Newsletter February 2012

Over the winter the weather has been mercifully mild up to the past couple of weeks. Alas other events have been less kind to High Barnet, especially the fallout from the problems with the wider economy and a parking situation now even worse than we reported last time. Though the news is largely gloomy, the improvements to the town centre are about to come to fruition, and there are significant changes afoot in relation to the Market and The Spires.

Market sold to The Spires

Barnet market from aboveThe long running saga surrounding the state of the market site and the delayed redevelopment has taken a new turn. The site has been sold for an undisclosed sum to UBS Bank the owners of The Spires Shopping Centre. We welcome the sale as we always considered the now defunct redevelopment plan as wrong for the market and wrong for the immediate surrounding area. Having all the area to the east of The Spires under a single owner does create the potential for a more imaginative and suitable redevelopment in the longer term.

We are assured by representatives of UBS that they have yet to address what they might do with the market site both in the short and long term – and as we discuss below they have other more immediate plans to focus on. For our part, we believe that there is an opportunity to re-think the entire area embracing The Spires, St Albans Rd and Stapylton Rd. We are, of course, anxious to ensure that a market remains integral to any long-term changes.

The sale has however brought immediate benefits with The Spires management team undertaking a number of urgent repairs to make the site safer. Whether their endeavours will extend to resurfacing the site remains to be seen.

We have previously expressed concern that if the Territorial Army site on St Albans Rd were to be vacated we could be threatened with an undesirable redevelopment. This threat seems to be receding. The Government has embarked on a reduction in the size of the full-time army and said that in the future more reliance will be placed on the part-time TA. As the TA building is currently being re-roofed this hopefully emphasises that the facility is secure for now.

Spires Changes afoot

We have been aware for some years that the owners of The Spires were planning some significant changes to the mall. This stalled during the credit crunch but we have had recent discussions with the agents and understand that they will shortly begin consultation on their plans. The indications are that the first phase will involve changes towards the High St end, with the possibility that the Fern Rooms site on Salisbury Rd might feature as part of these plans. To this end Barnet Council, the current owners, and UBS have been negotiating a sale. There are two organisations in the building, the children’s play charity IPOP and Barnet Old People’s Welfare. We understand that IPOP can make arrangements to be accommodated elsewhere, but a suitable alternative for BOPW may prove difficult to find. We are concerned that this valuable community asset could be lost.

Town Centre improvements on track

Barnet shop fronts to improveIn our previous newsletter we reported the awarding of £416,000 from the Outer London Fund and listed the various projects that were planned. None of these planned improvements have yet appeared, but that will soon change. The contract for remodelling the Churchyard and the widening of Church Passage has been let. De-cluttering, new litter bins, brackets for hanging baskets and trees (up to 25) are also imminent. We will also have some new town information boards emphasising the historic attractions of the town. Improvements to a selection of shop fronts have been put back to March/April to avoid any problems with the weather. The photograph shows two of the shops earmarked for a facelift along with some of the guardrails due to be removed. We remain confident that when we issue our Summer Newsletter these improvements will be for real.

Some money has already been spent supporting events in December last, including the Christmas tree outside St John’s Church, and, less visibly, providing professional help to some of our independent traders with the presentation of their shop displays.

Though these improvements are extremely welcome and should make our town centre more attractive, we are nonetheless well aware that it will take more than a facelift to revive the fortunes of the town, as our comments below on shop closures and parking problems will testify. We regarded the anticipated improvements to The Spires as the most vital initiative that we wish to see come to fruition, and the sooner the better.

Shops close as recession bites

It does appear that the fear of a double-dip recession is becoming a reality. Several national multiples have failed over recent weeks resulting in our local branches of La Senza and Past Times both closing in the same week in January. The somewhat bizarre Twinkle Toes closed earlier, and we now have a rather forlorn row of three empty shops in The Spires adding to the long vacant O2 shop.

Bonmarche on the High St has entered administration and as we write this large outlet is running a closing down sale. A ‘To Let’ sign has appeared above the adjacent Claire’s Accessories. Our hopes that the nearby Oceans fish and chip take-away might survive the closure of the adjoining restaurant were dashed when it closed in December. Estate Agents Foxtons are moving in and have submitted a planning application to change the frontage. The prospect of yet another estate agency does not fill us with joy, but it is perhaps better than the property remaining empty. The adjoining former photography shop has been empty for some time.

Barnet Bonmarche Barnet Oceans restaurant

Add in five charity shops, Maison pound shop and the rather unprepossessing Gold Factory, it is no surprise that the central section of our High St between The Spires and the Post Office is beginning to look decidedly forlorn.

