Newsletter February 2013

This time last year we reported a catastrophic spate of local shop closures, almost all national chains. Mercifully this has not – so far – been repeated over this winter, but we do not discount the possibility of more bad news to come. Indeed, the major item we have to report this time is the decision by owners UBS Bank to put The Spires up for sale. This is hardly a vote of confidence in High Barnet as a shopping destination and could have a negative knock-on effect in the High St. There is however some good news. The council has approved major changes to the parking arrangements in the town centre that should make both the cost and availability of parking spaces much more attractive to shoppers.

War memorial in the snow, Barnet Snow on cars, Barnet

Winter also bring a reminder that it is membership renewal time.

What now for The Spires?

Spires BarnetAs recent as last summer we reported with some enthusiasm the strategy adopted by owners UBS Bank to redevelop The Spires and the Market over the next few years. This would result in a substantial amount of additional development primarily designed to provide the larger stores now required by major retailers. A detailed description of the plans can be found on our website. A number of specific proposals have emerged over recent months seemingly confirming the commitment to implement the announced strategy. So it was a shock when the entire site, including the Market and the Fern Rooms on Salisbury Rd, was put up for sale in November at an asking price of around £35 million. We understand there is interest from potential buyers.

The first proposed change, announced last spring, was to alter the High St entrance and merge the former Smiths store and the gym on the first floor into a single store. The planning application was approved and the work was expected to start early in 2013 but, unsurprisingly, the work has yet to commence.

Since the summer we and other groups have had extensive discussions with the owners including consultation on plans to refurbish the market and to rebuild shops on the northern and southern sides of the eastern courtyard, with each becoming a single-outlet two-storey block. Of these proposals, for all but one we commented favourably and they have proceeded to planning applications, yet to be decided. We did express major concerns with aspects of the southern extension which would extend out to Salisbury Rd, and that was taken away for reconsideration.

Spires bandstand in winter, BarnetAnd yet, since the proposed sale was announced a further planning application has been submitted, to extend Waitrose forward over the bandstand site, an idea that has been on the cards for several years. Unlike the various schemes above, we had no advance warning and were not consulted prior to the planning application being submitted. We are in favour of a larger Waitrose. The bandstand site has never worked well as a public space and we consider it would not be a great loss. Alas the plans look like they have been hurriedly cobbled together and the architecture is – to put it mildly - very unsympathetic to the existing buildings. We have approached the owner’s agent and the council suggesting design changes.

Despite the difficulties discussed above we remain strongly supportive of the overall strategy. What happens to The Spires holds the key to the future of our town centre. It is all the more disappointing that what looked like a positive commitment to long-term revitalisation is now thrown into such uncertainty. Whether any of the plans discussed above will ever lead to anything is questionable, as any new owner is likely to have their own ideas for future development. The only certainty is that the centre has evidently been struggling over many years and change is essential.

So, to date the only positive outcome has been the refurbishment of the car park, linked to the appointment of a new operator, Legion Group. The extensive improvements, which are most welcome, are now just about complete. We have however had issues with Legion over the management of the car park. On taking control they increased charges by 10%, putting the cost of one hour up to £1.10, and removed both the 30 min option and free after 6.30pm. Waitrose in particular was unhappy with these changes and they had approaches from a number of customers. We supported Waitrose by asking Legion to re-think the changes. This did secure the reinstatement of the 30 min parking period, but they insisted on retaining the charges after 6.30pm. Then came the sting in the tail – charges were increased yet again! One hour now costs £1.20. It is only just over two years since one hour cost 50p, and not long before that it was a mere 20p.

Market woes continue

Inevitably, the Market has been caught up in the uncertainty over the future of The Spires. Until recently things were at last looking hopeful. The long-awaited improvements featured in two planning applications (B/02642/12 and B/02643/12) submitted late summer, the second involving use of the site as a public car park on non-market days. Alas there has been a lengthy delay as discussions have followed between the council and the owners, which is bitterly disappointing for stallholders who are enduring another winter in dreadful conditions.

However the owners have recently amended the planning applications and they are now being considered by the council. Stallholders, Friends of Barnet Market and groups such as ourselves are supportive of the proposals and are keen to see them implemented as quickly as possible. BRA will be writing in support of both applications, and members may wish to do the same.

Police Station shock

Police Station, BarnetIt might seem inconceivable to many residents that our enormous High Barnet Police Station might be no longer needed. In reality, the building has been substantially underused for a long time and with police budgets being cut it is no surprise that the current network of police stations is under the cosh. Whetstone police station appears to be certain to close, but we were given to understand that Golders Green was also vulnerable. This would leave just High Barnet and Colindale to serve the whole of the Borough. However a re-think is now in progress, with the possibility that High Barnet will be sacrificed in favour of retaining Golders Green.

If our police station does close we are promised that a local public contact point will be established in the area, and we assume that the High Barnet and Underhill Safer Neighbourhood Teams will continue to be housed locally. We would of course take a close interest in what might then happen to this prominent High St building.

