside café space
  • the removal of much clutter along the High St including telephone boxes and unnecessary posts and signage
  • the addition of brackets to all lamp posts to facilitate hanging baskets
  • 43 new heritage style litter bins
  • the preliminary work on remodelling the pedestrian crossing and layout of the High St/Wood St junction. There is other money available to implement this.

The council is responsible for taking forward most of these initiatives in consultation with the Town Team.

Some of the money will be used for “softer” initiatives such as providing professional advice to traders on marketing and shop window presentation, the creation of a town magazine, and improvements to the Christmas Fair

It is hoped that the improvements will demonstrate to some of our struggling traders that help is available, and they can help themselves by paying more attention to the presentation of their shops, on which more below.

Too many sorry looking shops?

Old Crown and Anchor

We have previously commented at length on changes to shop fronts in the conservation areas being made without planning consent. The former Crown and Anchor has not corrected any of the unauthorised changes and the council tells us that in this instance a prosecution is definitely being progressed. Other shops south of the church being pursued by council enforcement for erecting inappropriate signage without planning permission are Mail Boxes and Crazy Connection. At the other end of the High St. Tokyo Jo’s has been directed by enforcement officers to re-instate the original frontage. 189/191 applied for permission to infill the undercroft with a shop front but was refused.

One positive change – we complained to the council about the external shutters affixed without planning consent to Wize Choice and they have now been removed. The substitute internal shutters are fine. We have some hope that the single doorway will also be reinstated

What is depressing about this catalogue of infringements is that it seems to be the norm rather than the exception. We are aware that for many years the council shamefully failed to keep a handle on the conservation areas, to the point that hardly anyone – public and traders alike – appreciated that these conservation areas existed. Many shops to the south of the church in particular are depressingly shabby or garish.

We despair that when money is spent on shop fronts and signage, the result often seems cheap and nasty and rarely attempts to take advantage of the many fine Georgian and Victorian buildings in which these shops are located. We do not cast ourselves as prissy conservation purists, but we do believe that if shops are presented smartly and in the context of the historic buildings that many of them occupy they can be very appealing – for example stand on the opposite side of the road and look at the recently refurbished Lloyds Bank and Andrews Lettings. These two demonstrate that a bit of repair work, a good clean up, thoughtful signage and a good paint job can work wonders. Victoria Bakery, though now a little tired, has always looked good. If the shops think about and maximise their kerb appeal, that must be good for trade.

Over the past two years, following considerable pressure from ourselves, the council has worked hard to get a grip on the situation in the conservation areas. Alas the message has still not been getting through. Whether the infringements are wilful or in ignorance we do not know, but it is sad to see money spent on a shop front which does more to reduce than increase the kerb appeal of the town. We hope it will not necessitate a series of prosecutions to turn things around. The Council has also done its bit by producing a guidance leaflet for traders on shop front design.

Grim trading, could be worse…and likely to be

Old Blockbuster

More bad news. Grim trading conditions in High Streets have been widely reported nationally and average vacancy rate is said to be around 14%, with some town centres up to 30%. We have been relatively lucky in High Barnet but many traders are struggling, as evidenced by some heavy discounting. We have not yet had many closures but we have recently lost Blockbusters and the Craft shop on St Albans Rd has also closed and is now being converted to residential accommodation.

whatever

We have also lost Hollywood Salon at the top of the High St. The frontage was altered a few years ago to accommodate this business, much to the detriment of the appearance of the building. Oceans has closed the restaurant after being open for a few months only, though we hope the take-away will survive. There are rumours of other imminent departures. Also noticeable is the failure of empty units to find takers. The former Lock Shop in St Albans Rd has been empty over a year, although a planning application to use it as a tattoo parlour was refused. The former O2 in The Spires has been empty since early April, whilst the late Gift Shop facing St Albans Rd has similarly been empty for some months. Other shops are on temporary leases.

Fortunately we do have some new arrivals, though they are unlikely to add much to the diversity of what is on offer. After Office Hours is set to reopen as a chicken restaurant. After a long period of closure Central Park is to open as an independent opticians (giving us six such outlets in the town, so we wish them good luck). The former Alex Kale estate agents is now our second money exchange shop. Coral Bookmakers have opened for business in the former Woolwich/Barclays, though alas not including replacement of the ghastly ground floor frontage. Coral are the market leader for internet betting so it is surprising that they are opening in a small town that already has two other betting shops. However, they have installed gaming machines close to the front door and we wonder if they are intended to be the prime attraction.

