Strong local opposition to the loss of one of High Barnet’s precious green spaces was cited by the committee chairman, Councillor Shimon Ryde, when he used his casting vote to refuse permission after the committee was tied by a five-five vote.
Over 500 objections had been registered with the council.
In presenting the case against redevelopment, Robin Bishop, chair of the Barnet Society, argued that the planning department’s recommendation to approve the scheme proposed by Hill Residential was a flagrant breach of Barnet, London and national policies on protecting green open space.
Whalebones, which is within the Wood Street conservation area, included the “last remaining fields” of historic High Barnet – a deliberate legacy of the late Gwyneth Cowing, who bequeathed the land for continuing agricultural use.
Another leading objector, Chipping Barnet MP, Theresa Villiers, said the construction of so many new houses and flats would damage the “leafy, open nature” of Whalebones. The development failed to protect Barnet’s green spaces, a fundamental strand of the council’s planning policy.
Hill Residential’s application for 152 new homes – of which 40 per cent would be affordable – comprised 53 family houses; 99 flats in three blocks up to four storeys high; 179 car parking spaces; and the construction of a new access road joining Wood Street opposite the Arkley public house, where there would be a new road junction with Galley Lane.
In recommending approval of the scheme, council planners insisted the scheme did “less than significant harm” to both the conservation area and the separate, privately-owned, Grade II listed Whalebones house which was not included in the area to be redeveloped.
Two new public open spaces, a children’s play area and a woodland walk would be provided alongside the new housing and all together 50 per cent of the 14 acre site would be parkland and green space which would be opened up to public access.
Another public benefit would be the construction of a purpose-built community building for the Barnet Guild of Artists and the Barnet Beekeepers Association.
Given the provision of new parkland and the added value for the general public, the planners considered the “advantages of the package on offer outweigh the harm and impact on designated heritage assets”.
Nichola Hunt, liaison co-ordinator for the guild of artists, supported the application because it would provide a new studio, which would extend the life of the guild and offer disabled access.
Miss Cowing, who had resided at Whalebones, had left a dedicated artists’ studio as one of the provisions in her will.
During preparation of the plans, Richard Powles, a trustee of the Whalebones estate, had reassured the guild that a replacement would be provided for the wooden studio which was built in 1961 by Miss Cowing whose family owned the Barnet Press..
Ms Hunt stressed that the importance of the new studio – on a 100-year lease at a peppercorn rent – was that it would provide space for isolated individuals who lacked a practical home environment.
“We are a wonderful group of 100 amateur artists, and we want to continue.”
Ms Hunt emphasised that the new studio facilities would assist guild members in their support for numerous artistic ventures including helping with the painting of Battle of Barnet banners at Barnet Museum and recently when she helped with the painting of scenery for productions at the Bull Theatre produced by Susi Earnshaw.
Faulty internet connections dogged the proceedings of the online committee hearing (13.10.2020) and Robin Bishop’s presentation opposing the application had to be read on his behalf by Nick Saul who became the Barnet Society’s representative.
When asked by the committee chairman whether the society accepted the planning department’s assessment that damage to a heritage site was not as significant as claimed, Mr Saul insisted that building houses in the Whalebones woods and fields would “completely change” their character.
“This is one of the last green lungs left in this part of High Barnet...it is a small bit of rural England in the middle of the town.”
He was equally firm in rejecting the suggestion of Councillor Tim Roberts that providing affordable homes close to Barnet Hospital justified building on a green open space: “I want some leaves left in leafy Barnet.”
Mr Saul had his doubts about the promise to provide 50 per cent open space: Who would run these public areas? Would they be gifted to the council or held for future development?
High Barnet Councillor Wendy Prentice, who had known Whalebones for 60 years, added her voice to opposition to the scheme.
“This has always been agricultural land, and this goes against all that Gwyneth Cowing would have wanted. She helped set up the conservation area.
“We have the Elmbank development next door with a lot of affordable housing.
“Wood Street traffic is already horrific and public transport is useless.
“There have been so many objectors, I think the committee should think before they vote.”
Ms Villiers echoed councillor Prentice’s concerns about the loss of views across the Whalebones fields to countryside beyond.
She believed the planning department had made an error in supporting the application on the grounds that it would ensure public access to woodland and fields.
Council policy was to support the preservation of green spaces and agricultural land even when there was no access.
In response to questions from committee members as to why no effort had been made to continue the agricultural tenancy of the site, Colin Campbell, Hill Residential’s head of planning, said there was insufficient land to support a single person in agricultural use or to open a community farm.
“There would be a huge cost involved and the site would not generate sufficient funds to pay back the cost.”
The existing tenant of the Whalebones farm who kept poultry – smallholder Peter Mason and his wife Jill – would be provided with sufficient space for their flock next to their house, Wellhouse Cottage, in Wellhouse Lane, on which they would continue to have a lifetime tenancy.
Before the vote, committee members gave their opinions. Councillor Tim Roberts backed the scheme because “a vastly under used” piece of land would be developed for the overall benefit of Barnet residents.
New housing would include homes for essential workers and there “could not be a better place” so close to Barnet Hospital. New play areas for children would be much appreciated.
Councillor Jess Brayne complimented the developers for their “good and sensitive design”, creating new leafy streets and large family houses, which was exactly the sort of development the council should be encouraging.
But the case against was reiterated by High Barnet ward councillor Julian Teare and Councillor Eva Greenspan who both warned that redeveloping Whalebones would set a precedent and threaten the future of other leafy areas in the borough.
“If we build on Whalebones, we might as well kiss away leafy green spaces in Mill Hill and Edgware. That will be the knock on if we approve this application.”
Councillor Teare predicted that traffic along Wood Street, which was already “a nightmare” would become even worse with a new access road and road junction at the Arkley public house.
At this point a council traffic engineer advised that the new development would only add 34 additional vehicles to the morning rush hour – that was less than 5 per cent of total traffic flow and there would be negligible impact.
In summing up, the committee chairman Councillor Ryde acknowledged the objectors’ argument that Whalebones was a particularly important open space and that the development would damage the character of the area, despite the provision of affordable housing and the use of excellent building materials.
The vote ended in a five-five split. The five councillors in support were Councillors Jess Brayne, Claire Farrier, Nagus Narenthira, Tim Roberts and Mark Shooter. Those against were councillors Shimon Ryde, Melvin Cohen, Eva Greenspan, Julian Teare and Laurie Williams. When the five-five split was announced, Councillor Ryde said that he had decided on balance to exercise his casting vote against, and the application was rejected.
Precise grounds for refusal will be agreed at the next meeting but they would include harm to the conservation area, the heritage value of the site, and the apparent breach of council policy on preserving green spaces. If the rejection of the application is ratified at the next meeting, it must be referred to the Mayor of London since the development is for more than 150 homes and therefore deemed to be of strategic importance to London.
The Mayor could overrule the planning committee's decision, or even require an increase in the 40 per cent affordable housing allocation, as happened recently at the Pentavia Park development in Mill Hill. Alternatively the trustees and their developer might decicide to submit a revised proposal. Mr Bishop said the consultation of Barnet Society members indicated that a more modest proposal for redeveloping Whalebones might be more acceptable to the local community.