Barnet Fashion and WineThe carpet shop just north of The Spires, which was on a temporary lease, also closed in December. The upholstery shop further up the High St has gone but has been replaced by Fashion and Wine. At the very top of the High St Villagio restaurant also closed at the end of the year, though it quickly re-opened as one of the Prezzo chain. Overall the High St north of The Spires has continued to hold up rather well.

The Attic shop BarnetAt the south end of the High St Wize Choice is being replaced by The Attic, which says it will being selling second hand clothes and household goods – sounds like another charity shop but without the Charity. Alas the frontage has been altered yet again, and yet again the alterations have been undertaken without planning permission.

Further down the High St. Abasi and the former funeral directors remain empty. We understand that after a long period of closure, and the non-appearance of the expected chicken restaurant, the freehold of After Office Hours has now been sold with the intention of it opening as an ‘up-market restaurant and bar’. We hope this happens, as the south end of the High St could also do with some positive changes.

Noah's Ark shop BarnetThough the opening of another charity shop is never good news, the Noah’s Ark shop just south of The Spires (in the former Gold Factory – now moved to the vacated Blockbuster site) is far better presented than the majority of charity shops and we do hope that some of the others take notice.

One positive development is the re-opening of the long closed former lock shop in St Albans Rd as Premier Model Gallery, primarily selling model ships. This kind of specialist destination shop is perhaps what is needed to combat the loss of more mainstream shops to large out of town retail complexes, and we hope it does well (especially as we nearly ended up with a tattoo parlour there). The property was substantially altered after the previous occupants moved out. We were pleased that with our support the council persuaded the landlord to provide a more appropriate frontage to replace the modern façade that was there previously. The signage is not very sympathetic but we are assured it is only temporary.

Premier model ships Barnet Press

Also most welcome is the arrival of Barnet Press at 10 St Albans Rd. Having a newspaper based in the town again cannot be anything but positive, though we would like to see the ugly security door removed from this conservation area property.

The losses we have noted above, occurring as they have over such a short period, are by far the worst that we can remember, and it could get even worse. We are aware that many of our independent traders are seriously struggling and they cannot hang on forever. Unless there is a pick up in the wider economy we anticipate several more closures over the coming months.

Parking Part 1 : Traders fury

Barnet unfair parking charges posterIn our previous newsletter we commented at length on the negative impact of the increase in parking charges. What we did not anticipate was the decision of the council in October to withdraw all cash machines and move to pay-by-phone only. The resulting confusion over the new system and the consequential public resistance reduced even further the number of people visiting town centres across the Borough. Given the dire situation we have described above, the timing of the parking changes, just before the peak Christmas trading period, was appalling. Traders were understandably outraged. A campaign was launched including a poster appearing in many our shops blaming the council for killing the High St.

Parking pay by phoneThe Council has gone some way to recognising their folly by belatedly introducing a scratch card payment facility. The cards are available on the internet from the council, at libraries and some shops. This does provide an alternative for people who have struggled with pay by phone or just don’t carry a mobile phone, but as yet we have no evidence that this is bringing back the lost trade. Meantime the traders’ campaign continues.

To add insult to injury Brent Cross, which previously considered charging for parking but then had a change of heart, is putting up advertisements in some town centres proclaiming the availability of free parking. In the face of this evidence alone our Council cannot argue that parking charges have little impact on shoppers’ preferences.

The Council’s actions are symptomatic of a malaise that has afflicted Barnet Council for many years – detachment from any responsibility for the well-being of businesses in the area or for the town centre environment. We have seen almost nothing by way of pedestrian/shopper friendly initiatives. Town centre conservation areas have been neglected for decades and despite recent efforts by officers, with our full support, turning the tide is an uphill struggle. The undue attention given to Brent Cross has also had a negative impact on shopping centres in the rest of the Borough. The Council can legitimately argue that they are obliged to focus on their many statutory responsibilities and, as business rates income goes to the Treasury, they have no incentive to ensure the well-being of local businesses.

But many other councils have appreciated that their town centres are vital to the lifeblood of their communities and there have been many innovative schemes all over the country. The Outer London Fund initiated by the Mayor is a good start if rather limited, but hopefully will produce a sea-change in attitude. The proposed transfer of business rates income back to local councils in 2013 should also help.

Parking Part 2 – We told them so…but there is hope

Car park half fullWe predicted that the increases in council parking charges and the subsequent reduction in The Spires all-day charge would cause the council’s income to crash. And we were spot on. The Stapylton Rd and Moxon St car parks have over many years always been full, but recently they have been up to 50% empty.