Central Park     Coral

We previously commended Tesco on the appearance of their convenience store, but they have now gone and spoiled it by painting over the lower half of the building in yellow. We were told the wrong paint was supplied and we have been promised that the more appropriate off-white will be re-instated. We don’t want to be unduly churlish though. It is only two years since the frontage was previously painted and the management thought it had become rather shabby – quite a contrast to tatty frontages to many of our shops, some of whom don’t even bother to wipe down the paintwork from one year to the next.

Parking – from disaster to catastrophe

Now the worst news of all. Apart from the handful of pay and display bays in the High Street, shoppers have long since voted with their wheels and spurned the exorbitantly expensive council parking facilities, either using The Spires or going to other shopping locations. The central car parks in Stapylton Rd and Moxon St have long been wholly filled with commuters. We said last time that the further price rise in April was resulting in commuters seeking free kerb spaces outside the CPZ area. The council might think these people might come back after a while, but they are in for a shock.

Britannia Parking, who run The Spires car park, have evidently spotted a marketing opportunity. Firstly they have followed the council and substantially increased short-term parking charges from 1st October. One hour will cost £1, up from 60p; two hours will cost £2, up from £1.20. Though hefty increases, the prices compare well with council charges of £2 and £3 for the same periods. However we suspect there will still be some resistance to these charges and shopper numbers will decline. But this won’t worry Britannia, as they have come up with a new wheeze. Previously The Spires car park was clearly targeted to provide short-term space for shoppers visiting the mall (Four years ago, before being contracted to Britannia, it was a mere 20p an hour). But no longer. The all day charge, previously £6, has been reduced to £3.50.

Set against the increases for shoppers, it is clear that The Spires is pitching for the commuter traffic previously wholly confined to council car parks, which currently charge £5 all-day. It is possible of course that Britannia has already spotted a weakening in shopper car volumes (though the 500% increase in charges since 2007 won’t help) and are re-positioning themselves.

For the council, there is the likelihood of a crash in parking revenue, though we have little sympathy as it is a problem entirely of their own making. But more importantly, the town for which they do have a responsibility could suffer a major downturn in the retail sector. We do not blame Britannia. The situation the town is getting into can be laid entirely at the door of the council for its ill-judged approach to parking charges. Whatever the Outer London Fund money achieves, and whatever traders do to increase the appeal of their shops, we are convinced that the future of our High St. is bleak if nothing is done to stem the decline in car-borne shoppers and encourage them to return.

Co-incidentally, with the much publicised decline of High Streets, the previous Government policy of encouraging high parking charges and restriction of spaces (to encourage alternative forms of transport) has sensibly been reversed. Councils are now urged to provide more spaces for shoppers and moderate charges so town centres can compete with out-of town retail parks. High Barnet is particularly vulnerable to London Colney, Morrisons and other supermarkets not far away, all offering free parking, and Potters Bar offers the first 30 mins for free.

So, with the Government policy change, with shoppers largely priced out, and the threat to the commuter income, the council should now review parking in High Barnet as a matter of urgency. Barnet Traders Assn. are in the process of preparing a submission to the council and we are assisting them in this matter. Of course, some members will recollect that we have raised these problems with the council on various occasions over the past six years without ever getting a response. Maybe this time our councillors will listen and at least address the issue.

Another parking mess

No parked cars

Though on a lesser note than the above, we commented last time that the proposed conversion of the free bays in Vale Drive to all day P&D was pointless and of doubtful legality. The council seemed to have listened - to a point, by just converting the bays to a one-hour residents only restriction. We were aware that the free bays were sensibly used by Mays Lane residents without private parking who are just outside the CPZ and so cannot have parking permits. This kept Mays Lane largely free of traffic. Now, the restriction effectively prevents Mays Lane residents using the bays in the daytime, and indeed they are now just empty. With nowhere else to go more residents are parking on Mays Lane, thus obstructing the free flow of traffic on this important artery. Other roads outside the CPZ are experiencing more all-day parking. How crass – no extra income for the council, the extra costs of converting the bays, producing nothing but more inconvenience for local residents and drivers.

Dismay over residents parking permits as well

We have previously written about the CPZ Action Group. They are still progressing their High Court bid to have the increased charges for residents and visitors permits reversed. Legal advice has been very positive that they have a good case, but they do need substantial funds should the case be lost. A lot has been raised but more is needed, and the appeal for funding continues. For those with CPZ permits committing a modest sum is potentially a good investment with the prospect of saving £60 and more a year. It would be a great shame if the case could not go ahead because insufficient residents are prepared to provide financial support. If the case is won any surplus will be returned or donated to charity. For the latest information on progress with the challenge and how to donate go to http://barnetcpz.blogspot.com.

