Newsletter October 2013

We had a full house for our AGM in June when Charlotte Dunlop from William Pears Group, the new owners of The Spires, shared with us some initial thoughts on the future of our shopping centre. Clearly this is currently the biggest issue in town. Some exciting ideas are emerging, but in the meantime there has been more bad news on shop closures both in The Spires and on the High St.

There was good news for residents living in a controlled parking zone with the council losing the court case which challenged the hefty increase in residents parking charges introduced two years ago. And our long-running campaign to bring some sense to the use of council parking spaces around the town has seen yet more progress.

Council acts on ‘Swiss Chalet’ but owner appeals

Shop with claddingOur worst fears were realised when wooden cladding appeared on the front of 1 Church Passage (the former Café Pacino). We had previously tried to meet with the owner to discuss his plans but he studiously avoided us. His decision to proceed regardless indicates he knew full well that the new frontage was unlikely to get planning approval. When we then wrote to him with what we thought was a perfectly polite letter expressing our concerns he replied saying we were being totally unreasonable and that his modern design would be a positive for the area. So not much joy there.

Meantime, along with other local groups, we complained to the council who duly issued an enforcement notice requiring the original frontage to be restored saying ‘The building, as a result of being clad in timber, is an incongruous and dominant feature of the street scene to the detriment of this part of the Wood St conservation area and to the settings of the adjacent listed buildings.’

This ought to be the end of such a flagrant snub to the area and to planning law. But no, however gross the transgression the owner has a right of appeal to the Planning Inspectorate who can overrule the council. The Owner has exercised this right. We have of course prepared a strongly worded submission to the Inspectorate arguing for refusal of the appeal. If we lose this one we fear it will be open season for landlords.

This is a further example in our town of landlords choosing to ignore planning requirements knowing they have every chance of getting away with it. It is a particular problem with absentee owners who have no stake in the community and display no sense of social responsibility. Unfortunately the Government are pressing on with initiatives designed to relax planning laws , thus weakening even further the ability of communities to protect their environment.

Elsewhere there has been little happening on the planning front. following our complaint to the council regarding the roof above Dilber Kebabs, which was rebuilt without planning consent, the owners have said they will reinstate the original roof. We can’t quite believe they have rolled over so easily. We do doubt whether anything will happen. We have long awaited a promised prosecution over the ripping out of the historic frontage to Tokyo Jo’s (now Shoku). But in the absence of any council action the owners have submitted a very belated retrospective planning application, which we are of course opposing.

On Union St the redevelopment of the property to the rear of Boots Opticians is approaching completion. There is nothing particularly striking about this small development of flats, but it has tidied up what was previously a rather tatty location. And it is pleasing that the developer has respected the conservation area status of Union St. by carefully matching the brickwork to the existing building and including traditional wooden sash windows.

Hope at last for the market

After a long and rather inexplicable delay, in July the council finally approved the two planning applications to rebuild the market site and use it as a car park on non-market days. To facilitate the work the market has been moved to the bandstand site from 28 September. The improvements will include resurfacing, the provision of electricity and water, low level fencing, new stalls and storage facilities. To coincide with the re-launch of the market a new operator, Saunders Markets Ltd, has been appointed. The decline of the market has had a knock-on effect on footfall across the town and probably hastened the closure of a number of shops. Over the summer the market has sometimes been down to four or five stalls and ever fewer visitors, though recently the number of stalls has picked up. It now is make or break time. If the market does not succeed it will be a major blow to the revival of retailing in the town.

Spires plans emerging - but woes in the short term

We have been in close contact with Pears Property regarding their plans to redevelop the Spires. They are understood to be talking to a number of retailers to take units in the shopping centre and are considering a number of options to improve the site. Reference was made at our AGM to the possibility of opening up the High St entrance that could involve the demolition of the two former church spires, and that consideration was being given to options for an extension to Waitrose. Pears expect to shortly embark on public consultation about their plans prior to submitting any planning applications as they are keen to proceed with a redevelopment that has the support of the community. We will of course inform members of the emerging plans as soon as we are able to do so.