At last – parking fit for purpose

Over the past six years we have been pressing the council on the need to radically reform the way they manage both the on-street and off-street parking over which they have control. It has been an uphill struggle, but the fiasco of the change to phone-only payment and the more general downturn in the fortunes of High Streets finally provoked action. The long-term fundamental problems here in High Barnet have been the high charges compared to free or cheap parking in nearby shopping centres, along with a shortage of short-stay parking in and close to the High St. Stapylton Rd and Moxon St car parks routinely filled with commuters parking all day.

We had some welcome changes in October, when short-term charges were effectively halved in Stapleton Rd and cheaper all-day charges were introduced in Fitzjohn Ave car park. Building on this we worked with Barnet Traders to press for more to be done. The council sent questionnaires to traders and we had a very productive meeting with Highways in late November. The outcome of this consultation has produced a number of further measures announced in the past week by the Cabinet Member for Environment (Cllr Cohen). These may be summarised as:

  • Moxon St car park to be short-stay only with charges reduced to match those in Stapylton Rd. Improved signage to encourage more use by visitors.
  • Business permit holders and all day parking to be barred in Moxon St and Stapylton Rd car parks and along the whole length of the High St.
  • The short-stay tariff on the High St and streets immediately off to be reduced to £0.65 for 30 mins and £1.30 for one hour (down from £1 and £2).
  • Some additional short-stay bays to be created in streets off the High St.

Taken together these changes offer a radical restructuring of parking provision in and around the town centre. We will continue to work with the council on a further review of parking provision in the areas surrounding the town centre, and we are still pressing for credit card meters as an alternative to pay by phone.

Opportunity lost

Exchange Buildings, BarnetExchange Buildings, at the junction of St Albans Rd and the High St is by far the most prominent building at the top end of town and is a fine example of late Victorian architecture. Above shop level it is remarkably well preserved but, to quote the last conservation area appraisal, the presentation of the shops is ‘poor’, which is perhaps an understatement. Print Warehouse recently vacated the corner shop in the building (fortunately, as our printer, we are happy to report they remain in business though without a shop presence). This particular property has suffered badly in past years, with some of the pilasters hacked off and original windows and stall risers removed.

The new occupiers are Martyn Gerrard estate agents who also happen to be the owners of the building. They embarked on a substantial refurbishment, and in their planning application the architects alighted on the statement in the Council Design Guidance which says that a sensitive modern design can enhance a historic building. To quote the architects “the proposal unifies the elevation with a contemporary design sympathetic to the scale and proportions of the building and its form”. Sounds good, but …er… doesn’t this look just like the frontage to all the other branches of Martyn Gerrard? If so, then the starting point was not the building as implied, but the corporate image, as practiced by many chains who routinely pay no heed at all to the nuances of the buildings they occupy. In fairness, the stone stall risers, the partially reinstated pilasters and the uncluttered expanse of windows are significant improvements.

But the image is unquestionably modern with the signage some 50% larger than what was previously there and also partly backlit. This is not exactly what many of us would expect to see of a key building in a conservation area. The architects seem to have ignored the rest of the council design guidance that emphasises the appropriateness of simple and elegant design, and the importance of a well-proportioned fascia that does not dominate the shop front. During the renovation the previously added false facia was removed revealing the original signage area and ornate surround, indicating what might have been.

Row of shops, BarnetAnd what of the council planners role in this? Only last year the council used money from the Outer London Fund to renovate the frontages of three shops on the High St immediately opposite Exchange Buildings. The finish was a mix of traditional and contemporary designs, but the hallmark was one of restraint in colours and signage, with none backlit. These were intended as exemplars to stimulate a better standard of finish to shop fronts that would capitalise on the conservation area status. Some nearby shops have followed suit, and the result is a pleasing expanse of shops that now really do look as though they might be in a conservation area. An uplift in the presentation of the High St would hopefully begin to encourage more shoppers. The point of that effort is now in doubt if the council cannot sustain a planning regime that reflects the long-term vision that it is supposedly committed to. This has not been the planners’ finest hour.

Reshaped council services on the way

We make a point of keeping a distance from local political issues, and we have refrained from expressing a view on the radical plans to outsource large areas of council activity through two multi-million pound contracts. In November we joined a small group of representatives from residents associations across the Borough to discuss the plans with the Leader of the Council. Concerns ranged over matters such as the outsourcing of public contact services to distant locations, the ability of the council to oversee the complex contracts, especially if performance is sub-standard, and the effect on the provision of services should the contracts unravel.

On our part we focused on Planning. We know that many officers with whom we have built up a trusting and productive relationship over the years have in recent months chosen to leave rather than transfer to a private sector employer. Although we are assured that the entire planning function will physically remain in the Borough, we are concerned that such a major change in management and personnel may lead to a dearth of experience or skill in handling the many and often difficult planning issues that the Borough has responsibility for. We expect some rocky times ahead

Feeling flat?

Little by little infill schemes continue to increase the number of flats in the area. Some flats in recent developments have proved difficult to sell or let, but developers seem keen to press on. The schemes below should total around 50 new properties.

