Newsletter February 2015

Over the winter period things have been very quiet on the planning front, though we believe a number of applications affecting the High Street are in the pipeline. It is pleasing to report that the rate of shop closures on the High Street has slowed and new openings have picked up. Maybe we can allow some cautious optimism that things might be getting better at last. We also report on the need to achieve better usage of Spires parking for shoppers, some controversial aspects to the Dollis Valley redevelopment, plans for major changes to tube services, and issues with the conversion of front gardens to car parking.

SPIRES REBUILD ON TIME BUT PARKING STILL GRIM

Spires frontage rebuild, BarmetThe closure of the main entrance to The Spires and the re-routing of the pedestrian access through what will become Carluccio’s is more tangible evidence of progress with the rebuild of the frontage. We understand the project remains on target to enable the handover to Carluccio’s in March for fitting out. It is now possible to appreciate just how large the space is that Carluccio’s will occupy, which emphasises just how much is riding on this project.

How splendid it would be if the parking provision in The Spires could be fundamentally changed before Carluccio’s opens. We have said that we consider this to be the major obstacle to reviving the town centre and The Spires in particular. Even with just four empty outlets, which is flattering given the number of temporary lets, the vacancy rate in The Spires is 13% – significantly higher than the 7.5% along the High St. This disparity could rise even further once those properties south of Moxon St, currently unavailable for re-letting following complications arising from the death of the owner, become available once more.

To see how parking provision was being used we surveyed the town centre between 2pm and 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon. We picked a Wednesday because this is neither one of the busiest nor one of the quietest days of the week. Afternoons also tend to be quieter than mornings.

First we looked at the market site and The Spires, both managed by Legion Parking on behalf of owners William Pears. With just four cars on the market site and around 180 cars in The Spires the occupancy rate was under 40%:

Very few cars parked on Barnet market siteTop floor of Spires car park almost empty

We then toured the Council parking sites in the town centre, which were clockwise from top left – Stapylton Rd car park, Hadley Green, top end of High St, centre of High St, Fitzjohn Ave car park, Moxon St car park:

Stapylton Road car parkCars parked at Hadley GreenCars parked at top end of Barnet High Street
Moxon Street car parkFitzjohn Avenue car parkCars parked at centre of Barnet High Street

We did not do a precise count but it was clear that even at this relatively quiet period the occupancy rate in the Council spaces exceeded the Council’s own target of 85%. Given that perhaps 150 of the 300 plus Council spaces are occupied by commuters parking all day, then short term parking – mainly shoppers we assume – was about equally divided between council and Legion provision. As the Council spaces are effectively full it is evident that if more shoppers are to be attracted to the town they will have to use the Legion car parks. And as we have said before, for this to happen the Legion pricing regime must be reviewed.

SIGNS OF REVIVAL IN THE HIGH STREET

The closure of Oasis provoked a lot of comment with a lot of invective directed at the owners of The Spires, which in our view was misplaced. It had been evident for some time that Oasis was in decline, especially since Costa and Harris & Hoole arrived nearby. As also evidenced by the earlier closure of Kaffeccinos in the High St, the local coffee shop market is highly competitive. Kaffeccinos was quickly replaced by Kriszta’s Patisserie, whilst Bel Gelato in The Spires has switched emphasis from take-away ice cream to a coffee and snack outlet. Add in Reni’s, Starbucks, Costa, Coffee Bean and Harris & Hoole and we can boast an attractive cluster of coffee shops in a very small area. We think the overall standard is high so this choice of outlets should have a lot to offer visitors to the town centre. We just hope they can all survive, especially as they face the additional challenge of free coffee available at Waitrose.

As well as Oasis, recent losses have been Hadley Hounds and Fine Flooring, both at the top end of the High St, and two short leases Eye Candy in the centre of the High St, and Famous Memorabilia in The Spires. Unsurprisingly, following a merger the second EE telephone shop in The Spires has closed.