Keeping out the supermarkets

The Town Centre Strategy, into which we put so much effort last year, has been shelved by the council, although some of the ideas that emerged have now been incorporated into the Outer London Fund programme. The major loss has been that yet again the council has failed to engage with issues of traffic management and parking. Fortunately, one activity that has survived is the continuing development of a Planning Brief for the Territorial Army site on St Albans Rd. Ourselves and other local groups remain closely involved. What is emerging is a clear preference for housing and a rejection of any notion of a large supermarket. We should again stress that we are not aware of any plans by the MOD to sell the site. The brief is a precautionary measure.

We are also aware that the owners of The Spires are in discussion with the council about a possible re-vamp of the site, though any changes are likely to be much more modest than the aborted major redevelopment scheme that we reported on a few years ago. We are keeping a close watch for any developments.

Magistrates Court planning application rejected

We extend a thank you to all those members who put in an objection to the proposal to replace the Court building with an enormous eyesore. 79 objections were lodged and the council planners duly rejected the application. An appeal has not been lodged and surprisingly a ‘To Let’ sign has appeared.

There is some good news. The sorry-looking former Magistrates Court Office has been sold, and there is a planning application to convert the upper floors to flats, which seems sensible enough. We wait to see what the owners have in mind for the ground floor. In Wood St, following many years of dereliction the old Marie Foster home is to be put up for sale.

Market

Despite 297 objections to the renewal of the market planning application the planners felt obliged to allow renewal. A key factor was the support from the traders for renewal as they considered the alternative would be for the market site to remain in long-term limbo, and many of them have said they feel they cannot go on for much longer on the existing inadequate site. A condition has been added to the approval that redevelopment should begin within two years.

Pub changes - for better or worse

Pub   Pub

We have not mentioned our local pubs for some time. In and around the town centre we have lost four pubs in recent years, the latest being the Alexandra in Wood St which has just closed and is likely to be redeveloped for residential use. To keep themselves afloat in times of changing tastes notable changes have been made to many of the remaining outlets. There has been a significant shift to food, with the Red Lion and the Arkley both now essentially restaurants. The Sebright Arms, the White Lion and the Lord Nelson are all now food-led, though still catering for drinks only clientele. Both the Sebright Arms and White Lion have recently had facelifts and the Lord Nelson is about to similarly benefit. The Monken Holt has recently been sold to Greene King, so changes can be expected there. The much-improved Mitre is now part of the Spirit Group following the break-up of Punch Taverns, though it is expected to continue as an old-fashioned ale house.

Well done The Met

It would be difficult to describe the local share of the nationwide disturbances as a riot, but we did have one broken shop window and street disorder in Manor Rd that led to a number of arrests. The police were quickly and effectively on top of the problem despite the major demands on resources elsewhere in London. In the days after the riots there was a strong uniformed presence all around the town including, as we observed, a van full of reinforcements quietly waiting in a side street. Whatever the problems here in High Barnet, there is little reason to feel unsafe.

Christmas and Summer Events

We know that the Christmas Fair team is now in full swing and the event promises to have even more attractions than the highly successful 2010 event. Sunday 4 December 2011 is the date for the diary.

The Summer Festival, promoted by ourselves, was the first such event of its kind. We had over 40 events listed over 10 days and, as might be expected, some went very well and some did less well. Comments received have encouraged us to consider doing something similar next year and we are now canvassing views on what the programme might include. Dates have been provisionally fixed for 23 June 2012 to 1 July 2012.

The Open Door

Christ Church old school

Christ Church on St Albans Road is raising money to buy back the old school building adjacent to the Church.

The building was built in 1844 and for more than 100 years was the girls’ school for Christ Church. Until a few years ago it was used by the Red Cross as administrative offices and for storage but has been empty for a number of years and is in a poor state of repair. The John Trotter Trust, a registered charity set up by Christ Church, plans to develop the building, retaining its original façade, and make it available for a wide range of pioneering activities for older people in the High Barnet community, build bridges between the generations and undertake research into the needs of older people in society.

The total cost of the project is estimated to be £1.5m. Members of the Church have already donated or pledged £225,000 and the Trustees will shortly be launching a public appeal for funds. If you want to know more about the project please visit the Open Door Appeal website, www.opendoorappeal.co.uk.

When the building was originally built it was a hub of pioneering activity in 19th century High Barnet. It is the vision of the John Trotter trustees to provide pioneering activities to meet the social needs of the 21st century.