Food FestivalMeantime The Spires has struggled this summer with no new takers for the empty units but yet more closures with the loss of Mr Simms, Monsoon and the temporary free bookshop. Other closures are believed to be imminent, so the short-term outlook is decidedly bleak. Fortunately the good weather has encouraged a lot of use of the outdoor seating for drinking and eating, and this has taken the edge off so many shop units standing empty.

A welcome initiative organised by The Spires over the weekend of 14/15 September was the Food Festival, which featured a number of speciality continental food stalls and cookery demonstrations. Your Editor can personally vouch for the splendid Portuguese custard tarts and the Swiss mountain cheese. The event was supported by reduced charges in The Spires car park but alas the poor weather and limited publicity kept the attendance lower than the offerings deserved.

High St still struggling

Shop to Let Opticians closed

Although we have seen significant improvements to the parking situation in the High St shop closures have continued. Thomas Cook, Gems and Barnet Opticians have all recently closed. The Opticians is a particularly sad loss as this was one of a decreasing number of independent outlets, and the shop front was renovated two years ago with money provided by the Mayor’s Outer London Fund. But a shake out in this sector has been on the cards for some time following the arrival of the multiples in the centre of the High St who do offer very competitive prices.

Games WorkshopOver the year so far we have lost around sixteen outlets with only half a dozen new openings, mainly personal services. In recent months the only new opening has been Games Workshop at the bottom end of the High St in the recently renovated former Magistrates Court offices. There is a planning application to re-open the long-closed former Mothercare shop at 129 High St as a restaurant/take-away. This seems innocuous enough, but the applicant is the same organisation that was refused consent to open a gaming machine outlet in these same premises two years ago. There are objections but the council will be hard pressed to reject the application. We remain decidedly suspicious.

Bull TheatreWe have continued with the uphill battle of trying to persuade traders to smarten up their frontages. We recently approached the regional management of Tesco regarding the tatty state of their shop frontage and have been promised repairs to the plasterwork and a repaint. We do have a particular problem with our narrow pavements and heavy traffic resulting in shop fronts getting grubby, but it defeats us why so many shopkeepers fail to even occasionally wash down their frontages. On a happier note we are delighted to see The Bull repainted and the word ‘Theatre’ added to the signage. The Red Lion Toby Carvery is also now shrouded in scaffolding to facilitate a facelift.

More parking improvements

Moxon Street car parkThe council tell us that following the reintroduction of payment machines (card only), the withdrawal of all-day parking, and the reduction in charges along the High St. there has been a 28% increase in turnover. We have also observed increased usage in Stapylton Rd car park, now regularly full on a Saturday. Moxon St car park has however seen only a marginal improvement in usage despite the introduction of a card machine and a reduction in charges, perhaps because it is tucked away in a back street. Following a recent meeting with Councillor Cohen and officers we now have signs on the High St indicating the availability in Moxon St of 58 short-stay spaces. And the council is looking again at the charges with a view to a further reduction.

Despite the major improvements and in the face of the evidence some of our traders continue to blame parking inadequacies as the source of all the woes in the High St, including letters in the local press. Sending out such negative messages can be a self-fulfilling prophesy – keep saying that parking in High Barnet is awful and people are likely to believe it and not come here. Putting out positive messages on the changes would do much more good. As we have said before, our High St has a decidedly shabby image, and that is nothing to do with parking.

We also now have a sign on the High St pointing to Fitzjohn Avenue car park as a long stay facility. This car park may see greater use now that the CA-D CPZ has been extended to the whole of Milton, Woodfall and Elton to keep commuters from parking there all day. This change is a result of a campaign by residents who doggedly pursued this issue over several years. The residents who led the campaign deserve considerable credit and have demonstrated how it is worth battling on even in the face of repeated rejections.

A lot of publicity has been given to the legal victory by David Attfield from Finchley in securing a reversal of Barnet Council’s increase in CPZ charges imposed two years ago. David could have been personally liable for all the costs had the case been lost so it was very brave of him to put himself on the line. We should also recognise the valuable support given by those residents who contributed cash to the legal fund. We were pleased to align ourselves to the campaign by making a modest donation and helping with publicity and fundraising. Members who live in a CPZ should by now be aware of the facility to reclaim the excess charges.