Age UK shop, BarnetArrivals include Age UK which is far from thrilling as this is our ninth charity shop, with six of them located in the central section of the High St. But it could be worse – Bexhill apparently has 24! Clintons has returned to The Spires though the business is distinct from the previous occupant of the same name. The cards are just as expensive however, though they do spare your editor the embarrassment of sending cheap greetings cards with 29p price labels still stuck to the back. A replacement restaurant, Melange (French/Italian), is being refitted in the property formerly occupied by Hadleys. It is advertised to open on 20 February. In our view the town centre is short on quality restaurants, so we do hope that this and the arrival of Carluccio’s will help to improve the standard.

Short lease pop-up shops continue as a feature of The Spires with the opening of an as yet unnamed ‘gadget’ shop, Billy and Betty’s gift shop, and Tea Station, which is being run by Barnet College students. With the number of empty shops in The Spires now reduced to four, this is an improvement on the recent past, though the lack of long term lets remains a concern. We suspect this is unlikely to change until after Carluccio’s opens and, as we discuss above, when there is a change to The Spires parking regime.

Bell Maison accountants, BarnetOther new occupancies reflect the evident trend of a slow contraction of the retail offering in favour of other more specialised activities. Newly arrived at the bottom end of the High St are Flexible Resource Solutions, a recruitment agency, and Bell Maison, a chartered accountancy firm. On St Albans Rd a building contractor has occupied the former Barnet Press office. We do consider that an element of retail contraction on the periphery of the town centre is both inevitable and desirable to achieve a more prosperous retail core, albeit somewhat smaller.

Most encouraging is that Waitrose told us they had an excellent year in 2014 and Butchers Hook on the High St said that pre-Christmas trading was the best ever. In our previous newsletter we reported that the much-vaunted economic recovery was not being reflected in our High St, with the number of vacant shops increasing from 21 in the Spring to 23 last Autumn. But with some shops reporting improved trading, and at 17 rather fewer shops now standing empty (other than those undergoing renovation), maybe a corner has been turned.

Other activity along the High St includes work now proceeding apace on the conversion of the former Magistrates Court into flats. The former Hobdays just north of The Spires has been demolished to make way for a new building encompassing flats and a retail outlet. All is currently quiet with After Office Hours following the rejection of the planning application to demolish this building

HOMBRES QUICK ON THE DRAW AT THE NOT-OK CORRAL

Guns & Smoke restaurant, BarnetThe saga of 1A Church passage rumbles on. Correcting the finish to the upper floor and dealing with the remaining wooden cladding below remains unresolved between the Council and the owner. The Council was also still in discussion with the occupants of the lower floor when this Wild West themed restaurant ‘Guns and Smoke’ opened shortly before Christmas. The shop frontage did reflect the more traditional style suggested by the Council in place of the initial proposal. But the signage erected in advance of any planning consent has met with considerable disfavour, not least from ourselves. As ever, many thanks to those members who shared our view and responded to our request to put in an objection to the retrospective planning application, which has been rejected. So the shoot-out continues and we wait to see what happens next.

ACTION AT LAST ON BLUE BADGES – SORT OF

In the October newsletter we reported on the Council’s agreement to review its management of blue badge abuse in response to our campaign on this issue. And indeed, action has followed. The Council undertook a one day blitz which, out of 127 badges checked, resulted in seven badges being seized and 20 ‘subject to further investigation’. But … the checks were undertaken not in High Barnet but in Hendon and Golders Green. We were a little miffed as we do think it was our pestering on the situation in High Barnet that prompted the Council to act. So we asked when we might see similar checks in High Barnet but did not get a particularly encouraging response. Running this kind of exercise clearly involves a lot of resources and in straight financial terms it is not cost-effective. Still, we live in hope, and we will continue to nag our councillors and officials.

‘ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER…..

…..There must be some way out of here …… ’

New houses on Mays LaneThe opening lines to the popular Bob Dylan song is perhaps a suitable description of the edifices that have appeared on Mays Lane at the new entrance to the Dollis Valley redevelopment. We are conscious that we are always at risk of being labelled reactionary curmudgeons, so we do try our best to see the positives in changes and innovation. Sometimes the juxtaposition of old and new can complement each other, but we don’t see that here. We have struggled to find much merit in the appearance of these two decidedly sombre properties, which do remind us of watchtowers, perhaps designed either to keep an eye on the restless natives of Mays Lane or to spot any undesirables entering the smart new estate. They are way out of proportion to the adjacent cottage properties and the very modern architectural style conflicts with the surroundings. Compare these to the more traditional and well-proportioned flats recently built on the former wood yard site opposite. We did carefully scrutinise the redevelopment plans but have to confess we completely missed the impact that these two properties would have. The immediate neighbours were however well aware and voiced their concerns to the Planning Committee. The Committee still approved the plans. We think the Council got this one wrong.