On a more positive note, the council has agreed to consider re-arranging the parking spaces around the town, something we have argued for over the past six years. Teaming up with Barnet Traders brought some fresh impetus to our ideas and the council has now agreed that some changes would be appropriate. We have asked for Moxon St car park to be short-term only (max 4 hours), Fitzjohn Ave car park to be advertised for long-stay, and more bays along the High St to be converted to short-term (max 2 hours). We are also hopeful that more market-sensitive parking charges might be considered to address the evident under-usage.

Parking Part 3 – a warning

Something that has slipped under the radar over the past year is the massive increase in the issue of parking fines. Now running at over 150,000 a year this is more than double the number of Penalty Charge Notices issued by Barnet in 2010. The reasons for this are far from clear, but we do not believe that the citizens of Barnet have become more careless in their observation of parking controls. Rather, the Council has become far more zealous in finding miscreants.

We have noticed that the wardens are now highly mobile, many on scooters, and are issuing fines in remote locations where they might not be expected to turn up. Even the most trivial offences are likely to be penalised, and the Council is far less tolerant of mitigating circumstances.

So all members who are motorists – especially if you are in a CPZ - take heed and DO NOT break the rules – you are going to get caught.

Barnet Museum future still not resolved

There now seems to be something of a stalemate. The Museum put their business plan to the council back in August and is still awaiting a response. Alas we have no indication that the council is any better disposed towards the Museum than they were earlier last year. They were then clearly hoping to secure the building for disposal in the same way as they did with Church Farm Museum in Hendon. They are no doubt under no illusions that removing the occupants in Barnet will be far more challenging.

Meantime The Museum has initiated a series of fortnightly talks on Mondays from February to June, with a modest charge going to Museum funds. (Info. at the Museum or tel 020 8440 8066 )

Christmas Fair exceeds expectations

Barnet Christmas Fair 2012 Barnet Christmas Fair 2012

There was universal praise for the Christmas Fair held in December. It was bigger and better than in previous years and attracted an enormous crowd. As last year use of the Waitrose service area enabled the event to be much larger and we hope this becomes a permanent feature in future years. We extend our congratulations to the team of volunteers who put the event together. They are already thinking about the 2012 event and we look forward to another major success.

Dollis Valley redevelopment revived

Dollis Valley BarnetPlans to replace the 400 flats on Dollis Valley have been under consideration for over ten years. The scheme promoted by the council some six years ago was for a mixed development of over 1200 new properties, the majority of which would have been small flats grouped in blocks up to seven storeys high. We campaigned long and hard against this massive scheme and were heartily relieved when it collapsed in 2008 without anything having been built.

The council has now found a new partner and has announced that a master plan has been drawn up for the flats to be replaced by just 620 new homes, mainly houses. We have yet to see the plan, but the initial indications are that everything we said about the inappropriateness of the earlier scheme has been taken on board, so we may be able to give this new scheme our full support. The replacement of the flats is long overdue so we do hope that this scheme proceeds to completion. We have to reserve our final judgement until we see the planning application, which should emerge this year, with construction starting in 2013.

Underhill stadium

The recent announcement by the Chairman that Barnet Football Club intends to move away from the Underhill stadium is a matter of considerable regret. We have no involvement in the wrangle between the Club and Barnet Council which is said to be the reason for the proposed move, and do hope that the differences can be resolved. But if the Club does move away we will have to take a very close interest in what happens to the stadium site.

Underhill Stadium EntranceIn a deal agreed ten years ago the stadium was sold to the Club for a peppercorn sum. It was argued at the time that this was justified because the land was in the Green Belt, and therefore had no redevelopment value, it could only be used for recreational purposes. This assumption could now be severely tested and we await further developments with some trepidation. No-one wants to see a large stadium sink into dereliction and there could be considerable backing for redevelopment for other purposes. Housing is something we could probably live with, but we dread the thought of a commercial redevelopment that might result in a large supermarket on the site. We would view this as a major threat to the viability of many shops in our town centre. So we could be faced with the kind of battle recently fought in New Barnet, which eventually saw off plans by both Tesco and Asda to build large supermarkets there. We do hope that New Barnet’s victory will not turn out to be our catastrophe.

Red Cross building set to be purchased

In our previous newsletter we featured the Open Door appeal to purchase the now empty Red Cross building adjacent to Christ Church and create a community facility providing support for the elderly. The public response to the appeal for donations has been excellent. The amount needed before the purchase price is reached has been narrowed to £25,000. We know there is still a long way to go before the building can be renovated and opened for use even when it has been purchased. But there is now every prospect that in due course we shall have a new first class community facility.