The end at last for Wood St eyesore?

derelict former Marie Foster homeThe stretch of Wood St from St John’s Church to the Black Horse is regarded by many residents as our prime conservation locale. Most buildings have been well looked after but the derelict former Marie Foster home has long been a major blot on the landscape. Our MP Theresa Villiers has been pressing the Health Authority for something to be done. At one time it looked like the site would be sold off, but it now seems likely that it will be reused for healthcare purposes. It is early days but we do hope that at long last the site will be put to good use.

We recently conducted our own inspection of the buildings along this stretch of Wood St and were pleased to find that the vast majority are being properly maintained and the historic features respected. The replacement UPVC windows at no 28 (the dental surgery) stood out as an inappropriate alteration. Unfortunately when the council were made aware of the changes more than four years had elapsed since installation so they were unable to take enforcement action. The changes occurred before BRA was reactivated in 2005 so this does demonstrate the importance of local vigilance to prevent transgressions such as this going unnoticed.

Policing reorganisation in place

The ward-based Safer Neighbourhood Teams have now been scrapped and replaced by Local Police Teams. Teams are led by an Inspector and for our area the Team covers five wards – High Barnet, Underhill, East Barnet, Oakleigh and Totteridge. The overall head count is down with the brunt of the losses borne by Community Support Officers. The Police argue that the new teams will be more effective because of their greater flexibility; they will have the ability to direct more officers to focus on crime hot spots, and in addition there are tactical and territorial units which can be called in to help. We are also promised that officers will not be removed to duties elsewhere, which has been a problem with the SNTs in the recent past. These changes look promising as an imaginative response to a cut in police numbers imposed by the Mayor but we have to see how these arrangements work in practice.

In our area the only crime hot spot to be identified is the High St with a lot of burglary in commercial premises, usually late evening. The police have said that resources have been deployed to tackle this problem. Otherwise we continue with a relatively low crime rate – the east of the Borough has about half the recorded crimes of the western side. Residential burglary across the Borough is reported to be down 38% year on year, June to June. So a problem that has more recently blighted our area may now be receding.

Buses in the spotlight

34 bus at standWe rarely have much to say about local bus services as our area is so well served. But submissions were invited for an impending review by the London Assembly. We have in the past found TFL to be very closed minded to suggestions for change, so more in hope than anticipation we have taken the opportunity to raise a couple of matters. Since the terminus of the 307 service was diverted from Arkley to Barnet Hospital a number of Arkley residents have protested that their remaining service - the half-hourly 107 - is inadequate. We have revived an idea we have raised in the past - that the 34 bus is extended to Arkley to compensate. This would also improve the service to the hospital and free up the lay-by in the High St where the 34 currently terminates. The lay-by could in turn become the stop for services which now stop outside the Shapla, where the pavement does not allow for step-free boarding. Removing the stop here would also reduce congestion by freeing up the traffic bearing left onto Wood St.

We have also pointed out that extra homes are being built in Dollis Valley, and south Underhill also lacks a direct route to the hospital, particularly inconvenient for the many hospital staff who live in this area. We have suggested that the service could be improved by diverting the 107 to terminate at Dollis Valley instead of New Barnet Station, the latter being well served by several other routes from High Barnet.

More council blight as recycling boxes are binned

wheelie binsOur council seems to excel in contriving to make the street environment as ugly as possible. Their enthusiasm for encouraging the destruction of front gardens for car parking (a pointless exercise when just a single car is removed from the kerbside) and the unnecessary imposition on residential streets of 6ft “scaffolding poles” to display parking restrictions have had a damaging effect on the streetscape across much of our Borough. But ugliest of all are the enormous wheelie bins which residents are obliged to store. Although some residents with side entrances sadly cannot be persuaded to remove their bins to the rear, the major problem is with rows of Victorian terraces such as the streets behind The Spires where there is nowhere else to put the bins except in the tiny front gardens.