Community centre being built, Mays LaneThere has also been adverse comment about the emerging new community centre, both the size, because of the flats above, and the building line, which is much closer to the road than the adjacent properties. Alas, we missed this one as well or we would have urged that it should be more sympathetic to the surroundings.

And whilst on the subject, we must stop calling this location Dollis Valley. It has been bequeathed the new designation of ‘Brook Valley Gardens’. To go with the posh new name properties available for sale seem to have prices to match, though outside space is in short supply. You can have one of the three bedroom watchtowers for a cool £600,000. Go one better and a four bed house is yours for £735,000. For those with more modest aspirations a two storey three bed can be snapped up for £390,000. So maybe it’s time to sell up the unfashionable pile in High Barnet or Hadley and move to where it’s now all at. Some of us initially thought the redevelopment was all about social housing, but clearly we misunderstood. About a third of the properties will offer re-provision for social tenants, about half the current number, but the far greater emphasis on more up-market private housing is evident. We are told this is necessary to enable the capital to be found to build the rented properties. To think that Councils once built over 200,000 homes a year without this kind of carry-on.

GREEN LIGHT FOR LIBRARY GARDENS

The gardens fronting the Library have been poorly maintained ever since their refurbishment over ten years ago. Spotting the decline, some residents enquired about taking over the maintenance but got short shrift. However times have changed and it is now Council policy to encourage community groups to take over Council activities. Following an approach by fellow residents’ group SPACES the Council has now agreed to allow a local team to take on the maintenance, and has provided a grant for the purchase of plants and tools. Volunteers led by Ali Amos, herself a professional gardener, were about to start work as we went to press. The intention is to use hardy utility plants laid out in a creative way. We are looking forward to following progress with this excellent initiative.

NOT COMING TO A ROAD NEAR YOU

Cracked pavement, BarnetA recent Council document said there is an intention to resurface roads every 20 years and pavements every 33 years. This would require an annual expenditure of £13.3 million. The snag is that the current availability of funds is likely to provide only £3 million a year and the backlog is increasing. We are told that if this low level of funding continues we can expect roads to be resurfaced every 100 years and pavements every 140 years! Something to look forward to in your old age … if you haven’t been born yet. And of course this is no comfort whatsoever for locations such as the High St end of Salisbury Rd where the pavement is in a deplorable condition.

We also have doubts about the methods used for pavement resurfacing. Our High St pavement was re-laid nine years ago and the paving stones are broken in several places. Alston Rd pavement was re-laid seven years ago and is even worse despite the provision of bollards along part it. Both pavements now need major repairs but it is evident that there is little chance of this for a very long time. For Alston Rd we were told at the time of relaying that a ‘high impact’ finish was being provided, but the photograph suggests otherwise. It takes just one heavy vehicle running two wheels up (which includes buses) and a whole stretch is ruined. Surely the Council could devise a better solution than this evidently inadequate method of pavement provision that has been around for decades?

WEDNESDAY MARKET MOVED

Bandstand and market, BarnetIn our previous newsletter we commented that the Wednesday market was struggling. Recently the number of stalls has been as low as four. At the suggestion of Friends of Barnet Market the location has now been moved to the bandstand site in front of Waitrose. FOBM report that the reaction from both traders and customers has been positive so we do hope that at the very least the decline will be arrested. Last year FOBM promoted some 15 events on the market site on Saturdays, mostly singers. Most successful was the Classic Car show, which attracted a large crowd and is likely to repeated this year on a larger scale.