On Union St there is a planning application to infill the area behind Boots Opticians with a development of flats. Further along Union St the imaginative scheme by the Older Womens Co-Housing to build a retirement complex here is unable to proceed until it has been established that there is no demand to use the existing property for educational purposes. It does however seem likely that the planning application will be considered in the Spring.

Of the two developments underway in Tapster St the one behind Boots is well advanced, though what is emerging is little more than a pair of uninspiring boxes. Being tucked away maybe their appearance is not so important, although the immediate area does feature other blocks constructed in recent years of quite attractive designs. This new development does them an injustice. On St Albans Rd, following planning approval some years ago, the former Wheels office and car park is being redeveloped with commercial premises on the ground floor and flats above.

Tapster Street flats, Barnet Wheels Car Hire office with hoarding, Barnet

Rather better news concerns the redevelopment of the former Magistrates Court which now has planning approval, featuring nine flats and two commercial outlets. There were local objections over concerns about parking. As we have previously reported, our three-year campaign has ensured that the facade will be protected.

Win some, lose some

Eating and drinking has seen the most significant changes in the town centre in recent months.

The Harris and Hoole coffee shop on the eastern side of the High Street has brought a welcome injection of life to this central area. An added bonus is the ‘heritage’ styleHarris and Hoole, Barnet frontage, most welcome even though this part of the High St is not in the conservation area. The artisanal interior, apparently designed to give the place the feel of a quirky independent outlet (though one of a chain all to exactly the same design), tends to fall into the ‘love it or hate it’ category. The distinctively strong coffee and the electronic pagers (an idea imported from the USA) also arouse strong reactions.

At the southern end of the High St the Honey Bee café has reopened under new management.

Café Pacino closed, BarnetAn unfortunate loss is Café Pacino in Church Passage. This was one of the six outlets renovated with Outer London Fund money and the only one selected by the GLA representative, acting against the advice of local activists who were involved with the programme. Doubts about the capabilities of the owners proved well founded when the property was repossessed by the landlord in December. With the renovation of the Churchyard and the creation of an attractive outdoor public space this outlet should be well placed to inject more life into this part of town. We hope it is soon re-let to someone suitably enterprising.

Shoku, BarnetIt is just over two years since we expressed outrage that the historic frontage was ripped out of the restaurant at the top end of the High St that became Tokyo Joe’s. There had been no attempt to seek planning permission. We made a fuss about this with the council, but if any enforcement action was taken nothing has come of it. The restaurant has recently been closed for some time and is now in the process of being re-branded as Shoku, complete with a brash yellow sign.

Other changes reflect the national trend way from retail to personal services. Hena Salon/Clinic has opened at the top end of the High St in the former tanning outlet whilst Orchid Retreat Day Spa has opened in The Spires. Also in The Spires Living It Up is expected to open shortly in the kiosk opposite Waitrose, to be run by the people with the eyebrow stall near the High St entrance. We also have numerous nail bars, hairdressers, health food and Chinese medicine outlets. So the residents of High Barnet should have no excuse for looking anything less than immaculate and glowing with health, though of course that depends on whether there is sufficient money or interest around to support all these facilities.

And briefly…..

We attended a presentation in December on the extensively trailed plans to rebuild the Dollis Valley Estate. With some minor reservations we feel comfortable with the proposals. A planning application has now been lodged for Phase 1, involving the demolition of the former school and the construction of 108 properties. The South Underhill Community Association is expected to be re-housed elsewhere in the area.

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Members attending the Christmas Fayre on 2nd December will have seen that for the second year running the public turned out in large numbers. We congratulate those involved in the organisation on yet again producing such a successful event. Particularly gratifying this year is that the majority of shops opened up and appeared to be well patronised.

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The Planning Dept. has finalised a Chipping Barnet Town Centre Strategy document that should shortly go to Cabinet for approval. Public consultation should then follow and we urge members to use the opportunity to scrutinise this document. We are discussing with the council how implementation will be managed.

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As part of the Outer London Fund improvements we still await refurbishment of the lurid green pillar that continues to adorn Barnet Opticians. The council has spent the best part of 12 months trying to get the contractor to complete the work. Perhaps it would have been more helpful if the contractor had not been paid up-front.

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In our previous newsletter we discussed a number of problems with the refurbishment of Churchyard Gardens. At the end of November we attended an on-site meeting with council officials and the architects. Solutions were identified and the council is considering how to proceed – including the thorny problem of funding the work.

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The extended and refurbished Black Horse has reopened, with the modern minimalist interior design receiving a somewhat mixed public reception. The Barnet Bitter advertised on the pump clip is in fact brewed elsewhere, with the in-house brewery still to open. Meanwhile the internal alterations to the Mitre should commence shortly following planning approval in December.

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Following the recent additions of Famous Memorabilia, Orchid Retreat and Tapestry, The Spires currently has only two empty outlets. This is a vast improvement on the situation that prevailed through most of 2012, although some outlets are on short leases only.