The appearance of many otherwise well maintained front gardens is ruined by the presence of these ugly monstrosities. As one BRA member recently put it – the council is inflicting ‘visual squalor’. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, using the slightly less colourful expression of ‘urban blight’, but reflecting the same sentiment, recently announced that new build properties will be required to have bin storage facilities at the rear. Alas he had nothing to say to help the rest of us. But true to form Barnet Council has meanwhile decided to make matters worse when this month they will inflict on us another 240 litre bin for recycling and a smaller food waste bin. For the vast majority of households it is preposterous that they might need anywhere near some 800 litres of waste disposal capacity. The council say they consulted on the new arrangements but the grumbling letters to the local press and comments we have picked up suggests it must have been a very selective consultation. Pleas for the provision of smaller wheelie bins have so far been ignored.

A sunny Summer ….. mostly

High Barnet was well served with numerous events over the summer. Ian Johnson’s Open Garden and Minature Railway on Wood St, in aid of The Jubilee sailing Trust had mixed fortunes with the weather, but a week later glorious sunshine greeted the annual Soulstice, again a sell-out raising funds for Cherry Lodge. The next day Jazz on Hadley Green, promoted by Hadley Residents Assn, enjoyed a crowd substantially in excess of the numbers who turned out for their two previous events. On the same day Barnet Museum 75th Anniversary celebrations attracted large numbers to Court House Gardens. In August a sunny Court House Gardens hosted another event, run for the first time - the High Barnet Festival in aid of Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospice, and attracted a vast crowd. Another new venture was the Barnet Music Festival, which included New/East Barnet, mainly featuring performances in pubs, but had a novel opening with Lee Thompson from Madness playing from the Tower of St John’s Church.

Less fortunate was the visit on 24 August to Hadley Common by the Globe Theatre performing in one day the three parts of Henry VI. Being on the site of one of the battlefields that features in the plays it was something of an historic occasion, but to sit through all three plays was a ten-hour marathon. Alas, to say it rained would be an under-statement. It bucketed down the entire day, sometimes so hard that the noise of the downpour obliterated the actors’ voices. The stage was not covered, so the fourteen actors who played all the parts, not protected by medieval rainwear, had to perform fully exposed to the weather. The plays are especially gory, and several actors had to die and fall onto the sodden stage several times. By the end the audience had shrunk by more than half to about 200 souls. Your editor felt especially noble having stuck it out to the end, but was also humbled by the way the actors had valiantly soldiered on throughout the adversity. They were rightly loudly cheered at the end.

And briefly…..

Remedial work is about to start to deal with the outstanding problems in Churchyard Gardens, which will include correcting the base to the bench so people can sit on all of it with their feet touching the floor, replacement of the unsatisfactory gravel path running down to the Church car park, re-fixing of the coping stones to the planters alongside Church Passage, and a resin base to the tree surround currently filled with loose chippings. Permanent bollards have now been installed at the High St end of Church Passage.

There are no arrangements in place to maintain the planters in Church Passage and they have been looking rather sad over the summer. It would be a suitable voluntary activity for a community minded green-fingered retiree. If any member is interested in taking on this task please contact the Secretary.

The tenancy of the Sebright Arms is expected to change very shortly and the Monken Holt recently closed for a short spell to facilitate an internal facelift.

A new tenant has been found for the café in Old Courthouse Gardens and the recent appearance of a banner proclaiming ‘opening soon’ is encouraging.

After considerable wrangling the council has finally let the two contracts to Capita for outsourcing large areas of the council’s functions. What happens to Planning is our particular concern, especially as many experienced officers left in anticipation of the changes and the service has suffered. The transfer of Planning takes effect on 1 October and we will be closely monitoring the impact.

The High St will again be closed on 1 December for the High Barnet Xmas Fayre. Last year was a great success deservedly attracting a vast number of visitors, featuring 94 stalls as well as the funfair and other entertainment. A must for the diary.

YOUR COMMITTEE

With some anticipated departures from the Committee in the near future we are most anxious to recruit some new members to fill the gaps. The positions of Secretary, Treasurer and assistance with oversight of the High St are roles that are or soon will be on offer. Our constitution prevents us from recruiting anyone who is active with a political party, nor would we consider individuals engaged in a business or property management in the local area that could result in a conflict of interests. Otherwise the only qualification is a strong desire to contribute to protecting and improving our local environment. Anyone interested please contact the Secretary via the address at the bottom of the page.