JUNCTION IMPROVEMENTS ON WOOD ST

Wellhouse Lane junction, BarnetThe problem of buses and emergency vehicles turning out of Wellhouse Lane onto Wood St is being tackled. The Council undertook a detailed traffic survey and concluded that there were issues for both pedestrians and vehicles that warranted remedial action. The proposals that have emerged are for alterations to the Wood St/Wellhouse Lane junction providing either traffic lights or a mini roundabout, along with a new pedestrian crossing on Wellhouse Lane between the junction and the hospital entrance road. The Council has said there are sufficient funds available to construct the pedestrian crossing and work should start this year. Transport For London will need to be approached for funds to enable the junction works to proceed, and at the moment this cannot be finalised until a decision is taken on whether it will be traffic lights or a roundabout.

The new arrangements for parking at the hospital have generally been well received by patients (assuming their hearts survive the shock at seeing the charges). Reports indicate that the availability of visitor parking spaces is now much better. This has been at the expense of refusing parking permits to some of the staff who were previously allowed to park on site. The consequence of this has been an increase in the number of cars parking all day on nearby roads. The Hospital Trust say they are monitoring the situation and we are keeping in touch with the impact on residents.

Wood Street turning into High Street, BarnetThere has been some movement on the proposed improvements to the High St/Wood St junction. This has been in abeyance ever since the rebuilding of the College when the College provided £85,000 intended to make the crossing safer for students. The Town Team pressed for a more ambitious scheme to make the whole area more attractive. The Council has said that as a start they intend to reconsider an earlier proposal to temporarily close the turn from Wood St into the High St so they can gauge the impact. A previous survey found that about 400 cars a day use the turning. If it can be closed permanently this will allow the clutter at the junction to be simplified and a greater area created for greenery and pedestrian circulation.

107 bus in BarnetThe campaign we initiated to get the 34 bus extended to Arkley rumbles on. Our aim is to improve the service to the hospital and for Arkley residents, and to ease congestion at the High St/Wood St junction by moving the northbound bus stops south of St John’s church to the 34 lay by. Meantime Transport for London continue to be more exercised by the difficulty of disabled access at the two bus stops. Their latest thought is to simply swap the bus stops with the 34 bus lay by. We have pointed out that this would make traffic problems even worse as the northbound slip road onto Wood St would be permanently blocked by parked buses. Our MP Theresa Villiers, who has previously pursued this issue on our behalf, has again approached TfL asking for a site meeting. She has also asked TfL to explain their calculation that extending the 34 to Arkley would cost £400,000 per annum.

MAJOR TUBE IMPROVEMENTS – BUT NOT JUST YET

High Barnet underground stationWith the re-signalling of the Northern Line now completed the peak service on each branch could be increased from 24 to 28 trains per hour. One snag though – not enough trains sets. London Underground anticipates a requirement for 24 new trains, 19 for increasing frequency and 5 for the Battersea extension on which construction has started. The expectation is that the new trains will come into service in 2017. Meantime the existing train fleet is being refurbished. There is little obvious difference other than a change to the dominant interior colour from yellow to blue. However the new seats are much harder – such is progress!

Funding has also been approved for alterations at Kennington to permit the separation of the two branches south of the river with all trains via Charing Cross terminating at Kennington, and then in due course extending to the new terminus at Battersea when that opens in 2019. There is already an element of separation in place with almost all Morden trains now going via Bank. When this separation is completed it should be possible to increase the peak service to over 30 trains an hour on each branch south of the river.

What has also emerged is the decidedly more controversial idea to split the Northern Line into two north of the river, resulting in one line running Edgware to Battersea via Charing Cross and the other High Barnet to Morden via Bank. The rationale is that this would permit the intensification of peak services to 36 trains per hour on each line. Whilst this would probably be greater provision that that needed to shift commuters to and from the northern suburbs, it might be desirable in the central area to cope with all the extra passengers that will be generated by High Speed 2 (HS2) and Crossrail 2. Of course, achieving a split would necessitate major works at Camden Town. Separation into two lines has been proposed previously, and apart from the practical difficulties at Camden Town where a large number of people would want to change lines, there has been considerable opposition from travellers from our Borough to the potential loss of direct services over two routes into central London. Our MP Theresa Villiers approached TfL to establish the current position and was told that if this idea is pursued it is unlikely to be a serious possibility before the mid 2020s. She has indicated to TfL that any proposed split is likely to meet with opposition from herself and many of her constituents.

