But why was the Society founded then?
The 1920s & 30s had seen London grow massively around new Underground stations and along trunk roads. A tide of semi-detached houses, gardens and shopping parades had washed over most of the old towns and villages surrounding London, merging them into almost continuous suburbia.
With the 2nd World War won in Europe, there was a national desire to clear the slums and build decent homes for all. Barnet Urban District Council planned to triple its population. As our Vice President Jenny Remfry describes it,
Some enterprising property developers presented a plan to Barnet UDC to build houses in the Dollis Valley, covering the fields between Arkley and Totteridge…The Council were minded to accept the proposal but two of the councillors were so alarmed that they leaked the plan to Trevor Jukes, who told his cousin Gwyn Cowing, who passed it on to her friend, the landscape architect Sylvia Crowe. Through the medium of the Barnet Press these three roused the folk of Barnet and called a town meeting. There, they displayed a large map of Barnet and the Dollis Valley and on to it stuck, bit by bit, pieces of black paper to show where the house-building was proposed, until almost the whole valley was covered. The people of Barnet were so shocked and outraged that the council had to refuse the developers, except for the area closest to the town, between Underhill and the Dollis Brook, which became the Dollis Valley Estate.
The group that coalesced around Jukes, Cowing and Crowe became the Barnet Society.
The idea of designating a ‘green belt or girdle of open space’ around London went back to 1935, but a council could only stop it being built over by purchasing the land. It wasn’t until 1944, with the publication of Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan, that a complete belt of green space, permanently safeguarded from development, became a real proposition.
What made such a constraint on London’s development acceptable? It was Abercrombie’s proposal, adopted in the 1946 New Towns Act, to create a ring of new towns around London, outside the Green Belt, to absorb the demand for new housing and promote alternative centres of growth. It was reinforced by the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, which for the first time made planning permission a requirement for any new development.
That was invaluable ammunition for the Society, but it was only in 1955 that councils were required to designate Green Belt land in their local plans. As a result, Chipping Barnet is today surrounded on three sides by Green Belt, as shown dramatically on the plan below.
Even better, we’ve inherited many other natural assets such as parks, Metropolitan Open Land, Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest – some within only a few minutes’ walk of our homes. If you walk to the top of Whitings Hill you can’t fail to be struck by their combined extent.
Today the government, Mayor of London and Barnet Council all say they’re committed to safeguarding the Green Belt. But every year applications are made to build on it, pleading ‘very special circumstances’, and some get approved. In Barnet last year alone, proposals have come forward for a power station off Partingdale Lane and a house off Langley Row, Hadley. Our own Council is promoting a £11.2m leisure hub in the middle of Barnet Playing Fields. The Society has opposed them all – though we welcome compatible new projects such as The Totteridge Academy’s city farm.
In the wake of Covid-19 there will be great pressure to kick-start the economy, and releasing Green Belt land for homes will be highly tempting for politicians and developers. So, 75 years on, it’s still the job of the Society to watch over, and fight for, our green spaces – not just because of their beauty, but because they’re vital to the health of the environment and of ourselves, especially in these times of climate emergency.
Covid-19 has prevented us holding the birthday party we were planning, but it can’t stop us enjoying these vital green spaces. Below is a short walk recommended by our longstanding member Owen Jones, editor of the Society’s publications Rambles Round Barnet – In the Footsteps of EH Lucas (Volumes I & II). For further information, use the button at the foot of our News page.
Short walks in Chipping Barnet, no.1 – Whitings Hill Open Space and Whitings Wood
(A figure-of-eight route around the Hill and Wood is approximately 1 mile long.) Owen writes,
Whitings Hill is easily reached from the bottom of Bells Hill by continuing into Whitings Road and then across Quinta Drive into Greenland Road. Parking well away from residential driveways is possible at the western end of Greenland Road.
There are gates into the open space at each end of Greenland Road, as well as on Brett Road. It is well worth plodding up the hill (352 feet) as you will be rewarded by a vista south towards Whetstone and west across Whitings Wood. The south-west side of Whitings Hill was planted out with mixed broadleaf trees in 1995 to commemorate the Barnet Society’s 50th anniversary, thanks to the guidance of Vice-President David Lee and the financial contributions of members. Whitings Hill is managed by Barnet Council.
Whitings Wood was planted in 1996 with mixed native trees, mainly oak, ash, field maple, wild cherry, willow and some woody shrubs. The site is managed, by the Woodland Trust, and its planting history and management plan for the 17.5 acres of the site can be found at https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/woods/whitings-wood/. There are no signposts within the wood and, in spite of an OS map and compass, more than once I have had to look at Google Map on my phone to return to Greenland Road.
The two Whitings sites touch at their corners, and are linked by a public footpath. Both Hill and Wood form part of Watling Chase Community Forest, which was established in 1991 and extends across 72 square miles of north London and Hertfordshire.