PARKING OR GREENERY? – NO CONTEST

Given Barnet Council’s oft repeated boast about how proud they are of our ‘green’ Borough we should be happy with the thought that our lovely environment is being protected. But all is not what it might seem.

A recent decision by the Planning Inspectorate on an appeal against the Council’s refusal to allow the conversion of a property located just outside our area into two flats served to highlight the duplicity that goes on here in Barnet. The Inspector in fact disagreed with the Council’s own reason for rejecting the planning application (refusing the conversion of a property into flats in a road characterised by houses) but came up with rather different reasons for rejecting the appeal. The decision referred to the absence of outside amenity space for one of the flats and that ‘any increase in parking spaces would be likely to harm the appearance of the area by hard surfacing areas of garden and landscaping.’ He said this would be contrary to the interest of maintaining and enhancing the public realm as set out in Policy DM01 and conflict with policy CS5 of the Council’s Core Strategy document of 2012. So there you have it – the Council has established policies which aim to protect the loss of front gardens to parking, and those policies now have demonstrably strong support from the Planning Inspectorate. Now for the reality.

As we have said in the past, Barnet has the most lax rules over approving dropped kerbs (crossovers) to permit the conversion of front gardens to parking than any other London Borough as far as we know. There used to be a requirement that a property should have a minimum frontage depth of 4.5 metres to ensure that any parked car could stand at right angles to the road. This requirement was removed in 2007 so that no minimum frontage depth was required – it was simply necessary that any car parking there could fit – opening the way for a small car such as a smart car to be parked on the tiniest of frontages. The whole thing was obviously nonsense as no property retains the same size car indefinitely, but we were assured at the time that the Council would not allow parallel parking but only approve “crossovers for right angled parking thus maintaining part of the frontage for soft landscaping.”

We found two recent crossover approvals to allow garden conversion in our area, both in the same road, with cars parked parallel to the road. In both cases the cars could not park at right angles to the road without obstructing the pavement, which is illegal, and so can only be parked in parallel. The Council assured us that they check the details of the car to ensure that it can be parked at right angles and, whilst refusing to answer questions on these specific cases, said that all crossover permissions in this particular road had complied with Council rules. George Orwell would have loved that one.

Given Barnet’s enthusiasm for garden conversions to parking it is no surprise that over the three years 2008 to 2010 alone no fewer than 750 front gardens in the Borough were wholly or partially lost to hard standing for parking. And what we have illustrated above is that our ‘green’ Council is now not even observing its own limited controls designed to encourage the retention of some planting. As the photographs show, converting small frontages to parking inevitably results in the loss of all landscaping or planting.

We do not consider the problem is with the householders. In many areas on-street parking is tight, and indeed the more properties that convert to garden parking so the communal space available to everyone else shrinks, not least because the kerb length taken by the dropped kerb often exceeds the space previously occupied by one car. The domino effect kicks in and the pace of conversions increases, something we detect in the road featured in the photographs. But it doesn’t have to be like this – neighbouring Brent and Camden both have tight rules which have effectively put an end to garden parking. What you see here can only happen in Barnet where we now evidently have no rules at all. So what is the point of producing carefully – and expensively – written policy documents when they are just ignored by the very people who are supposed to implement them? Not one of our 63 councillors has spoken out against what is going on. So next time you hear one of them waxing lyrical about our green Borough just remember their complicity in the degrading of what they claim to protect.

AND BRIEFLY …..

The owners of 31 Union St submitted a retrospective planning application for retention of the plastic windows about which we complained to the Council and featured in our previous newsletter. The application has been rejected. As with similar cases, the next problem will be enforcement of the decision.

A planning application was lodged to replace the tradition frontage to The Painted Pot with a modern frontage similar to the frontage of the adjacent Shoku (itself subject to enforcement action for installing a new frontage without planning consent). We were pleased that the application was rejected.

We were promised that the Council’s recently purchased chewing gum removal machine would be in action in High Barnet in January, but no evidence of this as we went to press.

At our members meeting with Theresa Villiers on 7th November we enjoyed a very open and friendly exchange on numerous issues affecting High Barnet. Topics discussed included proposed changes to tube services, the 34 bus, the bus terminus on Stapylton Rd, the situation with The Spires, Blue Badges, new residential developments with particular reference to height, and – inevitably – parking.